Memphis baseball fans have long been blessed with the finest ballpark in the minor leagues. When they can’t get to AutoZone Park, though, those same fans can enjoy a radio broadcast led by one of the best in the business, Steve Selby. Having called more than 3,000 games in his career, Selby has a few stories (and opinions) to share.
What was your favorite team (and who was your favorite player) growing up?
The first major-league game I went to was in 1962 at Candlestick Park in San Francisco: Giants-Dodgers. Pretty good way to break in. I was a Giants fan, and a Willie Mays fan. I saw Mays hit a home run, so I was set for life. My dad was in the Navy and stationed in Monterey at the time. We had Vin Scully and Russ Hodges on the air out there.
When did you first feel like describing baseball games was a calling?
I didn’t give it a thought until my last semester of college. I was a sociology major and getting ready to work for the state of Virginia, with juvenile delinquents. [Selby was a second baseman at Randolph-Macon College.] I ran into an old friend who suggested I should be a sports announcer: “You always said you were better than those guys.” (All of us in this business think we’re better.) A guidance counselor steered me toward a commercial program in Fort Lauderdale. I had some good instructors, and I got a credential for the Yankees’ Class A team in Fort Lauderdale. I’d take my Radio Shack tape recorder up to the press box and I’d do nine innings of baseball.
My real training came with my brothers. We had our baseball cards and sponge dice. We’d play 162 games and do our own play-by-play. We kept stats.
What’s a trick of the trade you learned early ... and a skill you’ve had to master with the passage of time?
The trick was learning I’ll never know it all. As soon as you assume you’ve got it figured out... . I thought I really knew the game as a college player. But two weeks into my first job in the minor leagues, I realized I didn’t know anything about this game. I wasn’t worried about dumb questions, and I talked to as many people as I could. Still do to this day.
Reading pitches from the press box can be challenging. Cutters and sliders can look the same. Sometimes a changeup looks like a fastball, depending on your angle. Some scouts bring radios to listen to the broadcast, and they’ll tell me, “You said a pitch was this, and it was really that.” I’ve learned to use “breaking ball” or I’ll delay and look at the radar gun. But you don’t have to identify every pitch.
You were behind the microphone for the Durham Bulls when Bull Durham hit the big screen in 1988. That had to be the center of the minor-league universe.
My home was in south Alabama, and I went home for the winter [when they filmed the movie]. The owner of the team didn’t tell anyone the movie was [being made there]. I would have gone back to be an extra. I was insanely jealous that they brought in a character actor to play the Bulls’ announcer. But we had a private screening during the season. Robert Wuhl was there.
Who are some players you thought would be big-league stars only to see them fizzle out?
The ones who didn’t pan out are usually because of injuries. I covered Steve Avery [in the Braves system]. He was a stud. And there was a righthander with him at Durham named Dennis Burlingame who was actually better. We had a double-header early one season against a team with Pete Rose Jr. Avery threw a one-hitter and Burlingame threw a perfect game. But then Burlingame blew his arm out. I saw Gregg Jefferies play in the Carolina League when he was 19 years old. I thought he’d play 20 years.
And there must be some players who went on to stardom, but didn’t show it in the minors.
You look at Jon Jay and Daniel Descalso [currently with the St. Louis Cardinals]. They’re just intelligent ballplayers. They get the max. I don’t think anyone saw what [Cardinal second-baseman] Matt Carpenter’s doing now. All-Star?
The Redbirds have had some memorable players and two championship teams. Who stands out in your memory?
So Taguchi is one. Adam Wainwright and David Freese are others. So was such a good-natured guy. He was fundamentally sound. I challenged him early on [during interviews]. I won’t take no as an answer: “My English isn’t good enough.” We turned out to be good friends. I stay in touch with So and his wife. His first spring training [in 2002], he couldn’t get batting-practice fastballs out of the cage. He completely changed his hitting approach. [Taguchi earned World Series rings with St. Louis in 2006 and Philadelphia in 2008.]
This year’s club has been somewhat schizophrenic. Plenty of highly ranked prospects, but here they are below .500 — but with a playoff spot within reach. Your take on the team?
There have been a lot of roster changes. We had a stacked rotation out of the gate. But with young prospects, the biggest key is consistency. Young guys aren’t consistent. We’ve had to rely on veterans the Cardinals brought in.
What about the business of minor-league baseball? Can stars like Oscar Taveras or Michael Wacha sell tickets, or is it strictly the ballpark, promotions, and barbecue nachos?
With the Cardinals, players sell tickets. Fans travel to see these players. They pay attention, and listen to broadcasts. I really see this on the road. If Wacha is throwing or Carlos Martinez is throwing. When we go to Des Moines [where the Chicago Cubs’ affiliate plays], half the stadium is blue and half the stadium is red.
If there was one major-league game in history you could have called, what would it have been?
I spent a lot of days at RFK Stadium in D.C. Went to a lot of Senators games until they moved to Texas. They averaged 2,000 or 3,000 fans a game. A dream job would be to go back to Washington and call games. I’d just like to call a game in the big leagues. It could be a 2-1 game in the middle of May. That would be great for me.