Touch 'em All: Victor Rojas on growing up at the K, calling the game he loves and riding in wood-paneled station wagons.
One of the great things about baseball is the connections that extend throughout the game. People with Royals ties are all over the sport. The Texas Rangers alone have former pitcher Steve Busby broadcasting for them and their Executive Vice President, Communications and Public Relations is former catcher Jim Sundberg.
Former second baseman Cookie Rojas is also tied to the Rangers. One of his sons, Victor, has been broadcasting for them for five years. Victor has a unique perspective of the Royals and Kansas City. He was growing up when the team was experiencing its surge in the 70s and 80s. Victor is a Kansas Citian (a graduate of Blue Valley High School) who’s gone on to do big things in baseball. He serves as an English language play-by-play broadcaster for the Caribbean Series. He’s broadcast the Major League All-Star Game and he’s put together six seasons as a broadcaster in the Majors.
Victor was with the Rangers when they came to Kansas City in late August. And on their last day in town, he sat down with Around the Horn in one of the radio booths during batting practice to chat. With the renovations under way during the interview and now kicked into full swing, we asked Victor what he thought about the state of the stadium and asked about a few of his favorite memories. So here’s the final Touch ‘em All interview from the 2008 season. Hope you enjoy…
Around the Horn: Having spent time in Kansas City when you were younger, what does seeing the stadium going through renovation mean to you?
Victor Rojas: It makes me excited to see what the finished product will look like. I spent so many summers here, down in the tunnels and in the family room and all that stuff. Just from an aesthetic standpoint, this ballpark has been spectacular from day one for me. You see the plans that are in place, and for me anyways, just because of the connection I have to the city, you just can’t help but be excited to see the finished ballpark.
VR: When he retired, I was in the fifth grade. I remember they had Cookie Rojas Night in September of ’77. I remember that like it was yesterday. Both sets of my grandparents were here. They brought us out and gave my dad a wood-paneled Volare Station Wagon. Which we took to Spring Training the next spring when my dad was a coach for the Chicago Cubs.
ATH: Good times in the old station wagon (thoughts of the Griswolds dancing through ATH head)?
VR: (he laughs) Plymouth Volare, yea. (laughs again)
ATH: Obviously the ballpark has undergone some transformation since you were young. They’ve taken out the turf and put in grass and the scoreboards and the fences moving in and then back out. When you look out and see this kind of a change to the ballpark, is it heart warming or are you a little sentimental?
VR: No, no, no, no. I think because the general feeling and thought process of the facility is remaining intact. You’re just kind of adding around it. I think the integrity of the ballpark remains. For me, of course the signature pieces are the crown scoreboard and the fountains out in right and into left-center. Because those things are staying and you get to see I-70 in the background, that’s the view that I always had and it will remain, with some tweaking in the left field corner and the right field corner and some seats adjusting and stuff like that.
I think the best thing they did prior to this whole renovation process was: Number 1, take the turf out and put grass in and then go to the blue seats. It just makes the stadium pop. I know that if I weren’t in baseball and weren’t working in it, I’d come here every chance I got. I know the Royals have gone through some tough times over the last few seasons, but because of the memories I’ve had here, I love coming here. I love seeing the people who are still working in the front office – the few that are still here – and just coasting around the stadium.
ATH: Growing up with a father playing baseball, and then playing some minor league ball yourself, how did you ultimately get into broadcasting?
VR: The broadcasting thing was a whim. I was really young in high school. I was a 16-year-old senior at Blue Valley. I turned 17 in February and graduated in May. I wasn’t quite ready to play baseball at the collegiate level, or at least I didn’t think I was anyway. I was overwhelmed on a recruiting visit to Cal State-Fullerton. And because of that, we moved down to Florida right after I graduated in ’86. I graduated in ’85, but we moved in ’86.
So to pass the time, I was just going to take a year off, but my dad said why don’t you go to this radio broadcasting school and learn the business. And I did that for a year. Then I went on to play college baseball and the rest is history from that standpoint.
