A Not-So-Ordinary Baseball Season for a Not-So-Ordinary Joe | Opinion

It's been a strange spring for baseball fans across the country. But for Joe Klimchak, it's been especially strange. Because the national pastime has been at the center of his life from an early age.

His love of baseball began at the age of 7, when his dad took him to his first Pittsburgh Pirates home game. "It was love at first sight," Klimchak recalled for an episode of Our American Stories. "It was the green turf, the lights, the sound of the organ, the smells of nachos, peanuts, popcorn, cotton candy—and the smell of cigars and beer—all mixed up into one. And the Jumbotron in center field. It was sensory overload. It was amazing."

But what inspired him most that day was the voice coming from the PA system: the magisterial and magnetic voice of Pirates home games for five decades, Art McKennan. "It was deep and beautiful," Klimchak said. "And somehow, some way, that's the job I knew I wanted."

Most boys and girls abandoned their childhood sports dreams in their teens. Not Klimchak. Year after year, he studied the great announcers: Harry Carey, Vin Scully and others. He studied their vocal tones, their cadences and musicality, and imitated them every chance he could. Always in search of an audience, Klimchak performed for his two sisters through an air duct separating their childhood bedrooms.

But as hard as he tried, Klimchak was not a natural-born broadcaster. In his high school class of 186 students, there was only one who needed remedial speech training: him. "I had a bad lisp, couldn't say my S's clearly, and I garbled my words," he laughed. "Not a good start for a guy who wants to be a Major League Baseball announcer."

That didn't deter Klimchak. He improved the only way he knew how: hard work. "I would read every article in my Sports Illustrated magazines, and when I read through all those, I grabbed my mom's Woman's Day and Family Circle, and read them out loud," Klimchak explained.

By the time he got to Grove City College, Klimchak's garbled speech was gone. He took every imaginable job on campus to sharpen his skills: He was sports director, news director and hosted the campus morning show. Most important, Klimchak was the public address announcer for all campus sports.

In his sophomore year, Klimchak let the Pirates know he was looking for a job. He wrote a letter to the front office explaining his qualifications—and he even created a position for himself: backup announcer to the team's backup announcer.

"If you need somebody reliable to fall back on, I'm your man," Klimchak wrote.

Klimchak remembers the blunt reply. "Thank you for your interest, but we have two announcers already, so we don't need a backup to the backup announcer."

That kind of rejection letter would have deterred most young men. Not Klimchak.

"I was obsessed with getting this job, so I wrote them another letter," he explained. The organization thanked him for his interest, but the answer was the same.

Klimchak was hurt, but not broken. He was working in the sports and information department at his alma mater when he got the idea to write a letter to Art McKennan himself. His hero wrote him back a nice letter, but it carried the same answer as his last two queries.

Ever persistent, Klimchak wrote McKennan again and asked if there was any way he could watch him do the public address for an inning during a Sunday game? "I actually picked out the game. September 20, Pirates against the Phillies, 1992," Klimchak noted. To his great surprise, his hero wrote him back with this short answer: "Received your letter. Don't buy tickets, report to Press Gate A, and I'll see you on September 20."

Klimchak remembers everything about that day, still. "It was only for six outs, but it was amazing. It felt like an out-of-body experience, but those six outs came and went." When the inning was over, McKennan shook the young man's hand, thanked him and walked him to the door.

Klimchak's big break came when a local radio station announced it would host high school baseball games after Pirates games on Sunday. He remembers the high school teams that were chosen: Greater Latrobe Senior High School against Derry Area High School.

The ever-persistent Klimchak had an idea. He called the Pirates office and asked if they needed an announcer to call the game. He remembers their reply: "We actually hadn't considered having an announcer for those games," he was told, "but since you're interested, we'll listen to a tape."

He went into the production studio, put together a demo and soon after got a call that changed his life. "The lady's name was Jackie," Klimchak gushed. "She said, 'Joe, we heard your tape, and if you're willing to work for free, congratulations, you are the announcer of our high school games after Pirates games on Sundays.'"

