“What do we even say to him?”, I asked my friend as we boarded the elevator.
Looking at each other, we couldn’t help but laugh. “I have no idea”, he said. The Reds employee pushed the “3” button to take us upward. I had only a few more moments to practice my small talk in my head, a skill I am not known for.
The doors opened to a waiting room of sorts. It was the last line of defense against the common folk but was manned by two older gentlemen who showed no threatening signs. They welcomed us, wanting to know our business.
“We’re here to see Marty”, my friend replied. “He told us to come up in the bottom of the third.”
Marty Brennaman accompanied me on many car rides throughout my childhood. I’d stare out the window of our wood paneled station wagon and instead of a wall of trees, I’d see the dirt and grass of Riverfront stadium. Through Marty’s description, I could almost smell the classic combination of beer and suntan lotion that permeates through the ballpark on summer days. My Reds fandom was cultivated through radio waves and not pixels, a reality that contributed to my love of words.
But Marty’s gift was more than calling a game; he was a conversationalist. I’ve heard fans complain about the side chatter between Marty and Joe or Marty and whoever filled the side saddle. As a kid, I loved it. Marty seemed like the uncle who would tell you stories you weren’t allowed to hear yet, sneaking you treats as the tale was weaved.
Now, in May of Marty’s last season as an announcer, I was going to meet the voice, a bigger than life personality who had personified my favorite sports team for decades.
The gatekeeper checked his list: “Seth Morrison, got you right here.” Seth is one of my oldest friends who eventually became the guitarist for the rock band Skillet. Because of his relative fame and love of the Reds, Seth had connected with several Reds players and personnel. He had never met Marty, but through a former player, we (Seth, his nephew, and I) had been invited up to the radio booth.
Just then, the door swung open and a familiar voice boomed: “Seth, my man!” I turned around to see Jim Day, one of Seth’s friends coming toward us. I had met Jim before, so I knew what to expect. Jim is exactly what you’d expect him: friendly, conversational, relaxed. We exchanged pleasantries for a few minutes until he began a longer conversation with Seth.
I turned my attention to the TV to check on the game and calm my nerves. Whenever the 3rd inning ended, we would be ushered to the radio booth. The Reds were tacking on runs against a defeated Washington Nationals, a 24-32 team that looked lost. After posting a 5 spot in the first, the Reds scored 3 more in the third on four hits and two errors. The Nationals mercifully took out Patrick Corbin, their starter, but the pitching change just prolonged my wait. Eventually, Eugenio Suarez popped up to end the inning.
“Come on back, guys”, the security guard said and ushered us through the double doors into the Reds media center. Besides the clubhouse, this area was the holiest of places at GABP, the inner sanctum where Reds executives and media personalities worked and watched games. After rounding the first corner, Seth nudge me, “there’s Walt Jocketty”, he said. We still don’t understand what his role is.
Eventually, we turned into a relatively small room with large windows that looked out onto the field. A man with headphones reacquainted the radio audience with the game as the 4th inning began, but besides noting a Juan Soto bomb to dead center off of Tyler Mahle, that’s the last of the inning that I noticed. Coming toward us was a short man with a welcoming smile. My heart leapt; it was Marty.
“How are you guys doing”? he asked generically. Seth’s eyes lit up as he thundered back an appropriate greeting. I had seen Seth interact with many people including ball players and other notable figures; I had never seen him this amped up.
“Shhh”, Marty whispered with a smile. “You are going to end up on the radio, buddy.” And with that quip, the ice was broken. His conversation skills were more than a radio act; we talked easily about all kinds of things. And it wasn’t superficial: Marty seemed genuinely interested in us as individuals. He didn’t act like a guy who was trying to get rid of us at the first possible moment; he soaked up all he could about three strangers in the short time we had.
He probed me about my job and hobbies; we connected about golf where I learned of Chris Welsh’s prowess: “he beats the pants off me” and Jeff Brantley’s insufficiencies “that boy needs some work.” Marty talked to Seth about life on the road, a topic they were both all too familiar with.
But my favorite part of the conversation was telling Marty how much I enjoyed listening as a kid to him and Joe call games.
“Every deep flyball, Joe would always be yelling ‘get outta here baseball’ and coupled with your call, my heart would burst out of my chest”, I told him. “Those are special memories of times spent in the car or around a bonfire with my family.”
Marty has probably heard similar stories a million times, and yet, he seemed touched by it. “Joe would get so excited”, Marty said at one point. “People loved that about him.” In that moment, I could tell the Old Soapbox still loves the Old Lefthander, and it seems the good memories may have finally overwhelmed the pain of losing his friend.
Ten minutes after greeting us with a smile, Marty was saying goodbye. He looked me in the eye with that same grin and patted me on the chest “It was great to meet you, Nick. Take care of yourself.”
Seth and I walked back to our seats in shock. When we had collected our thoughts, we had the same conclusion: Marty Brennaman may be a man of strong opinions, but he is far more gracious than we would have ever thought. I may have disagreed with him about the usefulness of analytics, and I admit that I tired of how annoyed he would sound at times on the radio, but when face-to-face with the man, he far exceeded my expectations as a human being.
For the rest of the night, we laughed about things we said or wished we had said. The Reds won that game 9-3 and moved to 27-30 on the season. They ended the 2019 season 12 games below .500, playing poorly the rest of the year. And yet, last baseball season was defined more by those ten minutes in the radio booth than those 87 losses, thanks to the kindness of one hall of famer.