The birds sing Mozart to the dawn. Apple trees fill the air with flowery perfume. Daffodils turn their yellow trumpets toward the sun. And the salty, cantankerous, prickly, beloved voice of the Reds is on the radio.
Spring has returned and Marty Brennaman is back. Cincinnati doesn’t know how lucky it is.
It’s safe to say nobody has watched more Reds games than Marty, who long ago reached first-name status. His Reds broadcasts on 700-WLW have become the soundtrack of summer in the city he loves.
He doesn’t call a game with the clean-shaven, pudding-smooth baritone of Vin Scully. He’s not a “Holy Cow” cartoon like the Cubs’ Harry Caray. There’s dust from a country road in the voice, the texture of day-old stubble. It fits baseball like a well-worn fielder’s glove: matter-of-fact, cocksure, easy under pressure, relaxed and unhurried like an August afternoon. It’s the voice of someone who has seen every dance-move baseball has in 7,000 games, but still likes what he’s looking at.
His signature, “… And this one belongs to the Reds,” is not on the ballpark in lights where it belongs—leave it to politicians to bobble that bunt. But it is painted in red on the heart of Cincinnati. It will be remembered long after his last pitch—which may come sooner than fans think.
“I think about the ‘R’-word,” he says, warily circling the idea of retirement. “I still love going to the ballpark. I have never been in better health. I walk four to five miles a day. But there are things I want to do, places I want to go.”
He will turn 75 in July, in his 43rd year with the Reds. Forty years with the same team is a very small club. The gold standard is Scully, who retired last year after 67 seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Before he left, he reassured Marty that there is life after baseball.
So the Reds contract is year-to-year. He loves spring training in Arizona, but the season can be a long walk on a short leash. He learned long ago not to pin his happiness to scores, but can’t help occasional frustration, such as his comment in 2014, “If you don’t drink and you watch this team play daily, you will start to.”
He also blew up the Twitter-verse during “Ask Marty.” A fan wanted to know, “What’s your biggest fear?” Without hesitation he replied, “Dying in a hotel room alone.”
“It came out of my mouth immediately because it’s a reality,” he says, citing Don Drysdale and other announcers who have gone that way.
“That’s why he travels so much with me,” says his wife, Amanda.
On road trips she has dragged him out of his hotel rooms, often kicking and cursing, to see the world beyond centerfield. He’s still grateful that she threatened to fly home without him unless he went to the Grand Canyon. He was absolutely sure he didn’t want to go, but now he is just as certain that, “If you can see that and not believe in God, there’s something wrong with you.”
“Honestly, the matrimonial road has been bumpy and very costly for me, but this woman is the best thing that ever happened to me,” he says sitting next to his third wife in the baseball room of their AndersonTownship home. “I’ve never been happier. She’s my best friend. We fight like cats and dogs sometimes. There’s a 30-year age difference, but thank God it makes no difference to her.”
Four decades of road games have left a mark. “There are things more important than a job. Things I missed,” he says, thinking of his children: youngest daughter Ashley, a media coordinator for Kentucky Speedway; Dawn, a lobbyist for a Chicago medical group; and Thom, an announcer for the Reds and Fox Sports, following in his father’s base path.
Thom laughs about how they share more than broadcasting. “I have a lot of similar traits. I look at things in black and white and I’m trying to work on seeing some gray. When you’re that way, some love you and some don’t like you at all. But if you stand for what you believe in, if you have a core belief system, then God bless those that stand up for it. There aren’t as many like that today.
“And with him, you always know where you stand.”
Marty may not be the biggest dog in the fight, but he always brings the biggest fight in the dog, on any topic. Thom chuckles, “I tell people that I barely raise an eyebrow anymore. I’ve been watching that all my life.”
On the rare games when they work together, Marty’s quick temper and Thom’s dry wit can produce classic comedy. “That really pushes my buttons,” Marty will say after a get-off-my-lawn rant. “I hadn’t noticed,” Thom will quip wryly.
Marty Brennaman was chosen by the Reds in 1974 from a field of 200 applicants to replace Al Michaels, who was hired away by the San Francisco Giants. If he could give advice to that rookie Marty from Portsmouth, Va., he would say, “Be a bit more careful and thoughtful about the things that you say and actions you take in your career and personal life.”
Amanda nods. “That’s part of what makes you who you are,” she says. They both laugh about texts she has sent him during broadcasts: “Shut your mouth! Stop talking!”
Thom says, “Sometimes I wish he would be more guarded and careful.”
Last year Marty apologized for an overcooked kerfuffle when he said new rules against sliding were turning baseball into a “sissy” game. The expanding dictionary of verboten words is a byproduct of social media, he says with a grimace. But he’s seen worse.
In 1988, the voice of the Reds and his sidekick, the late Joe Nuxhall, were nearly thrown out of baseball for inciting a riot.
During a home game against the Mets, umpire Dave Pallone got into a dust-up with Reds Manager Pete Rose. Curses and fingers flew, Rose was ejected and Pallone was shoved. A New York writer later described the scene as a “terrifying moment” of flying golf balls, coins, cigarette lighters, marbles, hot dogs, a whiskey bottle, even toilet paper, which Marty and Joe thought was especially appropriate aimed at Pallone.
“We editorialized a bit,” Marty laughs.
The next day they were summoned to New York by Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth. As they waited to be called into the principal’s office, Marty told Joe, “I’ll bet you never had this much fun with Al Michaels.”
“Joe didn’t take that well,” he recalls, still raising his eyebrows at Joe’s reaction.
Ueberroth told them he might throw them out of the game for inciting violence, and chastised them back to Cincinnati. But repealing the First Amendment would have been a bigger black eye for baseball than flying hot dogs, so Ueberroth backed off.
His letter is framed in the baseball room: “…your commentary and handling of that situation were unprofessional, inflammatory and well beyond the bounds of propriety.” But: “…it is not my intention to take this matter any further.”
A dozen years later, Marty was in the Hall of Fame.
Along the way he was offered jobs in Chicago (White Sox and Cubs), Boston and New York, among others. But he never thought twice. “Truly, I was blessed with the wisdom to say no to a bigger market. I’ve never anguished over any of those decisions. I never wanted to leave this town.”
He once got in trouble for telling Ken Griffey Jr., “I was here before you got here and I will be here long after you’re gone.” He was right about that, and about Griffey loafing on a ground ball the previous day. But some sportswriters and fans said Marty thought he was bigger than baseball.
“No way,” he replies. “I have the best job in the world in the greatest city a person can live in and I never forget it.” He is gracious to fans, always friendly and as far from pompous as a $1 hotdog.
Sure, the “R” word is on his mind. But he won’t make that call until the end of a season to avoid the inevitable farewell-tour testimonials.
For now, it’s spring. Hope is in the air and Marty’s on the radio. Enjoy it while you can, Cincinnati.
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