Friday's radio broadcast of Georgia Tech-UIC baseball is about a lot more than the game
Jon Cooper | The Good Word -
Announcers don’t necessarily need to have the same point of view to make a good broadcast. More important is them having a respect for each other, a respect for what they’re doing and a goal of making the best possible experience for fans listening in.
Expect a really good broadcast of the first game of Friday's doubleheader between Georgia Tech and the University of Illinois-Chicago on Friday afternoon.
Beginning in the third inning and running through the seventh, Tech play-by-play man Wiley Ballard will share the booth with special guest analyst Bryce Weiler, on WREK’s broadcast (91.1 FM, www.wrek.org).
The two knew going in they wouldn’t see things the same.
Ballard has seen every pitch this season for the Jackets. Weiler has never seen one, from the Jackets or anyone else, as the 26-year-old Claremont, Ill. native has been blind since birth. He was born four months premature with a condition called retinopathy of prematurity.
But this broadcast isn’t about what makes people different. It’s about what makes them the same and in that department, Ballard and Weiler have plenty in common. Both love baseball, both are passionate about broadcasting and both see Friday as an opportunity with a bigger picture in mind.
“This isn’t just him wanting to get on the air and call a baseball game,” Ballard said. “He has a mission and a purpose behind it. He’s reached out to a bunch of folks. For me, win-win might be an understatement. I get to have a good time and on top of that we hopefully raise some awareness about hiring disabled persons.”
“Just growing up listening to games on the radio, I always wanted to do that sort of thing,” said Weiler, who lists University of Illinois football and basketball play-by-play announcer Brian Barnhart and Indiana University play-by-play man Don Fischer as influences. He also thanks University of Evansville Basketball coach Marty Simmons for allowing him to sit on his bench.
“I would just like to give all individuals a chance to be able to do the things that I’ve been able to do in sports. It’s nothing that anyone else can’t do. They just have to have the courage to go out and do it. I’d like to give a lot of credit to [GT assistant communications director] Mr. Kevin Davis for letting me commentate with Wiley Ballard and Wiley being willing to let me commentate with him. Because there are some individuals who don’t want to let a blind person commentate with them.”
Ballard never thought twice about it and was quite impressed with Weiler after talking with him a couple of times.
“The first thing I noticed about him is that he’s very detail-oriented. He might have a better idea of what he’s doing than I do,” said Ballard, with a laugh. “Speaking with [Georgia Tech director of broadcasting] Andy Demetra and also [former GT director of broadcasting] Brandon Gaudin about him, they both had rave reviews as far as his work ethic. He has a great understanding of what play-by-play in sports is about and adding color as well. So I think he’ll be as experienced as anybody else we’ve had on the air this season at REK. I joked with him that he might give me the best critique out of anybody who listens right now because he’ll sit right next to me and if he doesn’t know what’s going on, then I’m definitely not doing a good job. So I’m kind of excited. I hope I can learn a couple of things.”
Weiler, who has sports management and sports communication degrees from Evansville and a master’s in sports administration from Western Illinois, has been in the booth before. At both Evansville and Western, he did color on a variety of sports. He promised he’ll call it straight up, but also is aware of broadcaster etiquette and isn’t out to school Ballard, who graduates from Georgia Tech next month.
“I don’t really want to call Wiley out on the radio even though he said I could. I don’t want to do that because that’s kind of embarrassing,” said Weiler, who will be observed by John Conlan of the Chicago Tribune during Friday's broadcast. “Hopefully Wiley does a great job. I didn’t catch any mistakes in the Georgia game. I sure don’t want to call him out on the radio.”
Listening to Ballard call Tuesday’s game against Georgia is typical of his thorough preparation, a thoroughness that impressed Georgia Tech Baseball head coach Danny Hall, who talked with Weiler early in the week.
“He had done some homework on our team and had good questions about our team so he could do his prep work heading into Friday,” said Hall. “You give him tremendous credit for doing what he’s doing being visually impaired. He’s obviously been dealt a setback in his life but he obviously has passion for sports and passion for baseball. So to be able to figure out a way to overcome that, I’m just amazed that he can do it.”
Broadcasting Friday’s game is more than career-boosting for Weiler, who has done extensive work with the Baltimore Orioles on behalf of the disabled. He’s developed a good relationship with Orioles executive vice president John Angelos (he even got to throw out a first pitch at an O's game) and works exhaustively emailing and calling professional teams in each of the major sports leagues.
“We want to help disabled individuals to overcome the obstacles they’re facing in their life by using sports to show them that there are people out there who care about them and who want to help them,” Weiler said.
“Bryce, I think, is trying to sort of develop a niche as someone who wants to help franchises and athletics departments find ways to make their sporting events accessible to people who do have disabilities,” said Demetra, who knows Weiler from his days at the University of South Carolina. “Sports is one of the most egalitarian things we have in our society. It doesn’t matter where you come from, what socioeconomic background you have, what impairments you may or may not have. Everybody deserves to enjoy sports the same way. Whether it’s the vision-impaired, people with autism, they deserve to experience and enjoy games just as much as everyone else. I can tell that’s a cause that Bryce is passionate about.”
Demetra believes it’s no coincidence that Georgia Tech and Weiler found each other and are out-front in this initiative to help the disabled.
“You have the Bobby Dodd Institute, which has had a long legacy of training people with impairments to be productive members of the workforce,” he said. “It almost feels like it’s fate that we were able to link up with Bryce, even for this one game, to help kind of spread his message and get more people aware of who he is and what he’s trying to do. I think it’s a great pairing for this Institute and Bryce and what he’s wanting to accomplish and what Georgia Tech has done consistently throughout the years in sort of its history in being a resource for people who might have more obstacles than others to overcome in order to be productive citizens and productive members of the workforce.”
“It’s just another example of Georgia Tech being an inclusive place,” said Ballard. “When you’re in a city as diverse as Atlanta, I think Tech does a really nice job of continually pushing that mission. The school motto is ‘Progress and Service,’ so hopefully we can share some of the progress Bryce is making and offer some service to the community as well and try and promote what we stand for as a school.
“I think it’s going to be an opportunity for us to talk about something more than baseball and, honestly, in a good baseball broadcast, you’re probably talking about things other than baseball,” he added. “So hopefully this will be an eye-opening experience for the listeners and hopefully they can get a better perspective. I’m certain I’ll know a lot more by the ninth inning than I did when we began in the first.”