There’s something about Charley Steiner that makes you smile and puts you at ease.
Maybe it’s that the jovial attitude that seems to cross the airwaves when you see or hear him. Maybe it’s the fact that Charley was always happy to make fun of himself in the This is SportsCenter commercials. After all, Charley did wind up on Melrose Place when he was traded for Andrew Shue, cowered under his desk when Evander Holyfield said, “Come get your whoopin'!” and during a Y2K test, cried, “Follow me to freedom!” as Mark McGwire smashed computers with a bat.
You couldn’t help but empathize with Charley when he went into an uncontrollable laughing jag after watching Carl Lewis sing the national anthem at a New Jersey Nets NBA game. He laughed until the end of SportsCenter and famously got in the line that apparently Lewis' version of the National Anthem had been written by "Francis Scott Off-Key." Who can’t relate to that?
But, what’s great about Charley Steiner is when you talk to him, he really is all that, and a whole lot more.
Charley Steiner began his broadcasting career in 1969 for WIRL radio in Peoria, Illinois. Along the way, he has called games for the New York Jets from 1986 to 1987, the USFL’s New Jersey Generals from 1983 to 1985, was a staple for boxing, baseball, and college football for years at ESPN, and became a regular anchor on SportsCenter. After leaving ESPN, he was the announcer for the Yankees from 2002 to 2004, where he was paired with John Sterling. He has won a CableACE award for a program about Muhammad Ali and a Clarion award for his coverage of the Mike Tyson rape trial.
A lifelong Dodgers fan since they were in Brooklyn, in November of 2004 Charley came back to the future when he became one of the announcers for the Los Angeles Dodgers, where he works with Rick Monday calling innings 3-9 of games that are televised. Vin Scully calls the first two innings in a simulcast while Steiner calls the television play-by-play on games that Scully doesn't work (East of the Rockies).
For two years he’s also done Baseball Beat with Charley Steiner on XM Satellite radio. Broadcast on MLB Homeplate - XM 175 1pm-3pm EST, Charley has been able to conduct interviews with an incredible array of guests that have opened up where they might not otherwise have done so, given Charley’s personality and reputation in the business as being a stand-up guy.
The following interview covers how Steiner views his show on XM 175; comments on interviews with Harold Reynolds, as well as Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada from the San Francisco Chronicle; how he viewed the Dodgers when they left Brooklyn, and what it’s like to be part of their family now; his admiration for Vin Scully; how Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds intersect; whether his Y2K Test commercial compares with Nike’s Chicks Dig the Long Ball, and a whole lot more.
Maury Brown for the Biz of Baseball: Let’s start off with your show on XM Satellite Radio… Tell me a little about your show on XM 175 – MLB Home Plate - Baseball Beat. You talk to six writers, broadcasters, or celebrities each day. How do you prepare and keep up?
Charley Steiner: Well, essentially when we first started to talk about doing this a couple of years ago they asked me, “Well, what would you like to do?” I said, “Well, here’s what I don’t want to do.” They said, “O.K. well, what don’t you want to do.” I said, “I don’t want to talk to players, coaches, managers, general managers, owners, agents; and I’m really not keen on talking to listeners.” And they said, “Why don’t you want to talk to listeners?” And I said, “Because, that’s their job description.”
And then they said, “Who do you want to talk to?” I said, “I want to talk to my friends.” And there was this pause and they said, “Well who are your friends?” Well, my friends are the beat writers who cover the teams, columnists, broadcasters; and other assorted neer-do-wells who know a little something about baseball. So we attract musicians; Brian Williams is a frequent guest on our program. James Carville in fact is going to be on the show tomorrow, he’s a frequent guest. So, people who a) like to talk, and b) have no restrictions.
You know players will give you the dance, and managers will, as well. Writers, who are embedded with these teams can generally give us a far better, more transparent look at what’s going on. So we talk to six people, who are friends of mine, and so the focus is not an interview but it’s a chat among friends. We’ll talk about perhaps a song or an album that they like or a movie they saw and then we’ll transition into baseball and each conversation runs about thirteen minutes or so.