It was about 2000, the fall of 2000. I was kind of in one of those situations where – not a mid-life crisis – but I was kind of tired of doing what I was doing. So I thought maybe I’ll give this broadcasting thing a try. I had a friend that was coaching for the Newark Bears and Rick Cerone – the former catcher – owned the team and so I sent them my resume. The plan was, let me sign as an independent league player and in my off time, work with the radio station, do some interviews and kind of get into it that way. Well I’d worked in professional sports and Cerone didn’t want me as a player, not at 31, 32 yeas of age. But he said “You can come up here and you can put the team together since it’s independent ball, and then you can do color on the radio.”
I went up there and 30 days later – the way I tell it – our play-by-play guy quit before the season, so I became the play-by-play guy. And then a month later, our GM got fired and so I became the General Manager. So that was the beginning of my broadcasting career as the GM and play-by-play guy of the Newark Bears. I did that for two years.
Actually after my first year, I got in contact with this little thing called MLB Radio, which is now MLB.TV, Gameday Audio and a bunch of other things. They had some shows during the season and I got hired, in 2002, to do a morning show Monday through Friday. That led to doing the All-Star game in Milwaukee – the famous tie – for MLB.com. Then that off-season, a friend of mine decided to hook me up with an agent. He said, I’ll listen to your stuff and critique you, but I can’t take you on as a client, you can use me as a mentor type deal. And that winter the Diamondbacks were looking for a guy. Kevin Kennedy was also one of his clients and they said no to Kevin Kennedy because they wanted somebody full-time to do all the games and he was still doing some FOX games. So they hired me. And then the next offseason, the Rangers contacted me and hired me and I’ve been with them ever since. So really it was all just chance and luck – being in the right place at the right time.
VR: It’s a completely different style of baseball. I really enjoyed spending time in the National League. For some reason the games are shorter. At least in my mind, the games are shorter, even with double switches and the like.
I think there’s more strategy involved, just from that standpoint in how you use your bench – the quality of the guys that you have to bring in late in games and stuff like that. So I enjoyed that, but there’s no doubt about the familiarity. So I guess I am kind of an American League guy and will always be that way.
ATH: Did you ever get to go on the road with your dad when you were young?
VR: The only time I remember going on the road, it might have been ’76 or ’77. There was a family trip to California. We went to Anaheim and Oakland. I remember Anaheim because we went to Disneyland. And I remember Oakland because I remember taking my first helicopter ride over Alcatraz and back in those days, the A’s were pretty good. So they packed them in and they put the visiting families up the first base line in the upper deck. I remember my mom was royally, royally, upset about it. She couldn’t wait to get back here and tell the folks in the ticket office here. And my brother caught a foul ball, which was the first foul ball I’ve ever seen a friend of mine catch in a game.
I think that’s the only trip I remember going on when he was playing. I’ve visited with him since then when he was working.
ATH: Growing up in Kansas City, would you say that Kansas City is your favorite place to visit when you’re on the road with the Rangers?
VR: Yea. People ask me all the time what’s your favorite ballpark? What’s your favorite city? This place will always have a pull for me. It will always be the number one place for me. We stay at the Plaza, I have friends here. So this will always be number one for me. Personally this is the place for me. Seattle would be nice because I like the city and the ballpark.
Of the newer ballparks, Pittsburgh is probably for me, the nicest, aesthetically, with the Roberto Clemente bridge and everything. But for me, Kansas City will always be number one because of the ties.
ATH: When you’re calling a game, what do you pull from? Is it the years that you watched when you were younger or is it mostly from your time playing?
VR: I think it’s a combination. I think, just like anything else, the more you do it, the more comfortable you feel. The more times you see things, you react in certain ways. I think you just draw on your own experiences to decipher what’s going on on the field and be able to explain it from a broadcasting standpoint, especially on radio, where you have limited time. When your doing color and you’re not on the play-by-play side, you have to get everything in between pitches. I think you fall back to, if something happens that you recall a specific instance when you were a player and that happened to you, then sure that pops up.
