Wednesday, March 26, 2008
It's springtime in Jackson. The days are getting longer, the birds louder, and the shirt sleeves shorter. For the diehard baseball fans among us, this can only mean one thing: Only a week remained before the Mississippi Braves' first home game at Trustmark Park on April 8.
As opening day approaches, the players kick their calisthenics and strength training into high gear while the grounds crews coax the field into geometric perfection. An endless stream of high schoolers flows through Trustmark's administrative offices, dropping off applications for jobs as peanut vendors and ushers. But one member of the Braves squad is absolutely ready to get started.
This year, Ben Ingram will be the voice of the Mississippi Braves, the team's lead play-by-play announcer for all home and away games, broadcast on WZRX 1590 AM. On a recent almost-springtime afternoon, we met for a visit at the park. Weaving through a group of aspiring popcorn salesmen, Ingram made his way up to the broadcast room, where he spoke of his twin passions—baseball and radio—and his eagerness for that opening pitch. He's young, only 28, but speaks in a deep, confident voice. His words are deliberate and unhesitating, with a slightly aggressive core coated in layers of good-natured congeniality and enthusiasm. His gregarious gift makes him a natural fit for announcing, he explains. "I've always been very comfortable talking to anyone, I've always felt this is where I'm supposed to be."
As an announcer, Ingram's task extends far beyond narrating the sequence of strikes, hits and home runs. He must recreate for his listeners the full experience of being at the game. He takes a seat in the broadcaster booth, and looks through the glass windows onto the field. "You want there to be an atmosphere where the people at home are feeling the same atmosphere as the people at the ballpark," he says.
To achieve this, Ingram uses evocative language appropriate for each event. Every home run is different: One might be a "fast screamer" over the left-field wall so fast it leaves a "vapor trail" behind it, another a "majestic towering shot" that hangs over the stadium before dropping into the stands. Getting the right image is just as challenging as connecting with a fastball.
"You know when you hit one right on the head … that you described it perfectly," Ingram says.
Silence is also important. Ingram adds that a good announcer must know "when to let the broadcast breathe, and just let the sound of the ballpark come through the microphone."
Radio holds a unique power for Ingram. Although he admits that television is more glamorous, better paying and often easier, there's a special experience to radio that cannot be replicated through other mediums. As a kid, he kept a radio under his bed that he would listen to late at night, and still recalls the initial wonder that he could pick up AM signals from St. Louis, Dallas, Chicago and Cincinnati.
"It just blew my mind that I was sitting in a bed in Jackson, Mississippi, and I could turn on a radio and hear that; it felt that I was exploring in a way," Ingram says in a reverent tone.
Ingram retains his love of radio today, although now he's on the other end of the wires as a guest in the homes and cars of his listeners. His already-animated face lights up even more when he talks about the personal bond he forges with his audience.
"Instead of me just calling a game, I like for people to think they can just turn it on, and it's like I'm just sitting there in their living room talking baseball with them," he says.
Below the broadcasting booth, the grounds crews finish hosing down the infield, and the parking lot empties out as the stadium staff workers leave in pursuit of quick lunches. But Ingram has more to tell. He talks about his father—who played college ball—and characterizes his youth as a time when he "ate, drank, slept and breathed baseball."
Ingram always knew that he didn't have much of a future as a player, but that just encouraged him to channel his passion in other directions. As a 9-year-old, he watched ballgames with the TV muted, calling the game himself into a tape recorder. Later he would replay the tape to analyze his performance and make notes on what to do better the next time.
Ingram began his career in broadcasting when he was in high school. He started doing play-by-play while still a senior at Madison Central High School, serving as the second announcer—the "color guy" in the parlance of sports broadcasting—for Hinds Community College football games and local high school events. At Mississippi College, Ingram found the time to earn a degree in communications in between announcing Choctaw football, baseball and basketball contests, and he worked briefly for the now-defunct Jackson Senators. After spending a year in Oregon with the Eugene Emeralds, he returned to Jackson in 2007 as the color guy for Mississippi Braves announcer Brian Eubanks. This year he's in the No. 1 spot.
Although baseball takes precedence, Ingram avidly follows all sports. During the day, he works at AM 620 WJDX, "The Score Sports Radio." He co-hosts the morning sports hour, and has his own show, "Mississippi Sports This Afternoon," from 4 to 5 p.m. on weekdays.
Like the Braves ballplayers, Ingram also has his sights set on reaching the majors. As he puts it: "Nobody goes into this and says, 'I want to be a AA broadcaster and stop there.' … Everybody has dreams and aspirations of making it to the big leagues."
But the pure pleasure of baseball transcends teams and leagues, and Ingram's excitement to be announcing for the Braves is palpable. "With the weather warming up, and getting to work at the ballpark every day," Ingram says with anticipation, "… this is something I look forward to every year."
The hour grows late, and soon it's time to wrap up. On the way out, Ingram lingers for a moment by the stands. He'll be back in a few weeks for opening day, and his chance to perfectly describe the season's first, unique, home run.
I met Ben at the USM-Ole Miss game Tuesday night (which USM won!) and he's a really cool guy. He has a great future ahead of him.
- golden eagle