Klimchak was elated. "I would have done anything for free. I would have swept the floors for free, but the chance to announce in a big-league ballpark, in the same booth, with the same microphone as Art McKennan's, that was crazy," he said. "Announcing in this stadium with 60,000 seats. Never mind that only 60 of them were full for my games, but it was still a great experience. I did that for a year."

Months later, the Pirates let him know that they were auditioning people for the backup public address announcer position. He showed up, along with eight other candidates. "On paper, I really had no chance at winning this audition," he said. "I was a kid just a couple of years out of college."

He was called up to perform a crowd control announcement. "I don't need this script," I told them. "I know it by heart, and did it well." Well enough, it turned out, to secure the job.

Klimchak got his first chance behind the microphone of a home Pirates game on May 26, 1994. "I remember like it was yesterday," he said. "It was a 13-inning game, and the Pirates won 11-10 over the Mets. It was a dream come true for me."

The next season, Klimchak worked three games, but after seven seasons, he'd announced a mere seven games.

Joe Klimchak
Joe Klimchak serves as in-game host of the 2019 MLB Little League Classic in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Williamsport Crosscutters

Klimchak wanted an opportunity to do more, so he approached his new director and asked if there was anything he could do in the scoreboard department.

"There was a Pepsi bottle that sat over the Clemente Wall when they opened up PNC Park, and when the Pirates hit a home run, smoke came out of the Pepsi bottle," Klimchak laughed. "It was my job to hit the button that made the smoke come out of the Pepsi bottle for 81 home dates a year from 2001 to 2004.

Klimchak's really big break surfaced in 2005. "Before every season started, we had a rehearsal at the ballpark before opening day," Klimchak explained. "I'm going through the pregame script, and I see there's a line that says 'Radio MC.' And I say, 'OK, it's snowing. It's late March. It's an empty ballpark. Nobody's showing up for this position.'"

So Klimchak did what he did best: He volunteered for the job. "I went to my director and asked if I could go down and be the Radio MC," Klimchak recalled. "He looked at me and said, 'Do you want to do that?' And I said, 'I'd love to.' He said, 'Grab a microphone.'"

Klimchak, it turns out, had just landed himself the job that would become as good—or even better—than his dream job. "After that rehearsal, my director tapped me on the shoulder and said, 'If you're interested, host one of the games we play between innings on the video board. At the end of the fourth inning, you'll leave your Pepsi smoke guy position, you'll go down to the Riverwalk, and for that half inning, you'll play a game with a fan and then come back to the scoreboard room.' I said, 'That'd be great.'"

That year, Klimchak announced one break per game for all 81 home games. The fans liked him so much that the one break turned into two, and as time passed, he became a fixture at PNC Park.

"Now I sit here, 15 years later," Klimchak beams, "and I've been the in-game host of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and have about nine in-game breaks. And all of pre-game."

Klimchak appreciates the opportunity that the team he loved as a boy provided. "This is 15 years later, and I'm just as excited as the first day I did this job," Klimchak said. "I treat every day like it's opening day because I feel like it's opening day."

It's a classic American story, Klimchak's. With classic American themes, like the power of hard work and persistence in the face of obstacles. And the power of showing up to work, day after day, with a positive attitude—and a willingness to volunteer and create your own job.

One thing is certain in this uncertain time: When Major League Baseball finally has its long-awaited opening day, and the fans once again gather at PNC Park, one not-so-ordinary Joe will most certainly be in attendance.

You can't miss him. He's the guy smiling on the Jumbotron before the game and during breaks, a lifetime Pittsburgh Pirates fan sharing his microphone—and the love of America's pastime—with fellow fans.

Lee Habeeb is vice president of content for Salem Radio Network and host of Our American Stories. He lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with his wife, Valerie, and his daughter, Reagan.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.

Correction: A previous version of this article mistakenly said Joe Klimchak volunteered to be the Radio MC in 2001; it was 2005.