And then it’s free-wheeling, it’s conversational, and enlightening. And for me, it’s somewhat selfish in that—as I do broadcasts of the Dodgers during the regular season—I’m able to gather insight about teams that we’re going to play that ordinarily I might not have.
So it works I think for everybody. The writers like to talk because they can enhance what it is that they have written. The listeners enjoy it. And, players, managers, owners, and the like actually listen because again they’re able to get an unvarnished look at what’s going on. I mean, I can ask a writer, “Why does that team stink?” And they can tell me.
BizBall: Looking over your career in radio play-by-play, and doing SportsCenter on ESPN… In many cases, television is about feeding easily digestible pieces of information, and play-by-play is dictated in large part by the game on the field. How is doing Baseball Beat on MLB Home Plate - XM 175 different from anything you’ve done before?
Steiner: What it is, I think, is an amalgam of pretty much everything I’ve done in my career. You know, along the way I’ve managed two all-news radio stations, I’ve been a program director, I’ve been a news director, I’ve been a play-by-play guy, I’ve been a news anchor, obviously SportsCenter and play-by-play, and oh, by the way, I’ve been at it for a million years. So I can hopefully elicit reasonable responses to reasonable questions, and have a good time and have some fun doing it.
BizBall: How do you deal with broadcasting a baseball game until late at night on the west coast and them being prepared and on the air for your national radio show Baseball Beat at 10 a.m. (pacific)?
Steiner: During the season, that becomes somewhat difficult, especially when we’re on the road. Because we start the show on the West Coast at 10:00 in the morning and I get home from a Dodger game probably 11:00pm - 11:30pm and I’m in bed by 1:00am or 1:30am, the alarm goes off at 8:30 and ninety minutes later I’m on the air. But, through this internet contraption—which by the way I think has shelf life, I think its going to be here a while—I’m able to e-mail back and forth with my producer, Brent Gambill. I will tell him in general what we’re looking for and then he’ll work the specifics and book the guests. But, you know again, it goes back to my background which basically was news, early on in my career, so I have a fairly decent sense of what’s a story, or what we can forward.
For instance, yesterday was Jackie Robinson’s 88th birthday, and we had Bill Rhoden on from the New York Times, and we were just able to focus on Robinson’s contribution to baseball, society, and life. Bill is a middle-aged black man, and what Robinson meant to him. Dave Simms was on the air, the first play-by-play voice of African-American descent, a guy that I hired in New York in 1985. So it’s one of those things where I’ve been at it for such a long time and I’m fortunate to know just about all of these men and women so we can talk casually without it ever feeling like it’s an interview. And it’s comforting knowing that we got maybe two or three dozen listeners.
BizBall: That happens when you go world wide, right?
Steiner: Well, who knows where they’re listening. But we actually have a reasonable audience.
I always kid about having two or three dozen on a good day. The whole idea for the listener, who’s driving from Paducah to Peoria, or wherever they’re driving, is that they’re over-hearing a conversation that’s hopefully somewhat literate, where two people are chatting back and forth about whatever it is.
To answer your question, during the season, it’s a little more difficult. Physically more than anything, especially if suddenly we’re in Colorado and there’s a one hour time difference. In Chicago, there’s a two hour time difference. On the east coast, there’s a three hour time difference, and so there are days when I don’t know what planet I’m on but I do know that I’ve got two hours to yak.
BizBall: You have had interviews with individuals that are really going through some stressful times right now. Give me your thoughts on the interviews with Harold Reynolds, as well as Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada.
Steiner: In the case of Lance and Mark, I can’t tell you how proud I am. This has really been one of the highlights for me in my two years, that they want to be on the air with me. I’ve never met either one face to face, and the fact that they come on as often as they do and share with us their personal angst and anxiety, above and beyond the professional job that they do, again I can’t tell you how proud I am that these guys actually want to come on and talk to us.
