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Monday, October 21, 2019

Angels’ Victor Rojas, Mark Gubicza are the best announcing team in MLB

Victor Rojas Mark Gubicza

Baseball fans lucky enough to enjoy the announcers for their favorite team know just how special of a feeling that can be. MLB teams play 162 games in a season, meaning you are inviting the announcers into your home for around three hours a day, nearly half the year. If you love your team’s announcers, it’s like gaining extra siblings whose company you enjoy. But if you dislike them, the result is similar to having family you despise; you’re forced to be around them daily and have little choice.

Los Angeles Angels fans have been lucky enough to have the duo of Victor Rojas and Mark Gubicza calling the team’s games on TV the past 10 years. The two have developed such strong on-air chemistry that they’ve become the best announcing team in baseball. Their fans seem to agree.

When Awful Announcing first ran its MLB Local TV Announcers Rankings in 2014, Rojas and Gubicza finished 9th. They finished 9th again in 2016, moved up to 8th in 2017, and in 2018, they continued to climb the rankings, going up to 6th.

In 2019, they finished 6th again and received an “A” grade from 39 percent of voters — their highest ever. They had the 5th-highest percent of A ratings among all teams. And of the announcing teams that finished ahead of them, only two had a lower percentage of Fs, meaning very few fans truly despise their calls. In sports, that’s not easy to do.

Even though the rankings say there are five teams better than them, Rojas and Gubicza are the best announcing team in baseball in my opinion. What makes them the best? The two deliver a narrative-free and agenda-free broadcast that is full of enjoyable conversation and insight. Gubicza has also turned into baseball’s version of Tony Romo with his ability to joke around and predict plays before they happen, completely enriching the viewer’s experience.

Full disclosure: I am an Angels fan and watch them on TV frequently. But just being a fan of a team doesn’t mean you automatically like your broadcasters; it just gives you more exposure to them. I have worked as a sound editor at a national sports radio network, exposing me to the radio and TV broadcasts for multiple teams. I’ve also been able to listen to more announcing teams through MLB Network regional games and the baseball package and gotten a proper feel for which ones form the best teams.

This is the 10th season for Rojas and Gubicza calling Angels games on TV. Rojas, 51, got the job under difficult circumstances. He was hired to replace Rory Markas, who died from a heart attack in January 2010. Gubicza had already been hired to work as an analyst with Markas, so he and Rojas were not the initially planned team. Regardless, their pairing could not have worked out better.

Gubicza, 56, was a pitcher for the Kansas City Royals from 1984-1996 and won the 1985 World Series. He finished his career with the Angels in 1997. Rojas grew up in Kansas because his father Cookie played for the Royals from 1970-1977. Both Cookie and Gubicza were All-Stars for the Royals and are members of the Kansas City Royals Hall of Fame. Not only did Gubicza and Victor have the Royals connection, but Victor also pitched in the minor leagues before going into broadcasting, so both see the game similarly as former pitchers.

I spoke with the two to learn how they developed their chemistry, styles, broadcasting philosophies, and how they dealt with the tragic death of Tyler Skaggs this season.

ON-AIR CHEMISTRY

Beyond just having their Kansas City and pitching connection, Rojas and Gubicza have other similarities that allow them to connect well. They each grew up with three brothers, have similar tastes in food, and have the same preferences in other sports they enjoy aside from baseball. Plus, they genuinely like each other.

“We knew we loved talking baseball — that was rather easy. But we have very similar tastes as far as even food and sports in general, so I think that’s part of why it’s always been able been easy to transition during baseball broadcasts,” Gubicza told me.

“It’s two guys who spend a lot of time together, going to the ballpark, at the ballpark, after the game, at the restaurant eating. We are constantly together. It’s enjoyable and it doesn’t get old,” Rojas says. “And talking with Gubie doesn’t get old because there’s a genuine like for each other, and hopefully that comes across on the air.”

Rojas spoke glowingly about Gubicza, whom he affectionately describes as a “mayor” in terms of personality style.

