Loud & Proud: In the Booth with Voice of the Pittsburgh Pirates
Greg Brown knows anything is possible for his beloved Buccos. His career has had its share of surprise turns as well.
Photos Courtesy the Pittsburgh Pirates
The Pittsburgh Pirates are in an early-season slump, and Greg Brown hasn’t been able to scream his signature catchphrase in five days. But as he strides toward the broadcast booth at PNC Park, he spots a woman with “RTJR” on her shirt. That’s short for “Raise the Jolly Roger,” the phrase he bellows after every Pirates’ win. “There’s even a RTJR hash tag,” he says, flashing the grin you can almost always hear in his voice as he does play-by-play for 162 or more Pirates games a year. Outside on the street, fans who recognize him often yell, “Raise it!”
After 22 years of calling Pirates games on radio and TV, Brown can’t escape his trademark cheer that’s become a team anthem. He’s not bragging. That’s not his way. He just finds it funny that the flag-raising cry finally has caught on. For years, he screamed it into the wind, the words disappearing like another blown Pirates lead. “People thought it was goofy. ‘This is a team that loses 100 games a year? Why are you saying that?’”
Those were the bad old days, when he was doing play-by-play for a team that was setting a dubious North American record for most consecutive losing seasons in professional sports. It was when fans and bloggers would rip him for going apoplectic about a Pirates home run in another meaningless loss. It was when his own brother suggested he was too excitable in the booth and his son was mocked for wearing Pirates shirts to school.
That all changed in 2013. The Pirates made the Major League Baseball playoffs for the first time since 1992. Pittsburgh’s long baseball nightmare was over. As for Brown, the exuberant announcer who had coined such phrases as “It’s a Trip, Trip, Triple” and “Clear the Deck, Cannonball Coming” suddenly was more visible and quotable. Though he perhaps has not reached the Mount Rushmore status of announcers such as Bob Prince, Myron Cope and Mike Lange, Greg Brown is much more than just the voice of a sports team; he’s part of its soul.
On a Saturday night in May at PNC Park, Brown looks down from the TV broadcast booth behind home plate. He’s just driven to the ballpark from his home in Leet Township, which he shares with his wife, Kim, and his 16-year-old son, Ryan.
It’s still two hours before the first pitch. The stands are filling up. Attendance will be 38,068 — a virtual sellout. Some fans already wave the Pirates’ skull-and-crossbones flag — aka the Jolly Roger.
Brown folds his tall, lanky frame into his seat and types into his smart phone. He’s recently begun “broadcasting” his thoughts on Twitter, as @GBrowniepoints. “It’s a little frightening,” he says, his eyebrows arching above soft blue eyes. “My 90-year-old mother, who is a fanatical Pirates fan, told my sister, ‘I am not going to tell Greg this, but I don’t think it’s very classy.’”
Brown, 54, quickly turns serious. He has game prep to do. With his right knee tapping nonstop, he highlights his notes for the game. The Pirates have lost five straight. Their opponent, the St. Louis Cardinals, are on fire. As usual, Brown is optimistic. “I don’t take last night’s loss into tonight’s game. I don’t take a five-game losing streak into today’s game,” he says. “I didn’t take 20 years of losing into the 21st year. Anything can happen.”
The same could be said of Brown’s improbable broadcasting career, which began with a lowly position as the backup Pirates Parrot. Even his love of the Pirates seemed unlikely. Growing up in his hometown of Mechanicsburg, near Harrisburg, his friends rooted for the Philadelphia Phillies and Baltimore Orioles. But his father, Henry — a lobbyist for a coal company and a native of Connellsville who grew up as a Pirates fan — would drive west with his youngest son once a year to see the Pirates play. For the rest of the season, Brown relied on a tangle of headphones and radios in his bedroom to bring him static-filled KDKA radio broadcasts of the exploits of Willie Stargell, Omar Moreno and Dave Parker. His lifelines were announcers Milo Hamilton and Lanny Frattare. Imitating their voices became his favorite hobby.