But for me, I follow baseball so much, I have a pretty decent recall where I can say “Hey, wasn’t there a situation a couple years ago with the Yankees and the Red Sox…” and I kind of base my explanation on those experiences as opposed to just what I did on a baseball field or what my dad did on a baseball field. The ins and outs and the nuts and bolts of the games, where you’re supposed to throw on a cut-off man and baserunning blunders, that kind of stuff is like second nature to me. I don’t know how to explain it. It’s just there. But as far as the storytelling part of it and what happened in your life, if that maybe coincides on the field then I can relate it or maybe fall back on what I’ve seen my dad go through?
ATH: Is that type of thing that you enjoy about what you do now, is the storytelling?
VR: Yea. And it all depends about the time of year. Both of our teams are out of it. A month ago, we were talking about the Rangers and the Wild Card and they were four and a half games out of it. So we were talking about the excitement of August and September.
But now, you do have to rely on different ways to keep the listener interested. Maybe you’ll bring in some off-field kind of stuff, like I was playing golf this morning with a couple buddies and a funny thing happened. If the game is out of hand and there’s some dead space, so you bring that kind of stuff up. A game like last night, it was two hours and change. You’ve got two pretty good guys going out there and throwing the ball well with a couple unearned runs, that’s all baseball. But the Rangers tend to play a lot of three, three and a half hour games.
ATH: You and your dad were both in the Angels organization. Were you there at the same time when you were in their minor league system?
ATH: What was that like? Did you get to work with him?
VR: Didn’t see him at all. He did come out. He was actually managing in ’88, when I was out in college in the desert in Palm Springs, California. I actually spent the summer with him that year. But when I actually started playing for the Angels, maybe one time he came to Arizona in ’90, but that was when he was scouting.
ATH: Were you a clubhouse kid when you were growing up?
VR: Oh yea. Today’s players are younger and aren’t married or don’t have kids. But it seemed like when I was growing up, from Marty Pattin to Al Fitzmorris to B-Mac to Kimmer Brett. There were tons of guys downstairs, Dusty Wathan, it just seemed like there were kids all over the place. Amos Otis’s kids were there.
Now it’s like the kids that are there are babies. I think it’s just from that standpoint that guys are getting to the big leagues a lot faster.
ATH: What were some of your favorite memories from those years?
VR: The best part for me it just going out and shagging during batting practice. Dad was pretty strict about going out and shagging and once B.P. is over, shower up and get out of the clubhouse. This is where we work, respect that and I still carry that over to today. I go downstairs, get my lineup and get out. I don’t hang out down there.
In this ballpark, the best times we ever had were during the games in the family room with the tape-ball game we would have. We would end in nine innings and we were just drenched in sweat. And there was this dolly, kind of like a thing that paramedics use. It was almost like a stretcher on wheels. Well there was one in there and we would stand on it, lean it back and race it around the room with it. That was to me the best part of it. Just hanging out with the guys…and having a crush on Jenny Splittorff. (Around the Horn and Victor both laugh)
ATH: Well, it’s a good thing that was caught on tape. Thank you so much for your time.
VR: No problem.
Greatest Hitter: Don Mattingly, for me. I have personal reasons behind that. Even before I met him, I just loved his approach at the plate. My daughter’s name is Mattingly. Her name is Mattingly Grace and not after Marl Grace. Her grandmother’s name is Grace.
Greatest Pitcher: Not because he’s our boss or the team president, but Nolan Ryan. It’s tough to argue with Roger Clemens and what he did in his career, especially early on and in college. From my forty years on this earth and the limited guys I’ve seen, it’d probably have to be Nolan Ryan. I say Nolan, but the term greatest is tough to define. With what I’ve seen I have to say him because of the strikeouts and the no-hitters and just overall dominance. And he did it in such a fashion that he was almost humble that he did something. I mean Randy Johnson was fun to watch in Arizona, but it has to be Nolan.
World Series: I’m a huge Joe Maddon fan because he was my minor league coordinator when I was in the Angels system. That being said, I’m going to go with the Angels and the Cubs probably in the National League. It’ll probably be the Cubs and the Angels and I’ll go with the Angels because they probably have the upper hand in pitching.