“Gubie’s one of the best guys in the world. He’s easygoing. I joke with him all the time that he’s constantly running for office because he’s that shaking hands, kissing babies type of personality. And it’s a good balance for me. I’m more of a nuts-and-bolts type. I have a routine that I like to keep,” says Rojas.

When told that Rojas described him as being mayor-like, Gubicza laughed and acknowledged he is a people person. He believes growing up with so many brothers and in close proximity to so many neighbors living in a row home in Philadelphia left him with no choice but to be social. And whether it’s sending a fan a direct message, stopping by their seat at a game, or shouting them out on air, he’s happy to do what he can to connect with people and make their day.

“I think it goes back to the way I was raised. My parents said it takes no effort to be a nice person, and it takes a lot of effort to be a bad person. So I live by that,” says Gubicza.

Their strong chemistry comes through when they broadcast games. They have easy conversations where nothing feels forced. And unlike a couple on a first date that constantly bounces from topic to topic, they’re so sure of themselves that Rojas frequently takes lengthy pauses, allowing the game to “breathe” in his words. It has a calming effect on fans; there is no negative energy or nervousness. It also makes fans feel like even when the team is struggling, things will be OK.

AN ENTERTAINMENT BUSINESS

As much as Rojas and Gubicza love baseball, they both recognize that what they do is part of the entertainment business.

“If you think that today’s game is about the nuts and bolts of a broadcast, the balls and strikes, you’re absolutely insane. It’s absolute entertainment business, and you better figure that out quickly, because the viewer certainly will,” Rojas believes.

“I think especially in today’s day and age, when there are so many viewing choices, we are truly in the entertainment business. If you’re tuning into baseball to watch three and a half hours with the way the game is played today, you are a masochist,” he says jokingly. “You are looking for the people who are talking with you to kind of bring you along, teach you about the game, and have some fun. These games have become very mundane from a baseball perspective. It’s just a completely different game than what it was 3-4 years ago, let alone 10-15 years ago.”

Gubicza sees things similarly and believes taking a light approach is beneficial.

“I love to try and entertain. We’ll poke fun at each other quite a bit, and neither one of us has an issue with that — which is good, because some people don’t like to be the butt of a joke. But we’re both good with that. I always think it’s funny when you can make fun of yourself.”

His belief about trying to entertain is apparent when it comes to the little things.

“For keys of the game, I figured let’s try something different. Instead of your standard ‘pitch inside’ or ‘keep runners on,’ I usually find a song or music band that correlates to the city we’re in. So those kinds of things are fun.”

SECRETS TO SUCCESS

Finding one’s own style in broadcasting is not easy.

“I think now, 17 years in, I’m a little more comfortable in my skin. I think it took me a long time to try and figure out who I was as a broadcaster,” Rojas says.

Rojas began his broadcasting career with the Newark Bears in the Atlantic League. Two years later he was calling Arizona Diamondbacks games on the radio, and then he spent time with the Texas Rangers before landing with the Angels.

Early in his career, Rojas says, “I had my notebook full of stuff, nuggets to work into the game, and I found myself consumed by the nuggets and forgetting what was happening on the field. That’s when I realized that’s not for me. For me, it’s looking at the game. I trust in my abilities to see what’s happening on the field and be able to describe it and/or give my opinion on it based on my experience growing up in a clubhouse and playing the game in college and professionally.

“Other than the little nuggets here and there, I’d rather just talk about the game. I guess ‘conversationalist’ is probably a pretty good term to describe the way I feel like I do games.

“My goal is to make the viewer feel like they are just sitting in on a conversation between me and Gubie.”

Gubicza has a two-part philosophy.

“My theory is, and I learned this from way back in the day when I first started doing shows on FOX, my goal has always been: educate and entertain. I’ve embraced the analytic world in baseball. You kind of mix that in there but you don’t want to go overboard with it. Some fans will love that, but with others, you’ll lose them.