The second youngest in a large Irish-Catholic family, Brown was too young to play sports with his five older brothers. (He also has a younger sister.) “It was tough on him,” says his brother Hank, a retired banker in Pittsburgh. One day, Hank walked by 13-year-old Greg’s room and heard him shriek, “There’s a long fly ball,” as he jumped from bed to bed, running imaginary bases. In neighborhood Wiffle Ball and baseball games, he’d channel the Pirates lineup, pitching almost underarm like reliever Kent Tekulve or twirling the bat like a windmill, a la Willie Stargell.
After high school, Brown attended Harrisburg Community College. In 1979, he heard an announcement on KDKA radio that would change his life. The Pirates were unveiling a team mascot, the Parrot, and were holding an open audition. “You don’t have to look any further. Your Pirate Parrot is here in Mechanicsburg,” he wrote on his application. Wearing an “I Hate the Phillies” T-shirt to the tryout, he made the cut of 10 finalists.
“Can you dance?” a marketing official asked him. “I am a tremendous dancer,” Brown lied.
Each finalist had to make up a dance routine to the Leo Sayer song “Long Tall Glasses.” Panicked, Brown spent the night before the tryout at Hank’s home in Pittsburgh, where he begged his brother to teach him how to dance. He was hopeless. Hank sighed and played the record one last time. Somehow the turntable speed jumped from 45 to 78 rpm. Brown started dancing manically and Hank and his wife howled. That was it: He would dance at warp speed.
Around midnight, however, Brown suddenly was gripped with fear. What if they didn’t have a record player at the tryout? He called directory assistance to get the phone number of Pirates marketing executive Steve Schanwald and rousted him from sleep to ask about equipment. “I can’t believe you got me out of bed for that,” Schanwald said, slamming down the phone.
As it turned out, the Pirates did have a turntable at the tryout. Brown shone but not quite enough. Some other guy won the starting mascot job. Still, the enthusiastic teenager from Mechanicsburg was asked to stay on for that summer as an intern in the promotions department and as a backup mascot. He also helped to select music for games. One night, between innings, he played “We Are Family,” a Sister Sledge tune the players listened to in the clubhouse. The crowd went nuts. The song became the anthem for the great 1979 Pirates team. Then he worked as the clubhouse manager at the Pirates’ training facility in Bradenton, Fla., during an instructional-league season. He says that job, which included cleaning uniforms and toilets, was one of the hardest of his life.
Brown, who earned a journalism degree at Point Park University, kept moving up through the Pirates organization in sales, public relations and broadcasting. He helped Frattare and Jim Rooker, writing and producing their radio commercials and live promotional materials. He compiled year-end highlight videos. In 1986, the Pirates named him host of the team’s pre- and post-game shows on the KBL network. He worked alongside Steve Blass and Mike Lange, who called Pirates games before becoming better known as the voice of the Penguins. During a Pirates doubleheader, Lange pulled a surprise, telling Brown he planned to leave the broadcast booth and let him call the play-by-play for a couple innings. “Good luck, kid,” Lange said as he walked away.
Doing those two innings of play-by-play allowed Brown to make a demo tape, a huge break for any aspiring sports announcer. Looking back, Lange says Brown was “just a pup. He was hungry, energetic and knowledgeable. He had a little twinkle in his eye.” In 1989, Brown left Pittsburgh and did baseball broadcasts for the Buffalo Bisons before taking a broadcast job with the Buffalo Bills in the NFL. He returned to Pittsburgh in 1994 to accept the job he had always wanted — Pirates play-by-play broadcaster.
Early on, his brother Charlie, an attorney in Pittsburgh, gave him a critique. Charlie’s buddies liked his broadcasts, but they thought he got too excited on the air. “‘You tell your friends that will never change,’” Brown replied. “Do you hear Myron Cope screaming during an exhibition game? Do you hear Mike Lange screaming about Penguins games? It boggles my mind. It’s OK to get excited about a Steelers or Penguins game but not a Pirates game?”