In the case of Harold, who really hasn’t done any or many of these things, again, Harold’s a friend of mine, we worked together for a lot of years at ESPN. I ran into him in New York late last season, might have been during the playoffs, I guess it was, and he said that he would like to come on the air and express his side of the story, and I said, “Well, fine.” You know, as they say on local news you have many choices to watch whomever it is, and he came. Again, he’s a friend of mine, but I don’t believe that it kept me from asking any difficult questions. Again, I go back to the fact that I’ve just been doing it for such a long time and I’ve known so many of these people for such a long time, they know I’m not going to make them look bad.
BizBall: You like to call the show your, “little cockamamie lemonade stand of a radio show.” When you talk with the guests, who are your listeners?
Steiner: (chuckling) I have no idea. Here’s what I do know: They pay a fair sum of money to listen. They are baseball fans. They are more sophisticated in the sport than the casual fan, I would think, because they like it so much; they’re willing to pay for it for goodness sakes. And what has happened—and this sounds so entirely self-serving and that’s why I get uncomfortable doing these sorts of things—the show has taken on a pretty good sense of momentum now. It’s not a typical baseball show. I’m not going to dwell on whether a guy should’ve taken on 3 and 1 or what about this trade rumor or that trade rumor. I would like to think that what we do is just different. We take listener calls; we do thirty segments a week and I do one listener segment—the final segment of the week on Friday at 2:45 (eastern). So who’s listening? I would like to think—Oh God, is this an exercise in self-absorbance—it’s the quote, un-quote, thinking man’s baseball fan.
BizBall: (laughing) Well, I listen to you as often as possible, Charley, so it’s got to be the “thinking man’s baseball fan”.
Steiner: Well, there you go, see? Three dozen and one.
BizBall: Let’s shift to the Dodgers… You grew up a Dodgers fan listening to them when they were in Brooklyn. They left for the West Coast when you were 8. Can you recall how you felt?
Steiner: Oh yes. HBO is doing a documentary that I think is going to air over the summer on the Dodgers from 1947 to 1957. I wasn’t around for ’47 and the Dodgers left in ’57 when I was eight years old.
It was a wound; there’s no getting around it, and I was eight. I can only imagine what people who were eighteen and twenty-eight and thirty-eight years of age felt like when they left.
The HBO producer when we were doing the interview asked me, “What about Walter O’Malley, what is your feeling?” I said, “In Brooklyn, he was the devil, and in Los Angeles he was an angel and the all-time hero.” So then he asked, “How do you feel about him now?” and I said, “I’m passionate in both directions.” It’s true.
Essentially—and this sounds so corny but that’s the beauty of baseball—I felt like an abandoned child who suddenly was reunited with his family forty-seven years later. Now, being a part of this remarkable organization it really sounds corny, but it really has been the highlight of my career. It’s what I wanted to do when I was seven years old and I first heard Vin Scully’s voice, and now I’m in the parallel universe with the guy who I think is the best baseball play-by-play announcer ever.
BizBall: You grew up listening to Vin Scully and here you are working with him. Reading your article on HallofFameMagazine.com (My Dinners With Vin) shows that you have admired him most all of your life. Tell us a bit about the dinners.
Steiner: You know, I was with Vin and his wife this past Saturday, and you know it’s one of those things, and again, I can’t tell you what a charmed existence I’ve had to this point. We’re at this awards dinner and it’s going on and on and on and he’s being honored for a lifetime achievement, and it’s going on and on and on and I finally leaned over to him and I said, Vin I hope you brought your “A” game tonight. And he laughed and so it was like we were like a couple of kids making fun of the substitute teacher from the back of the class. The thing—and I say this all the time—I’ve learned so much from Vin. Not so much what he does on the air because nobody goes down Vin Scully Boulevard; that’s a one way street for him. But what I have learned is how he conducts himself as an icon. Watching him is like, whoa, geez! I don’t know how to describe it. He’s our Johnny Carson. He’s our Bob Dylan. He’s our John Lennon. He’s our Muhammad Ali. He’s the man.