“Scott Ackerson, who did the NFL on FOX pregame show, told me when you’re doing TV, don’t say ‘that was a great home run. We know that. We can see that. Explain to me why he was able to do that,’ and that’s what I try to do.”

They both prefer to stay away from pre-determined narratives and instead react to what is happening during that particular game.

“I’m just not a fan of getting onto a storyline and just top of the first, you just empty the bag. It happens so often. I think it’s kind of important to lead the audience along for a ride. You empty the bag in that first two innings, what’s left? And then you’re making stuff up and/or repeating stuff,” says Rojas.

Gubicza says that is particularly the case when it comes to sharing statistics.

“Bottom line, the game is what you’re supposed to be talking about. You don’t want to regurgitate a bunch of numbers when it’s not related to what’s happening in that game. So you have the numbers, but then you let the game provide the information you need. You can’t just rely on what you’re reading and know the numbers; you have to rely on what you’re seeing that particular day and what you’re seeing on the field.”

Their conversations are natural and don’t have a rehearsed feel. That is by design.

“Nine times out of ten, when I’m striking up a conversation with Gubie, it’s completely off-the-cuff. Because I like to get him off-guard so I can get an honest answer out of him,” says Rojas.

GUBICZA’S TONY ROMO-LIKE PREDICTIVE POWERS

Tony Romo quickly developed a reputation for being the best analyst in the NFL, largely owing to his ability to predict plays. Gubicza has been doing that for years on Angels broadcasts and seems to only be getting better.

The day we spoke for our interview, the Angels were taking on the Red Sox in Boston. When Mike Trout came to bat in the sixth inning, Gubicza noted that Rick Porcello had gotten the two-time MVP out on an inside pitch the previous at-bat. Gubie suggested that Trout should “cheat” by looking for a fastball on the inner part of the plate, knowing that Porcello was likely to try and go back to the same spot where he had success the previous at-bat. That’s exactly what Porcello did, and Trout was looking for it just as Gubie was. The result was Trout’s first career home run at Fenway Park, and a pretty cool moment for Gubicza.

The day before, he and Rojas noted how Red Sox DH J.D. Martinez was letting pitches travel deep into the zone so he could hit them to the opposite field. Next thing you know, Martinez homered to the opposite field.

Gubicza is so plugged-in to the game that he frequently calls pitch types and/or pitch locations before they happen. In a game a week earlier, he suggested Jaime Barria should go back to his fastball up-and-in two pitches before the Angels pitcher did so to get a strikeout.

How did he acquire such a skill? It’s been a long time in the works.

Gubie says that between his starts when he pitched, he used to watch hitters. He began to look at where a batter’s hands were, how they were gripping the bat, if they were moving their feet, and whether they were confident based on their body language. He says he can look down from the broadcast booth to see all that.

“That determines for me where I’m going to guess ahead as far as what pitch should be thrown, what they’re going to try to do, and where the hitter is going to try to hit the ball.

“Hitters are like a walking library. Every at-bat, every swing, every pitch. Hitters, pitchers, fielders give you plenty of evidence. Am I right all the time? No, but before a pitch is thrown, I want to give the viewer an opportunity to look out for something rather than just say ‘wow, what a great swing.’ You can do that, but I’d rather be a risk-taker when it comes to that stuff.”

Gubicza sees similarities between quarterbacks and pitchers as analysts. He notes that quarterbacks have to read defenses and set up their offense. Similarly, “as a pitcher, you have to know all those things — defense, offense, and obviously what you’re trying to do on the mound.”

He also enjoys the Romo comparison.

“[Romo] is a likable human being and a risk-taker. If you’re not willing to say things and guess, then it’s not worth going out and doing what we’re doing.”

TYLER SKAGGS

On July 1, tragedy struck the Angels when pitcher Tyler Skaggs unexpectedly passed away. The team’s scheduled game against the Texas Rangers that day was postponed. Surprisingly, the Angels agreed to play the following day.

