“Cecil in Brookeville, you’re on Rain Delay Theater.”
“Cecil, are you there?” repeats the radio host.
With countless people listening in on terrestrial and satellite radios and online, the dead air is only interrupted by intermittent heavy breathing.
Finally, after a few more heaves, a voice cracks through.
“I’m sorry, guys.”
“Why are you out of breath?” the host politely questions.
Cecil is a longtime Pirates fan. On this rainy night at the ballpark, he takes the opportunity to call the show from his farm about 100 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, to chat with “Rain Delay Theater” host Dan Zangrilli and his co-host Kevin Orie as they wait for the weather to clear.
The reason for Cecil’s belabored breathing and delayed response?
“While Cecil was waiting on hold to talk to us about whatever it is with the Pirates, he had a little calf get lose and crawl underneath the fence,” Zangrilli says, laughing as he tells the story. “He’s running through the fields of Brookeville, trying to flag down a calf. And meanwhile, to his credit, he’s been able to keep the phone to his ear.”
It all happened on live radio.
“That’s why we call it ‘Rain Delay Theater,’ because sometimes it’s kind of a sideshow,” Zangrilli says.
— Dan Zangrilli (@DanZangrilli) June 9, 2015
Weather, particularly in the spring and early summer, has a tendency to wreak havoc on the Major League Baseball schedule. A spate of rain here or a crash of thunder there can delay a game long enough for a 10-minute trip to the concession stand or to suspend the game altogether, depending on Mother Nature’s mood. That’s when broadcasters like Zangrilli spring to the mic, filling airtime with off-the-cuff banter while waiting out the clouds or the grounds crew’s efforts to clean up the mess on the field.
When Zangrilli and I spoke over the phone this past summer, he and his cohorts had endured a pair of rain delays the previous night, and thus were called upon to pull “Rain Delay Theater” double duty.
It was a long night. For everyone. A downpour stopped the game for 28 minutes in the bottom of the fourth and then again — this time for an hour and 45 minutes — as the eighth inning began. To make matters worse for Zangrilli, the Pirates, and their fans, the hometown team eventually lost 2–0 to the Milwaukee Brewers.
At that point in the season, the Pirates stood in second place in the National League Central with a 31–25 record, and had yet to look like the 98-win force they’d eventually become. As such, Bucs fans had plenty to talk about. In a sense, maybe they needed these long delays — two call-in shows worth — to get some still-lingering questions off their chests. You’ve heard sports-radio shows before. Every caller, it so often seems, is a general manager in waiting.
During the first delay, one caller naively asks, “What would it take for us to get Johnny Cueto?”
“Everyone has a solution,” says a chuckling Zangrilli, who admits he genuinely enjoys interacting with callers. “There are varying levels of baseball acumen across the spectrum.”
Pete McCarthy echoes those thoughts. He anchors Mets pre-pregame and post-postgame shows on the team’s flagship station, WOR, hosting his own version of Rain Delay Theater when weather deigns to shuffle the players back into the clubhouse.
There are always four or five guys, McCarthy said back in June, that Mets fans always bring up.
“They’ll be callers who talk about a player and say, ‘We absolutely have to have this guy,’ and minutes later someone will call and say ‘no, he’s too expensive or he gets injured too often,” McCarthy quips. “There’s always something to be hashed out during a rain delay.”
In Pittsburgh, the show isn’t always about offering free advice to general manager Neal Huntington. Sometimes callers simply want to shoot the ish like they would with any other friend.
“We typically talk about the game or whatever news is going on that day,” Zangrilli says. “It’s more of a freestyle, free-standing type of format, because you have a lot of calls and you don’t know where the calls are going to go and what’s on the minds of the listeners. And you sort of let that dictate which direction the show is going to go.”
According to Jerry Schemmel, one half of the Colorado Rockies’ rain delay radio crew, the length of the hiatus will typically determine the show’s content. This season, the Rockies withstood more than 22 hours of weather delays at Coors Field.
“There was one weekend where we had four games, including a doubleheader on Saturday, and we had a rain delay in all four games,” Schemmel recalls. “The doubleheader had a total of four and half hours of rain delays. That was one very long weekend.”
That’s a lot of talking. So, what do Schemmel and broadcast partner Jack Corrigan talk about to make time fly by a bit faster?
“We seem to cover all kinds of different topics during rain delays,” Schemmel said. “It all depends on how the team is playing or what the situation weather-wise might be, as to what we talk about. Many times we will talk about the state of the team for a while and then go to pre-recorded shows. It all depends on the situation.”
No matter the length of the stoppage, these hosts rarely worry about receiving enough calls to fill the air time. There are many, and they ring in from all over. In the case of Zangrilli, Pirates games are on 35 to 40 terrestrial radio stations through its flagship station, 93.7 The Fan.
“Once we’re on the Pirates network, we’re getting calls from West Virginia, Ohio, New York, Maryland and North Carolina,” he said.
And, with the advent of satellite radio and the popular MLB At Bat app, Bucs fans from all over the world can call to put their two cents in.
“When we talk into that microphone, people could be listening to us in outer space for all I know,” Zangrilli jokes. “We’ve gotten calls from a number of states and from people in other countries. It’s always fun to see where people are calling from, and the rain delay theater show is their opportunity.”
And a fading one at that. Indeed, radio baseball doesn’t curry near the cultural clout it once did, before the days when games became readily available in moving pictures and — later — on computers and phones. But for many, there remains a raw appeal to listening to the hometown announcers weave the play-by-play action, with colorful tales woven throughout the three-hour narrative as the crowd soothingly hums in the background.
Rain delay shows exist, primarily, to keep the audience tuned in. Still, show producers and broadcasters must provide their audiences a good reason to stick around when a storm rolls through. And for who knows how long. That can be quite the challenge — particularly in the summer, when there are so many entertainment options available.
In its own, off-the-wall ways, “Rain Delay Theater” answers the challenge by bridging the gap in the action and giving fans a chance, through simply listening or calling in, to feel more connected to the teams and players they love. While there’s never a shortage of callers or topics to keep the broadcast moving along, eventually — often hours later — everyone just wants to get on with the game already. The impatience becomes so palpable, in fact, that keeping on eye on the weather radar becomes part of the pastime.
“I like to play amateur meteorologist,” McCarthy says, just a few hours before a game in which there’s a 20 percent chance of rain. “I’m going to look at the Doppler, and I’m going to figure it out. I’m going to see which direction those things (storms) are moving, and I’m going to make my guess. But ultimately it doesn’t matter because … when I go on, I go on, and when I go off, I go off. It’s not my decision, but I do try to forecast it.”
Tracking radar normally gives the radio guys a good idea about when storms will move out, but there’s still work to be done — on the field and in the broadcast booth. It’s what Zangrilli calls the “second layer” of play stoppage: the field preparation.
“You don’t know how bad the field is and how much maintenance needs to be done to get the mound playable, to get the baselines and batter’s box in proper order,” he says. “After it rains, you could be looking at 15 to 45 minutes of prep to get the field ready again for guys to resume play, depending on how bad the storm was.”
With even more time to kill, thank goodness there are armchair GMs and dedicated fans willing to hold on through minor inconveniences, such as livestock barn breaks.
“Hello? Cecil? Are you with us?”