Dan Dickerson grew up a Detroit Tigers fan, but most of his broadcaster experience was in other sports.
When he got a job at the legendary Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell, he wasn’t exactly sure what to expect.
“My first year was 2000. They had been trading for Juan Gonzalez, there was a new ballpark, and they were trying to make a splash. Remember, I’d never played minor league baseball before. I had never played baseball before. I didn’t know if I would still do it like Baseball after 162 games, ”said Dickerson.
The team started the season – and Dickerson’s career as a baseball editor – with a 9-23 record. Things were about to get ugly.
So Dickerson turned to his Hall of Fame partner for advice.
“He said, ‘Don’t forget, there is always someone to listen. Give them a reason to listen to the game that day. You might see a good game between two bad teams. You can see great individual achievement. You may see something you’ve never seen before. ‘”
More than two decades later, Dickerson’s enthusiasm for baseball, which is conveyed to thousands of devoted listeners every summer, remains unbroken.
Dickerson, 63, said he fully anticipates calling a pennant race this summer, just three years away from one of the worst teams in modern baseball history. But his daily approach won’t change.
“Yes, it’s more fun when they win,” he said in an interview from his Detroit suburb this week. “But there wasn’t a day – even in 2019 when they hit 47-114 – that I ever thought, ‘Oh, I don’t want to go to the ballpark.'”
Dickerson spoke to MLive about baseball, the future of radio, and his thoughts on the tigers. An edited version of the conversation is below.
When I talk to people about why they love listening to your radio shows, a lot of fans mention your natural enthusiasm without sounding forced or wrong.
Dickerson: “The nice thing about my job is that I can learn the game on a different level every day from the people who know it best. That’s why I liked this season (2021) so much, because AJ Hinch was ready to share his knowledge.
“I love to watch baseball. I love trying to pass what I’ve learned to fans. I love the constant challenge of describing things well and painting a picture. It’s a challenge for me and it will always be there. And it’s fun to do well. But there is never a bad day at the ballpark. “
You mentioned AJ Hinch so I’ll skip that question. You have worked with many different managers in your career. What is your impression of him so far?
Dickerson: “I’ll put it this way. I’ve been conducting manager interviews for 20, 22 years. This is the first time I’ve transcribed every single interview. Because there is always a nugget in there. My questions are very simple and then his answer is long and detailed and insightful. That’s what I appreciate so much.
“All of the managers I’ve worked with have been great on different levels. Though Brad Ausmus reminded me that he hated doing the show. Four years later he says, ‘Do you know I hate that?’ Yes I know.
“They’re all smart, aren’t they? But AJ doesn’t want you to believe that he’s smarter than you. He just wants you to know the game at his level and understand all of the things that go into his decisions. I found it fascinating. And it was just one level of communication with a manager that I didn’t have before. “
You mentioned that you enjoy learning new things as part of your job and then being able to share this with the audience. Anyone who listens to the shows knows that you have embraced a lot of modern analysis and are working really hard to explain some of these advanced concepts in a way that is understandable for all. Were you resistant to some of these new ideas initially when they clashed with conventional baseball wisdom, or were you an early adopter when it came to Sabermetrics?
Dickerson: “I was an early adopter. Just because of Bill James. I mean, I’ve read the summaries. I still have copies from the 1980s in my library. It was so eye opening to me. I’ve always been a statistician. That’s why I think I loved baseball so much as a kid. I calculated ERAs with a slide rule.
“I like that everyone tries to get better at how we rate guys and what makes sense. But that’s the constant challenge of figuring out what makes sense and then getting it on stage in a way that isn’t just thrown at people with lots of numbers. “
That’s the hard part. Not every listener will know all the jargon – or even want to know all the jargon. Are you getting a setback?
Dickerson: “I know that there are some fans who don’t know what the hit percentage is, although I think they are slowly getting used to OPS. Still, I always say “based on plus slugging percentage”. I’m not just dropping ‘OPS’.
“I really didn’t get a setback. I’m not looking for feedback because I’m trying to stay away from Twitter, except when I’m tweeting things. Still, I get on and off.
