Chattanooga: Radio announcer Ward speeds toward 3,000th broadcast
By: David Paschall
In late June, on a Sunday afternoon-turned-evening, the visiting Chattanooga Lookouts defeated Jacksonville in 15 innings.
The Lookouts had to play West Tenn the next night at AT&T Field, but the lengthy win over the Suns resulted in a delayed trip back. They didn’t return to Chattanooga until after 4 a.m., and Lookouts radio announcer Larry Ward didn’t arrive at his Harrison home until after 5.
Chattanooga’s team bus was somewhere along Interstate 75 in south Georgia when the clock struck midnight, and that’s how Ward rang in his 61st birthday.
“I’ve been asked many times over the last three or four years, ‘When are you going to retire?’” Ward said. “I just say, ‘And do what?’ I’m already doing what I really want to do. If your job becomes your hobby, and you feel like you’re almost retired already, what do you need to retire from?
“If I retired in two or three years, I’d still come to the ballpark. What else do you do on a summer evening?”
Surrounded by nomadic players who are a year away from the major leagues or a week away from being released, Ward is a Chattanooga constant. He is more than halfway through his 20th consecutive season broadcasting Lookouts games and his 21st overall.
Next April, Ward will announce his 3,000th Lookouts game.
“You’ve got to love what you do to do something like that, and he does,” Lookouts owner Frank Burke said. “He wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. There are so many people who truly don’t like what they do, and it’s wonderful when you have somebody who does.”
Lengthy bus rides can be the most challenging aspect for Ward, who doesn’t have a 22-year-old back like most of his traveling counterparts, but he prefers them to flights he once took in the Pacific Coast League as broadcaster of the Tucson Toros. That often involved broadcasting games until 11 at night and waking up at 4:30 the next morning to catch a 6 a.m. flight to Spokane or Albuquerque.
Plus, after all these years, Ward is a pro at bus travel.
“Some of us can sleep on a bus, and some people can’t,” said Mississippi Braves manager Phillip Wellman, who managed the Lookouts in 1999 and from 2001-03. “Not only can Larry Ward sleep on a bus, but he can snore on one, too. That’s one thing I will never forget about him, because he always sat behind me.”
LOVING THE GAME
In 1971, Ward was working at a daytime radio station in eastern Oregon when a Little League tournament came to town.
Having played baseball through high school and some in college, he wanted to broadcast the event and got the go-ahead from his station manager after selling enough advertising to put it on the air. He broadcast the tournament from a station van, which he still refers to as his own little press box.
“I was about three innings into that Little League district tournament game when I thought, ‘This is it. This is what I want to do,’” he said. “That led to going to work at a full-time station and doing high-school sports and some small college.”
Ward announced minor league baseball games on a part-time basis in 1978 and took his first full-time gig with Tucson in 1979. He left pro baseball in the late 1980s to announce sporting events for The Citadel and returned to the college scene seven years ago when Burke decided to broadcast University of Tennessee at Chattanooga women’s basketball games.
Burke said he would have never funded Lady Mocs broadcasts without Ward agreeing to handle the play-by-play chores.
With the Lookouts owning his spring and summer months and the Lady Mocs dominating his winters, Ward has a window between mid September and mid October to visit family in Oregon. He used to be a regular at spring training but not in recent years because Wes Moore’s Lady Mocs annually advance to postseason play.
“We’ve missed some family things and I hate that, but this has given me the chance to come to some great places every day and work,” Ward said. “I’m like anybody else in that there are days when you wake up and wish you didn’t have to go to work, but once you’re there, the atmosphere and fun of what you do takes over.”
Ward’s family in Chattanooga includes wife Nelle and daughter Megan, but it also includes the Lookouts who have come and gone. Then there is Jamie Dismuke, who came and went as a player and returned as the team’s hitting coach.
Dismuke met Ward as a player in 1993, and the two have become golfing rivals during the offseason and whenever they can sneak in 18 during the summer.
“You can’t help but like Larry Ward,” Dismuke said. “He’s a great guy who’s been around this game for a long time.”
What Dismuke and other Lookouts quickly discover is that simply labeling Ward as the team announcer is selling him way short. Ward handles hotel arrangements and room assignments for every road trip, oversees the uniform assignments and takes care of travel plans for every player coming from or heading to high Single-A Sarasota, Triple-A Louisville or anywhere else inside or outside the Cincinnati Reds organization.
The Lookouts had 128 player transactions in 2003, so Ward has experienced some seasons that have been more hectic than others.
“When I first got here, I didn’t realize just how much he does,” Lookouts infielder Drew Anderson said. “He was introduced to me as the radio announcer, but he takes care of almost all our stuff.”
Said Wellman: “He’s always handled way more things than one man should handle, and that’s why we called him ‘Slash.’ He was a guy who made my job a lot easier.”
NOT ONE TO MINCE
In the booth, Ward isn’t into sugar-coating.
When a game is laboring along or a pitcher is walking multiple batters — a combination that has occurred quite often this season — Ward can be quick to show his irritation. One lady e-mailed him a couple of years ago about two words he had used during one of his on-air rants, and he responded to her by saying those words can be found in the Bible and that he would continue to use them.
“The word aneurysm occasionally comes to mind when I listen to his broadcasts, but that’s the beauty of Larry,” Burke said. “It’s minor league baseball. If you want to listen to a guy give an emotionless recap or description of a game, turn on a network. In minor league baseball, you have a connection with the fans and with the team, and that’s what Larry provides.
“There have been times I’ve sent him messages designed to crank him up on the air, because I find him very entertaining.”
Ward admits he wasn’t as straightforward when he started out in broadcasting but feels he must be the eyes and ears of every fan not at the game. Some of those fans can be tuning in locally on WDOD AM-1310, but Lookouts broadcasts also go throughout the country and oversees on the Internet.
“I’ve got to tell you that a guy is not in the strike zone if he’s not in the doggone strike zone,” Ward said. “If someone throws eight pitches and walks two guys, he’s not in the strike zone. I’ve gotten a little more impatient as I’ve gotten older, and if a game is dragging, there is a tomorrow and I don’t want to see it at the ballpark. Let’s get it over with.”
With 24 seasons in the Southern League, which includes three with Jacksonville before coming to Chattanooga for a one-year stint in 1985, Ward is the dean of league announcers. Curt Bloom is in his 17th season broadcasting the Birmingham Barons, while Patrick Kinas is next on the longevity chart with 10 seasons with the Carolina Mudcats.
Kinas believes Ward has been a mentor in some form to every fellow announcer.
“He’s the guy in this league who you have to win over most, but it takes the longest,” Kinas said. “You have to earn his respect and trust before he kind of embraces you. He’s seen young whipper-snappers like myself and some other guys who think we’re the next big thing. He’s seen them come and go.
“He is one of those guys who has a quiet sense about who’s talented and who’s not, and who’s capable and who’s not. It takes a couple of years to break that wall where you can really get to know him. Once you do, he can be one of the most impacting guys, not just on your career but in your life.”
Kinas said Ward has a presence to where people know who he is at ballparks throughout the league. Wellman said there were times he got ejected and would watch the rest of the game with Ward.
What everybody says is that a Lookouts game won’t be a Lookouts game without Ward behind the microphone, but it doesn’t sound like that is happening any decade soon.
“I don’t feel 61. I feel 31,” Ward said. “When you hang around young people on a continuous basis, it keeps you young. I called my 10th no-hitter earlier this season, and I captured my first triple play on tape.
“Why retire? I’m having too much fun.”