Brown never dialed down his enthusiasm. Finally the fans’ excitement caught up on a magical night at PNC Park on Oct. 1, 2013. During that Wild Card game against the Cincinnati Reds — the Pirates’ first post-season appearance since 1992 — Brown walked around the upper deck of the ballpark. He inhaled the sea of shrieking black and felt the electric love affair between the players and their fans. He teared up. When the Pirates defeated the Reds and won the right to face the Cardinals in the next round of the playoffs, Brown celebrated by yelling, “Meet me in St. Louie, Louie!”
Brown acknowledges his wear-it-on-his-microphone enthusiasm isn’t for everyone.
“I always get compliments from Pirates fans saying how much they enjoy me. But I think if you are not a Pirates fan, you might not like me. I sometimes wonder how much I would like myself.” He pauses and tilts his head, as if to ponder the idea of Greg Brown listening to Greg Brown on the radio. If some fans get on him for screaming too much, others call him out for forgetting to say “Cannon Ball Coming.”
“You don’t want to talk constantly. You want the game to breathe,” he says.
On this evening, the color guy in the TV booth with Brown is Steve Blass, the former Pirates star pitcher who helped to deliver the team’s 1971 World Series win. Brown and Blass rib each other about the pluses and minuses of an announcer’s on-air excitability. Then Blass talks seriously about how Brown came through for him after Blass’s father, Bob, died in 2003. Brown worked a night game at PNC Park before driving all night with Marc Garda, director of broadcasting, from Pittsburgh to Connecticut. They changed into suits in the restroom of a McDonald’s restaurant, attended the funeral and drove back in time for that night’s Pirates broadcast.
“I have a lot of acquaintances. I don’t have a friend like Greg Brown,” Blass says. The two men also have an easy rapport on the air. “He is very creative. Like ‘Mercer, Mercer Me,’” Blass says, referring to Brown’s nickname for Jordy Mercer. “That is good stuff. It doesn’t just fly out of your mouth.”
Actually, some of those nicknames do just fly out of Brown’s mouth. For instance, “Real Deal Neil Walker.” Or “J Hay, Whaddaya Say” for Josh Harrison. Others are found or pilfered. “It’s a Marte Par-tay,” Starling Marte’s nickname, was plucked from a fan’s homemade sign at PNC Park. Brown’s home run cry — “Clear the Deck, Cannonball Coming” — came courtesy of his longtime barber, Aaron Stubna, and Stubna’s father and uncle.
Stubna runs the old-fashioned Lincoln Barber Shop in Bellevue. Brownie, as Stubna calls him, is not fussy about the $14 haircut the barber gives him. He’s not a high-maintenance talent in the broadcast booth, either. For the game against the Cardinals in May, he showed up beet-red, sunburned from an all-day charity event. “You look like a bottle of ketchup,” Bob Walk kidded him that night. In preparation for a TV segment, Brown takes out some powder, provided by Root Sports, and eyes it warily. “How do I do this?” he says, as he dabs it on his face. Powdered up and not so red-faced, he and Blass exit PNC Park and walk past a high-school band tuning up. Brown greets a custodian picking up litter, then does his bit before the TV camera.
Brown and Blass return to their booth and are soon calling the Pirates-Cardinals game. In the second inning, Yadier Molina of the Cardinals hits a hard line drive to second baseman Neil Walker with runners on second and third with no outs. Walker snags the ball, then fires it to Jung Ho Kang on third base to double off the lead Cardinals runner.
“It’s a double play!” Brown screams. But wait, the runner on second is halfway to third and thinks the inning is over. Kang throws back to Walker at second base, and that runner is out, too. Brown stands and screams. “It’s a triple play! It’s a triple play! It’s a triple play! How about that one!?”
Minutes later Brown’s excitement level zooms into the stratosphere when he learns it was the first 4-5-4 triple play in MLB history. He is 54 years old. He has sat in the broadcast booth thousands of times doing play-by-play for the Pirates. But at this moment he is a 10-year-old kid again, bursting with excitement. The next day, Brown will chastise himself for getting so worked up on the air. Still, as he walks out of PNC Park after a Pirates 7-5 victory, fireworks exploding overhead, he says, “You see, you never know what’s going to happen.”
Frequent contributor Cristina Rouvalis is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in national publications, including Hemispheres, PARADE, Esquire.com, AARP the Magazine, Fortune.com and Parents.