“It seems like people appreciate it. You always remind yourself that there will be a bigger segment that doesn’t care. But maybe you just taught them that an .830 OPS is above average, especially for a shortstop that has a good glove on. This is a really valuable player. If you can keep it that simple, I think people will appreciate that. I got good feedback and not a lot of headwind. But then I don’t look for it. “
That’s probably a good idea.
Dickerson: “I think it was last year when there was a thread about a phone call or something and most of the people were friendly and this guy steps in and says, ‘What I notice is how many times (Dickerson) says’ what to me stands out ‘.’ (laughs) That was a valid point! I don’t think I have said it since.
“We all get stuck in our little furrows. I thought that was pretty funny. “
You have spoken in the past about how much you love the radio medium and how deeply rooted radio broadcasts are in baseball culture. Given some of the troubling things we’ve seen in other markets, do you ever worry about the future of play-by-play broadcasting?
Dickerson: “I think it will always be there. I think MLB Advanced Media is huge in that regard. They have Tigers fans all over the country and for $ 2.99 a month they can hear not only the Tigers show but shows from all over the country.
“As long as people are outside in the summer, driving cars, going to family celebrations. As long as people enjoy sitting outside on the porch on a summer night, we’ll be listening to the ball game.
“I understand the concern. What Toronto did last year was amazing when they did simulcasts for TV and radio with the TV shows. But they stopped it, which is good. “
They had a historic call last summer when Miguel Cabrera hit his 500th home run. You will likely have another one this spring when it hits 3,000. Is that something you think about beforehand? Or do you just let it happen spontaneously as it happens?
Dickerson: “One thing I’ve learned over the years is that you can’t schedule a call. You know the call is repeated a lot. When they won (a playoff spot) in Kansas City in 2006, I remember sort of writing it down. And when I heard it again, I thought, ‘Well, that sounds conserved.’ I think I evolved to have an idea of what you are going to say, but you really want to be responsive to the moment.
“As 500 approached, I knew I just wanted to replace what I would normally say – ‘Gone!’ – with ‘500!’ But after that, I just had to be able to react to the moment, react to it, describe it, get around the bases and go into the dugout to get the bow.
“There is absolutely nothing more you can do than react to the moment and then hopefully add a little bit of context or a little bit of color.
“During the (Cabreras) countdown you wanted to make this really good call, even for the ones before 500. One day our intern, Luke Sloan, walked into the hall knowing that I love those toasted almonds and like to snack.” Things during the game. But peanuts and nuts should not be eaten while playing as they can easily get caught in your throat. So I just nibble on those delicious almonds that he picked up below, hot from the grill, and then (Cabrera) comes up and something gets stuck in my throat. I drink water and press the cough button to clear my throat. Fortunately, he didn’t do anything, but I think, ‘That was the stupidest thing I’ve ever done in my life.’ “
That is a good transition to the next question. In this day and age, if you slip or choke while trying to announce Miguel Cabrera’s homerun it will go viral before you leave the park for the day. Is it stressful if your job is to speak more or less spontaneously for three or four hours?
Dickerson: “I think I always felt this way, even when it exploded on social media.
“You notice early on that there are days when certain simple words don’t come to mind. You know, the word “yesterday” becomes “the day before the day we’re living right now”.
“You will fail yourself, you will cough sometimes. There’s going to be a highlight and I’m screwing it up … social media changes things, but really, I’ve felt this way the whole time. Just don’t screw up the big calls. That’s why I was happy about the 500 call. It’s like, ‘OK, I didn’t screw it up.’ “
We both know Detroit in particular, and Michigan in general, is a great baseball market. There have been some tough years lately, but the fan base really started awakening last summer. What do you see in store for 2022?
Dickerson: “I always think back to that night in July, which was like a second opening day when they got 30,000 (fans). It just reminded you how fun it is to be back at the ballpark. And it reminded us of how it used to be in that ballpark when it was over 25,000 a night.
“Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson are likely to be impact players in 2022. In my lifetime – and I’ve been a tiger fan since I was born in 1958. I don’t think they ever had two chances of success this caliber comes at the same time.
“I think they’ll just show as the season goes on that this is a team that will be on the hunt. You will be fighting for a division title. I think the fans will realize it, and I think that in midsummer you will have these consistently large crowds at Comerica. There is nothing like it. “