Better Know A Broadcaster: Joey Zanaboni

Baseball America has decided to introduce you to some of the men and women who work as broadcasters in baseball.

What Is Your Name?

Joey Zanaboni

Which Team Do You Work For?

Johnson City Cardinals

Which Other Baseball Teams Have You Broadcasted For?

River City Rascals (independent, Frontier League), Rockford Aviators (independent, Frontier League), Texas AirHogs (independent, American Association), Coahoma Community College, University of West Florida, St. Mary’s University (Texas)

What Other Sports Have You Broadcasted?

Baby, I’ve done everything. Baseball, softball, football, basketball, volleyball, soccer … but my favorite of all has been greyhound racing.

I was the “Voice of the Dogs” over the public address and closed-circuit TV systems at the Pensacola Greyhound Track and Poker Room in 2018. Sure, it presented challenges. For example, the dogs would often defecate during the race intros. I can truthfully say though that I learned more in three months calling greyhounds than I have in years doing other sports.

This isn’t a circus act: they don’t have little lemurs clad in helmets and colorful silks riding on top of the dogs. This is bareback. This is heart and soul, passion unbridled, with only a stuffed bone streaking around a rail as a guide. This is sprint. It’s the real deal, boss.

Before every race, I’d obsessively repeat non sequiturs and Buddhist mantras to our track director Ray, who claimed to have once gone 146 MPH on a motorcycle. The dogs are pure, supple, sparing and brilliant: electricity through a cloudy night, fleeting images of what we can be when we let go of our desires and live truthfully in the moment.

They’re athletes. We few, we happy few checking programs and clutching tickets, waiting, pacing, hoping, searching our hearts for the poetry that only unvarnished speed can author—we are the dog jockeys. It was a heck of a ride. Then a November ballot initiative made it illegal in Florida. Sic transit gloria mundi.

Who Is Your Favorite MLB Broadcaster Of All Time?

Mike Shannon. He’s still the most underrated broadcaster in baseball. Mike represents something rare: the ability to have an unencumbered, good time. He epitomizes the ability of the individual to evaluate and trust with his own eyes. After having his playing career cut short, he started working in the Cardinals’ ticket office and has now spent 50 years in the broadcast booth. He was the partner and eventual successor to Jack Buck, an overwhelming task that he’s made fun every step of the way.

Where Is Your Favorite Road City?

In the Appalachian League, probably Bluefield. It sits right on the border of Virginia/West Virginia. I was sitting in the stadium and was only about 60% sure which state I was in. The greatest poetry comes when you’re lost. I felt marooned. It was perfect.

Other than that, when I was in the American Association, Sioux City was a favorite of mine. Similar to Bluefield in many ways, though much larger. It’s a border town straddling Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota. You can drive for hours at night outside the city, knifing through those summer plains to get lost in the multitudes of the great American sky. The stars are only a starting point. They ask nothing of you.

When I think of that town, I think of the middle section of “Dance Russe” by William Carlos Williams:

“if I in my north room
dance naked, grotesquely
before my mirror
waving my shirt round my head
and singing softly to myself:
“I am lonely, lonely.
I was born to be lonely,
I am best so!”

Sioux City, Iowa . . . I dream of you and your happy genius. A lot of heart in Sioux City. A lot of goths too.

What Is Your Career Highlight?

Calling the Johnson City Cardinals Appalachian League title run in 2019. To me, that team represented a great many things. We had to win the last two of the regular season to get in the playoffs and fell behind 1-0 in both the divisional and championship series. Yet, those kids stormed back each and every time, rising to the occasion and ultimately reaping the reward.

More than perseverance though, they represented youth. Players at that level are 18-22 for the most part. They’re kids. To watch them every night was to experience the sweetest innocence. Their earnestness and their sense of fun were inspiring. When I announce games, my aim is to write poetry the way that only a child can. That season taught me a lot in that regard.

Now, with the future of the Appalachian League in doubt, those Johnson City evenings are even more special to me. I think about what F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in This Side of Paradise: “I’m not sentimental—I’m as romantic as you are. The idea, you know, is that the sentimental person thinks things will last—the romantic person has a desperate confidence that they won’t.”

There’s nothing more romantic than baseball. There’s no one more sentimental than play-by-play announcers. Le monde a commencé sans l’homme et il s’achèvera sans lui.

What Unseen Parts Of The Job Do You Feel People Should Know About?