And so here I am, this little shmuck from Long Island, every night at Dodger Stadium, roughly 5:30, Vin and Billie Delury, and Rick and I sit down, same seat, every night—and at Dodger Stadium they actually feed the announcers a little better than the other parks—and we just talk about life and stuff. It’s just four guys, and I’m the kid at the table. Monday’s got a couple of years on me and Vin and Billie have about 20 years on me; a little more than that in fact. But it’s just four guys yakking. It’s like, “Oh, by the way, across this table happens to be Vin Scully. And to my right is Rick Monday. And Billie has been with the Dodgers, he came out with Vin in ’58.” And it’s like whoa, jeez. So, then unfortunately the game intrudes on our dinner.
BizBall: You've worked with a lot of broadcast partners over the years including Dave Campbell, Kevin Kennedy, John Sterling and now Rick Monday and Steve Lyons. Tell me a little about calling games with a partner.
Steiner: That chemistry—either it happens or it doesn’t. And in the case of “Mo”, that’s what everybody calls him (Rick Monday), we are together 162 games. Plus, on February 26, I head down to Florida. So, basically from February 26 to the end of September, hopefully late into October, we’re together every day. And my sincerest sympathies go out to Rick and his wife that they have to put up with me. We have dinner, at home, not so much on the road but certainly at home, and lunch and whatever. We’re in the booth together for 4 or 5 hours, three feet apart from one another. There has to be inherent trust, respect and, hopefully, affection. And in the case of Mo and I, I respect what he’s done as a human being— as a ballplayer, as a broadcaster—and, oh by the way, we happen to have a good time. He cracks me up, I crack him up. Rick always says the key to a good partnership is having one another’s back, and I think in Rick’s case that’s certainly the way.
Steve Lyons and I go back about ten years. When I was at ESPN and he was at FOX we would do, in the playoffs and the World Series, those immediate on-field interviews right after a team won or lost. So we’d always be in the dugout immediately before with two outs in the ninth inning and then we’d run out on the field. We spent a lot of, as they say, quality time together, and then lo and behold, two years ago, he was hired, as I was, to do the Dodger games on television that Vin doesn’t do.
Actually, Kevin and I were the first ESPN Sunday Night Radio broadcasters. Kevin then went on to FOX, and of course now we work together again at XM. And again, it’s that same kind of thing: we like each other, we trust one another, and such is the case with “Soup”.
I love Dave Campbell. When the Dodgers are playing a Sunday night game or a national game, and Soup comes in, and Dan Schulman; it’s like picking up where we left off the day before. So, it’s really important to have a mutual respect, understanding, and the last thing is the affection part. I mean if you respect one another, and you like one another, and you cover one another’s ass together, you’re OK. Then the other part, the affection, comes quite naturally.
BizBall: You recently attended a dinner with Hank Aaron a couple months ago. How do you view Aaron in relation to Barry Bonds?
Steiner: How I view Hank Aaron in relation to anybody is different. Hank Aaron is a gentleman. You always hear when people say about a given individual, “He’s a great man.” "This is a great man." What he endured to break the record. How he conducts himself. How he became a business man. How, when Hank speaks, people listen. I can’t tell you the admiration I have for him as a human being, above and beyond being the home run champion.
This is going to sound like a cliché but it’s true: He is as much a product of his time as Barry Bonds is a product of his time. And so it’s very difficult to compare. What Hank Aaron went through just to do his job—just to pursue this record—to put his life in danger, people forget that. And the fact that he has come out of it even more dignified than he was during his days as a player makes my admiration for him so off the charts. And as far as Bonds is concerned, again, he's a product of his time.
BizBall: That’s really a sad commentary, when you think about it.