“The day after, I didn’t want to do the game,” Rojas says. “I think the Rangers were surprised the Angels decided to play the day after. I just know in my heart, I had no desire to call the game. It just felt weird. It just felt really weird to show any type of emotion, any joyous type of emotion, the day after Tyler passed. I was numb. I don’t remember much about it, to be honest with you, because there were so many emotions going through us.”

The Angels won their first game after Skaggs’ death, and went 2-3 in the ensuing five games.

And then came the magical game.

In their first home game since Skaggs’ passing, nearly two weeks after the pitcher’s death, the Angels threw a combined no-hitter and beat the Seattle Mariners 13-0.

“At no point were we even thinking about the game as far as a no-hitter,” Rojas admits. “I think around the seventh inning we were kind of looking at each other wondering, ‘is this happening?’ It wasn’t until the first out of the eighth inning that we were like, ‘this is pretty cool.’ But come on, Felix Pena and Taylor Cole on this night?”

When the Angels got the final out, Rojas’ enthusiasm over the moment shined through.

“As (Luis) Rengifo bobbled the ball on the final out, I think I got a little excited and wanted to yell at him, that’s why I think you hear me kind of exclaim it the way it did. ‘The Angels have no-hit the Seattle Mariners.’ And then it was like this huge weight off our shoulders. And just complete emotion.”

Rojas went quiet on the telecast, allowing the visual images of the players’ reactions to tell the story. He was silent for nearly two minutes.

“I let the game breathe because I didn’t want anyone to hear me crying on the air. That’s the truth of it,” Rojas admits. “I didn’t have anything else to say. I couldn’t have added anything else. But I certainly didn’t want people listening to hear me sniffling on the air, Gubie and I with tears in our eyes …

“I didn’t say a word until they gathered around the mound, I believe. And then they put the jerseys on the mound … and there was nothing else I could say. There isn’t anything anyone could say. It was surreal. It’s still surreal to this day. I can’t believe it happened. That is by far the greatest thing you will see in sports this year, no doubt.”

Rojas called the no-hitter against the Mariners the most connected he felt to a game, as well as the “most complete, fulfilling, joyous, saddest moment” he’s experienced as a broadcaster.

This wasn’t Rojas’ first experience in broadcasting following a death, either. He was a host at MLB Network and was asked to come in early on April 9, 2009 because former Angels pitcher Nick Adenhardt had died.

“There’s no manual for what to do in those situations. You have to lean on your instincts in those situations … It’s still hard to talk about. It’s like you lose a member of your family. You just kind of lean on each other and go through that process.”

Rojas says he looked to his family for comfort after Skaggs’ death and hopes he was able to provide the same comfort to grieving Angels fans.

“I don’t know what I said or how I said it. I just hope I comforted and made Angels fans feel like in the grand scheme of things, we’re going to be OK. We’re going to get through this together.”

THE FAMILY

FOX Sports West, the regional TV home of the Angels, won a Los Angeles Emmy for their telecast of Albert Pujols’ 3,000th hit game in 2018. That was one of the rare times when the broadcasters received positive affirmation for the job they have done; fans are generally more likely to complain or point out mistakes rather than praise announcers.

For Rojas, the affirmation that he is doing well at his job comes when the Angels play a nationally televised game. National announcing teams handle those duties, often leaving Angels fans complaining to Rojas over Twitter that they miss his voice. The affirmation also comes in the form of compliments from team owner Arte Moreno.

“If Arte Moreno walks into the booth in the middle of a game and points to us and says ‘you guys are doing a great job,’ I think that’s a pretty solid validation of what we’re doing. And he does that periodically.”

For Gubie, his measure of satisfaction comes when he’s walking through the parking lot at Angel Stadium after games and is stopped by fans. Then they tell him a few special words.

“Thanks, you’re a part of our family.”

Larry Brown has been an Angels fan for 30 years. He considers Rojas and Gubicza to be part of his baseball family and is grateful to have their voices in his home every day during the season.

Note: I originally wrote this as a guest post for Awful Announcing. It was published there on August 16, 2019, and I wanted to re-post here because I enjoyed writing it and am proud of the piece.



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