Every sports broadcaster is seeking something illusory, a sense of Zen spirituality that comes from calling games in real time and living the life of a storyteller. Some are looking for something they lost. Some are looking to shed the things they’ve found. It’s a philosophical job that takes you through the whole great existential washing machine: what constitutes reality? Does each moment add up to create a more meaningful pastiche or are we simply witnessing a random sampling of unrelated events? Can we ever be truly objective?

I remember when I was working with the Texas AirHogs in 2018, I used to sleep in the stadium after a lot of home games, just to use the free WiFi if nothing else. Front office execs called Suite 13 “my apartment” because I’d crash there after games. The clubhouse manager Chris Thomas would be the only other guy in the stadium into the wee hours, and we would sit around and talk about life most nights. We shot the breeze a ton but the majority of our conversations boiled down to the same thing: seeking meaningful personal identity in a world that withholds it from far too many.

In the middle of one night, Chris walked into the home clubhouse and there was a homeless man sitting on the couch. When Chris asked who he was, the man replied simply, “I’m the owner’s son.” Of course, he actually wasn’t and, at Chris’s stern insistence, eventually left. The next night Chris told me about the experience, and I listened intently. When he finished and we’d sat in silence for a minute, I looked him in the eyes and asked, “Chris . . . which one of us will prove to be the homeless man?” And for the rest of that night, each time I turned a corner in the suites and the offices in the AirHogs Stadium skybox, I half-expected to find the homeless man there. In my mind, I’d ask him who he was. The man would reply curtly, truthfully: “I’m you.”

I never truly saw the homeless man—at least not in real life. But I wondered about him for a long time that evening. What would it mean to sneak into a suburban baseball stadium for shelter on a hot Texas night? Loss, I supposed. Hardship. Abandon. And I thought he would see himself in me, who had slept soundly there so many nights and thought he’d had hardship because the team lost or the microphone malfunctioned or some other minor inconvenience had occurred. That night, I didn’t get much rest. I tossed uncomfortably on a faux leather couch, and, in the morning, when the sun burst through the high windows of Suite 13, I awoke with the slow eroding feeling that only certainty can bring.

Meeting this man wasn’t a dream, and, yet, none of it had ever happened.

What’s Your Best Story From The Road?

In 2016, the first year I was with the AirHogs, we split our home games between Grand Prairie, Texas and Amarillo, Texas, back when Potter County Memorial Stadium was their home of professional baseball. The American Association is this huge, sprawling bus league that runs from Texas all the way up to Fargo, North Dakota and Winnipeg, Manitoba. We would travel about five hours between home stadiums and then up and down the Midwest for 100 games in about 110 days. We basically lived on this cramped sleeper bus, enduring trips as long as 23 hours. Being the person with the least physically taxing job, I slept in the aisle on a thin foam mat I bought at Walmart.

We finished the season with a 19-game road trip, and our second baseman Brian Bistagne brought along his 3-year-old pitbull named Banks to enjoy life on the great American highway. The dog really had an affinity for my mat. Many times, I would come back from the bathroom to find that canine Kerouac dragging his hindquarters on my little slice of travel heaven. Not knowing how a pitbull would react to being evicted from his preferred sleeping space on a bus full of t35 men, I would gently tap him on the shoulder and say politely, “Excuse me, sir?… Sir?” And God bless him, he would always, eventually, move.

We finished the season with a three-game series in Amarillo vs. the Sioux City Explorers. We drove 10 hours from Laredo and went straight to the stadium so the guys could drop their stuff. I remember stumbling out around 9:30 am, shielding my eyes from the early September Texas sun. It was the final series of an almost indescribably crazy season. We were about 30 games under .500, and life on the road had left us a haggard bunch.

Potter County Memorial Stadium, our nominal second home, was on its last legs. The field’s tarp and drainage systems were truly awful. Out of the 25 games we played there, probably 14 had to be doubleheaders because of poor field conditions. As the long slog of the season wore on, the players and coaches had grown immensely frustrated with the inability to keep the scuffed, pockmarked surface playable, even in seemingly manageable conditions. The night before, a mild rainstorm had created several miniature lakes, moats and reservoirs on the diamond, outfield and bullpen areas. Upon assessing the damage on that bright morning, the team’s sigh was collective. Another rainout coming. What could be done?

Well, as they say, heroes get remembered. Legends never die. And, on that morning, Banks became legendary. As we all stood around laughing at the hopelessness of the situation, here comes Banks, prancing off the bus through our little AirHogs gaggle. Every eye was glued to him as he went right to third base, squatted down and took the most spectacular dump possible.

Everyone burst out in applause.

God, I miss that dog. 

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