Steiner: Yeah, although I suppose in age I’m sort of half way in-between Aaron and Bonds, I certainly empathize with Hank. I’m old enough to remember the civil rights marches; in fact I was involved in them when I was in high-school and college, where there were things far bigger and far more meaningful than the almighty dollar, or parlaying a home run record into hard earned cash.
BizBall: Do you think it has something to do with the sense of entitlement that goes on now as opposed to when it was during Aaron’s time?
Steiner: Yeah, I think that’s part of it. Look, when you got baseball players like there were when I was a kid—for instance say the Brooklyn Dodgers—these guys worked in the off-season to make ends meet. So they were regular guys. They understood what it was like to put food on the table. You know now you’ve got players—and I’m not begrudging them, this is what it is—who sign one good contract and they’re set for life and then some. So yeah, there’s a sense of entitlement; it’s quite natural. I don’t begrudge them for it, but it’s a different time, a different place and a different way of thinking. BizBall: Have you adapted from being an east coast guy to being a "West Coast guy"?
Steiner: I’ll tell you what, when I came out here a little more than two years ago, the day after I left New York they had a 21-inch blizzard. I thought it was beautiful watching it on the Weather Channel, and I thought, “What adjustment?” It was raining the day I got into L.A., and it occurred to me that I don’t have to shovel rain. So, yeah, there was no adjustment whatsoever. You know, it’s winter in Los Angeles and today it was about 61 degrees and partly cloudy. So, it was a zero adjustment for me.
BizBall: Finally, the This is SportsCenter commercials have become iconic, with you being in some of the more memorable clips. This leads me to ask, with you in LA now, is Charley Steiner really the next big Hollywood star? Tell me, did Holyfield ever find you and give you your whoopin’? And what was it like being in America's Sweethearts?
Steiner: What people don’t realize is that in the Holyfield commercial Come get your whoopin' (see it here-Standard | Cable Modem), they never saw the other 30 seconds where I pounce out from under the desk and beat him to a bloody pulp.
BizBall: (laughing) You know, it’s possible Holyfield’s going to see this.
Steiner: The fact that it never really happened doesn’t matter. But I will tell you this, when that spot came out, I couldn’t have been more fortunate. The producers of those spots, for whatever reason, found me a suitable punch line. Shortly after the spot came out, I would be running from airports or whatever and I’d have like little six year old kids come up and say, “Come get yer whoopin.” So the spot kind of took on a life of its own.
One of the spots, the Follow me to Freedom—the Y2K Test commercial—(see it here-Standard | Cable Modem), was filmed roughly the same time that Glavine and Maddox did the Chicks dig the long ball commercial (see the video, here). They shot that commercial during spring training, and it was done by the same advertising agency, Wieden+Kennedy. They essentially did that commercial the same way they did with me. I did about five or six different endings with different words. “I’ll lead you to the underground!” “Follow me, brothers and sisters!” and whatever, that was the one that was ultimately picked up by the producer, the editor, and the director. It was the same thing with Chicks dig the long ball, they had come up with a half dozen different lines. So in spring training of 2000, Glavine and Maddox and I are shooting the breeze in the dugout, I guess in Orlando, and we were making bets as to which line would have a greater shelf life. And I’m convinced, again, self-serving not withstanding, that Chicks dig the long ball does not come anywhere near as close as Follow me to freedom.
BizBall: (laughing) And America's Sweethearts?
Steiner: American Sweethearts. My cousin directed the movie and his wife produced the movie. And I came to believe passionately that nepotism begins at home.
- Interview edited by Maury Brown and conducted on Feb. 1, 2007
- Transcribed by James Guinn and Ryan Brodeur
- Thanks go out to Guinn and Brodeur for assisting in the transcription process. Maury Brown wishes to extend extra special thanks to Brent Gambill for his constant support, both for this interview and in countless other endeavors.
To read other interviews on The Biz of Baseball with the likes of Jayson Stark, Ken Rosenthal, Stan Kasten, Marvin Miller, Bowie Kuhn, Bob Costas, and others, select the Interviews navigation element to the left on any page.