Sitting in the Chicago Cubs radio booth last week with Pat Hughes as he munched on popcorn during his one-inning break, our conversation turned to the baseball grind.
Announcers, like players and coaches, are working almost every game during the 162-game season, taking long flights on getaway day, arriving in new towns in the middle of the night and reporting to the ballpark the next day several hours before the game.
Lack of sleep is a given for six months of the year, and some days are harder to get through than others.
Yet in the 27 years I’ve known Hughes since his arrival at WGN-AM 720 in 1996, I couldn’t recall seeing him in a bad mood at the ballpark.
Was I mistaken, or was Hughes just able to disguise a bad day better than the rest of us?
“I try to check reality at the door,” he said. “Because this is like a fantasy world. It’s a great form of escapism. I know it is for me, and it was for Harry (Caray) and I know it was for (Ron) Santo and for a lot of people in the game.
“When I get here, I’m happy to be here, and I’ve had so many good partners. Santo and I laughed every day. (Ron) Coomer is wonderful. Al McGuire in basketball, and (Bob) Uecker in Milwaukee. Harry Caray was good to me.
“So I’ve had so many fun people to be around, and this place, this ballpark is a fun place to work. It’s magic. So why be in a bad mood ever?”
Hughes’ approach to work — and though many believe describing a baseball game is a dream job, it is still a lot of work — has helped him become one of the premier broadcasters of our time. As he accepted the Ford C. Frick Award on Saturday from the Baseball Hall of Fame for excellence in broadcasting, Cubs fans across the nation nodded in unison at an honor long overdue.
In his acceptance speech Saturday at the ceremony in Cooperstown, N.Y., Hughes described his first experience as a play-by-play man, sitting on the bench of his college basketball team pretending to call the action.
“The first listening audience consisted of the other benchwarmers on my team,” he said. “Sort of an inglorious beginning.”
That inglorious beginning led to a career every young broadcaster dreams of — calling eight no-hitters, Kerry Wood’s 20-strikeout epic and the Cubs’ clinching win in Game 7 of the 2016 World Series. Hughes thanked his family, the Ricketts family, Cubs president of business operations Crane Kenney and everyone from famous partner Bob Uecker to Cubs radio engineers such as Matt Boltz.
He thanked McGuire, the former Marquette coach who Hughes said taught him how to hitchhike, and Santo, who“clicked immediately” with Hughes when he came to Chicago in 1996. That led into the legendary story of how Santo’s toupee briefly caught fire after touching an overhead heater at Shea Stadium.
Santo asked afterward how it looked. “I lied,” Hughes said, telling Santo: “I didn’t think it looked that bad to me.” He then compared Santo’s singed hairpiece to a divot in the grass by golfer Phil Mickelson.
Hughes also lauded current partner Ron Coomer, saying: “As long as I’m doing radio play-by-play for the Cubs, I want to have Ron Coomer next to me.” He saved his final tribute to Cubs fans who listened to his broadcasts over the years.
“What an extraordinary group of people you are,” Hughes said, adding Cubs fans “make me feel like I’m part of your family.”
Hughes ended his speech with the hope that one day he’ll be able to repeat his most famous call: “The Chicago Cubs win the World Series!”
The championship season aside, Hughes has watched and described more bad baseball than contending teams over his 27 years in Chicago. But he never let the Cubs’ play affect his approach to calling a game.
Hughes still does his pregame homework, treats every game with the same level of importance and obviously enjoys the byplay with Coomer. The two can sometimes go off on tangents, such as a discussion this season of the Bob Dylan’s classic “Tangled up in Blue.” Listeners can stay informed while the discussion veers elsewhere, like sitting down at a dinner table with friends and family.
When we sat together in the radio booth last week, Hughes admitted he was a little overwhelmed when he came to Chicago. He recalled a moment in 1996, his first season broadcasting the Cubs, when the magnitude of the position really hit him.
“It was a Cubs-Cardinals game, early in the season, and Harry joined Ronnie and me in the booth,” he said. “The three of us are working, and I come back from a commercial and say, ‘Along with Cubs legend Ron Santo and Hall of Famer Harry Caray, it’s Pat Hughes at Wrigley Field.’
“And then I froze. I thought, ‘What did I just say? How did I get here? And maybe most importantly, how hard do I have to work to stay here? Because I like it here.’ ”
Things worked out well. Nearly three decades later, Hughes still likes it here. And the good part is he’ll be here for the foreseeable future.
At 68, Hughes knows he’s in the back end of his career, like the high-leverage innings at the end of a game. But he has not slowed down and has no intentions of leaving the booth anytime soon.
Many Cubs fans recall that Caray noticeably slipped in his later years on the job for WGN-Ch. 9. He had suffered a stroke in 1987, and by the mid-90s was criticized in the papers for rambling or mispronouncing players’ names. But Caray continued broadcasting until he died in 1998 at age 78. In what would be his final print interview, he told me the Cubs offered him the job as long as he wanted.
“I said, ‘It’s my job as long as I’m capable of doing it. If I’m not doing the job, I want you to take me off it,’ ” Caray said of the conversation. “But this ‘mispronouncing names’ (stuff) is such a crock. I really do it intentionally at times, just to see somebody mention it in his column.”
Caray was a legend by the time he came to Chicago to broadcast Sox games in the early 1970s, and his popularity exploded after moving to the WGN superstation, aided by the Cubs’ 1984 season. Hughes made his legend on the North Side, where he’ll always be associated with the Santo years and the 2016 championship.
After a long, celebratory weekend in New York, Hughes will be back at work this week when the Cubs take on the White Sox on the South Side.
The voice will be the same. The preparation hasn’t changed. It’s another day of bringing you a baseball game.
Check reality at the door. And enjoy.