Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, August 4, 2017

Jenkins Perspective: 21 innings? No big deal for Lookouts’ Ward

If Larry Ward knew what the coming night would bring, he might have thought twice about granting an interview an hour before the Chattanooga Lookouts’ game this past Saturday.

Ward, still going strong in his 30th season broadcasting every Lookouts game, home and away, would need every syllable his vocal chords could give him on this night. The Lookouts and the visiting Birmingham Barons would shortly begin a game that would take 21 innings to complete. But without a sidekick to share duties, it was up to Ward to detail every hitter, every out, every inning for the next 5 hours, 30 minutes.

When the Lookouts staggered away with a 2-1 victory in a game that was only two innings shy of the team record (set in 1919), the 70-year-old Ward was still going strong to wrap up the win.

Less than nine hours later, he would board the bus along with the team for a four-hour trip to Montgomery and provide all 10 innings of the following night’s game – also a Lookouts’ win. In fact, with an overall record of 69-37, the 2017 Lookouts have been one of the most dominant teams Ward has ever broadcast.

“I think this is a working-man’s team; a blue-collar type of team,” Ward says. “It’s a team that each member has to rely on the others as each inning unfolds.

“Take the series in Birmingham – the first game, pitching, hitting and defense were pretty close to perfect. But in the second and third game, one of those parts was missing – in the first, offense, in the second, pitching.

“But then in the fourth game, it all came back together again and we win easily.

“When one phase of this team breaks down, it hurts the whole team,” he adds. “There’s no superstar on this team. And if there was, you wouldn’t know it.”

But there is no mistaking that the cream of the Twins’ up-and-down farm system is firmly in Chattanooga. No less than six of the Twins’ top 10 prospects (ranked by MLB.com) have been with the Lookouts this season. That list has grown with the addition of former Yankee phenom Zack Littell, No. 13 in the Twins’ revamped top 30.

“Make no mistake. They know the game,” Ward observes. “But they’re still learning. That includes learning that they didn’t know as much about the game as they thought they did, but are learning it now. The biggest thing to me is that they’ve learned how to improvise, change during the game rather than play the same game, a stoic game, every night.”

Having also been there for all 21 innings Saturday, we had to ask.

“Would you like to change any of your answers about loving this game?” we ask, half-seriously.

“Not a thing,” Ward says, totally serious.

Ward, whose “hobby” is broadcasting the UTC women’s basketball games, home and away, over the winter, has earned nearly every honor that can come the way of a minor-league broadcaster. In 2005, he was inducted into the Greater Chattanooga Sports Hall of Fame; more recently, he was added to the short list of the elite by being named to the Tennessee Radio Hall of Fame.

Still, night after night, the energy is there. Even after 21 innings.

“The people who are most important to me, my family, have stuck with me through thick and thin and understand it when I miss an anniversary, a dance recital, softball games, birthday parties – because they know what passion I have in dealing with this game,” Ward says. “This isn’t a hobby, and these aren’t toys. This is my life.

“Of course, you’re tired. I was tired with I was 40, doing this. Also, when I was 50, and when I was 60. Now that I’m 70, I just re-energize each night. Some rest, something to eat and I let the game itself energize me.”

Having served as Lookouts’ announcer for one uneventful season in 1985, Ward had moved on to a college football and basketball gig in South Carolina. But the Lookouts’ job proved to be a tough one to fill; Larry’s handpicked replacement, Bob Behler, left after the 1987 season to begin a run as Boise State’s football play-by-play man that he still maintains today.

He was replaced by veteran Jim Kelch, who did such good work during the tumultuous 1988 season that ended with the Lookouts first Southern League championship that he moved up to the Cincinnati Reds’ Class AAA club in Louisville.

Kelch would eventually crack the big league Reds’ broadcast crew, but his replacement – a local sports personality who badly misjudged the time required to do the job – flamed out almost instantly.

Then-Lookouts general manager Bill Lee did not hesitate. Ward answered the call, saved the 1989 season, and never bothered to leave. The man and the job proved to be a perfect fit. His wife of 37 years, Nelle, became a teacher in the local school system until her retirement in 2016. The night before this interview, Larry did his job, as always, on his anniversary.

As Larry related to me in my book “Baseball in Chattanooga,” he brought his family to Chattanooga that season under duress. “But they soon came to love Chattanooga as much as I did after a couple of seasons.”

But eight years ago, reality intruded on Ward’s life and job. He actually suffered a mini-stroke in the off-season, requiring a period of rehab and the insertion of a stent in a blood vessel near his heart. It was as big of a wake-up call as you might imagine.

“I had a bad habit. I smoked for 40 years,” Ward admits. “But the good Lord knocked on the door and said, ‘this is a warning sign. Stop.’ And I did, cold turkey.”

That personal crisis was followed by two more very painful reminders of his mortality – a ball that fractured five ribs, then a fateful fishing trip that left him with his ankle shattered. “But you can’t let things like that slow you down.”

In his time as Lookouts announcer, he’s had occasion to broadcast three no-hitters by the Lookouts (and one against them), seen a slew of batting champions, and deal with no less than 15 different managers. The list includes an eventual major league skipper (Jim Tracy), minor league lifers who thrive on developing young players (Pat Kelly, Phillip Wellman, Razor Shines) and more than a few washouts. The current skipper, Jake Mauer, is one of the good ones.

“Big mistakes, people making waves, do not bother him,” Ward says of the skipper, who is in his first season in Chattanooga. “Those things stay in his office or get worked out in practice early the next day. There are no flare-ups, clubhouse blowups. Jake says that they know what they’re supposed to do. I do not need to remind them, tell them anything because they know exactly what they’re supposed to do.”

Credit to that, both Mauer and Ward say, goes to the terrific chemistry between Mauer and his coaching staff. Pitching coach Ivan Arteaga has been working with Mauer off and on for a decade while hitting coach Jose Valentin returns to Chattanooga after managing the Lookouts for a season during the Dodgers tenure of affiliation.

“Let me tell you something. This is one of the greatest combinations of coaches we’ve ever had, including the trainer, the strength coach, the video coach,” Ward points out. “Even our guys not in uniform know exactly what to do, what is expected of them each night.”

With the growth of the internet as a medium for broadcasting games, radio stations are falling by the wayside on an annual basis, it seems. At least three stations that have carried the Lookouts over the years no longer exist. Ward has adapted easily enough, carrying a compact laptop as part of his gear instead of a back-breaking box full of tubes, fans and a hundred things that could go wrong with them.

“Baseball is made for radio, and you can’t just jerk the rug out from under Joe Blow, who doesn’t own an iPhone,” Ward says. “There are people out there, believe it not, who don’t have them, and a lot of them are elderly, shut-ins. You can’t take it away from a blind person, a physically challenged person, or the guy who’s working third shift. If you do that, you’re going to miss a huge audience.

“A broadcast is a three-hour commercial for your product, the ballclub itself, or your upcoming promotions like Used Car Night,” he continues. “Now, there are people who don’t want to invest in the newer technology. There are two or three (play-by-play) guys in the league that use computers, and we use one to send our broadcast back to the station and to MiLB by computer.

“You don’t have time for a computer if you’re in your car,” Ward adds.

As it stands now, as long as the Lookouts will have him, we will have Larry Ward bringing us the games.

“I learned it the hard way, I learned the way you’re supposed to do things,” he says as he donned his headset for another night’s broadcast. “Hard work never hurt anybody. It doesn’t necessarily make you rich, but if you enjoy what you do and work hard at it and do the best you can do ... that’s enough.”