First Place Writing – Features


Most sports fans have heard his words countless times, but never his voice

By Paul Casella

Most sports fans have heard his words countless times, but never his voice.

He’s been in the booth for thousands of nationally televised collegiate and professional sporting events, but his face doesn’t show up on anyone’s plasma screens.

Marty Aronoff is a member of a peripatetic band of gifted nomads who converge at stadiums and arenas across the country nearly every night of the week to make household-name network announcers sound smoother, slicker and smarter than they are.

He’s possibly the best known and most respected of the scores of statisticians, graphics whizzes, videotape wizards and sound experts, who make televised football, basketball and baseball games the polished, entertaining and informative spectacles they have become.

Aronoff is among the unsung support people who make televised sports broadcasts what they are — and he’s been a statistician for more than a quarter century.

But he’s more than your average stat guy.

Aronoff travels more than 300,000 miles a year, sitting in broadcast booths coast to coast, an arm’s length from marquee play-by-play announcers, constantly slipping them on-target bits of information that they instantly weave into the broadcast.

Miller is the Guy

On a chilly, cloudless mid-September night on Chicago’s South Side, that play-by-play man is Jon Miller, who has been ESPN’s lead commentator on Sunday Night Baseball since its debut in 1990 — and Aronoff has been right there beside him since the beginning.

As Miller, along with analysts Joe Morgan and Orel Hershiser, go through a rehearsal take for the night’s opening segment, have their makeup touched up and adjust their ties, Aronoff needs not worry about any of that, as he sits in his chair just inches out of the camera shot, organizing his personally created score sheets.

As the game’s first pitch nears closer, Miller places a hand on Aronoff’s shoulder and gives him a simple direction: “Be on your stuff tonight, Marty.”

The two share a laugh because that’s never a concern with Aronoff — he’s “on his stuff” for each of the 230 games — give or take — he does each year.

“He has great perspective because he covers so many events and has been to so many games,” said Monday Night Football announcer Mike Tirico. “He can give us a perspective that’s so different from everybody else and he’s truly one of a kind in his field.”

Aronoff has worked plenty of games on his way to becoming the best, keeping stats for four to six games a week since giving up a 17-year job with the federal government to do his stats gig full-time in 1983.

“I definitely got some funny looks when I told people,” Aronoff said about the career change. “A lot of people asked if I’d really be able to make a living out of it, and honestly I wasn’t sure, but I was ready to try.”

And make a living out of it he has.

The 1960 Pennsylvania State University graduate has been Miller’s go-to guy on Sunday Night Baseball since it debuted on ESPN on April 15, 1990. On top of also covering Wednesday Night Baseball and Monday Night Football, this year’s World Series will mark the 15th straight year he has been called upon to work the Fall Classic.

Along with consistently working regular season games for five different sports leagues — National Basketball Association (NBA), National Football League (NFL), Major League Baseball (MLB), along with NCAA basketball and football — he’s worked 15 NBA finals series and five NCAA Final Fours.

Stat Man will Travel

Aronoff covers sports for multiple networks, as he currently works MLB games for ESPN and FOX, as well as NBA games for both ESPN and TNT.

Though he’s in the booth for ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball on this particular night, Aronoff was sitting in a FOX Sports broadcasting booth just a couple weeks earlier for a Saturday afternoon baseball game and will be back with FOX for the World Series.

Every network has scores of statisticians who have the same responsibilities as Aronoff on games he doesn’t work, but if he’s available, he’s each network’s go-to stat guy.

And nobody objects to him working for FOX one night, then settling into the comforts of the ESPN booth the next — that’s a right he’s earned in his 27 years on the job.

“That’s something that’s reserved only for living legends,” said John Wildhack, ESPN’s executive vice president of programming. “You have to be an elite member of the living legends club to work for everybody like that. It reflects that he’s a great guy, a friend to everyone he works with and is just really, really good at what he does. He’s truly in a class of his own.”

Not bad for a man who spent the first 17 years of his professional life with the National Bureau of Standards, a non-regulatory agency of the U. S. Department of Commerce.

But with those days long behind him, he strolls — with an obvious limp from a lingering knee problem — into the tunnel of U.S. Cellular Field through the media entrance at about 4 p.m. for that late-season matchup between the Chicago White Sox and Detroit Tigers. Aronoff barely makes it through the door before the greetings start.

The average viewer might not recognize him, but each person he passes, whether it’s a cameraman, sound technician or ESPN executive, greets Aronoff with a smile and a, ‘How have you been, Marty?’ as he makes his way into the stadium.

“There are so many people who work with Marty, who absolutely love him,” said Tirico, who has worked with Aronoff for more than 13 years. “Most of the people who work behind the scenes just love being around him.”

An Intricate Network

There are plenty of people who fall into that category, too, with Aronoff working with different crews each night of his work week.

One person in particular, Annika Gill, works with Aronoff throughout the baseball season on Wednesday Night Baseball telecasts. In contact with Aronoff through a headset for the duration of the game, Gill relies on Aronoff’s keen observations to fulfill her responsibilities of updating the graphics on the screen, such as the current pitch count and the location of baseruners.

“He makes my job 10 times easier,” Gill said. “It’s mind-boggling that I even get to work with him. There are other people out there that try to be like Marty, but they just can’t.”

Before each game he works, Aronoff likes to visit with the people, like Gill, who will be working in the graphics truck that night, just so they can all be on the same page.

Despite working with so many different people at the various sporting events he covers, Aronoff goes out of his way to developing a friendship beyond simply being co-workers with everyone he might need to communicate with throughout the night, which he says is essential to having a successful broadcast.

“There’s a real closeness and camaraderie that is very refreshing,” Aronoff said. “It makes all the travel worthwhile when I get to a site and I see all these people that I’ve worked with for years. All the people I work with, it’s like a big family to me.”

But as each person with an ESPN credential hanging around his or her neck attempts to strike up a conversation with Aronoff in the tunnel below U.S. Cellular Field on this particular night, he keeps the exchanges brief.

The only thing on his mind right now is making it to the Stadium Club on the third floor for the media buffet before it closes at 4:30.

Always on the Move

Who can blame him? After all, not only has he not eaten all day, but he’s traveled more than 10,000 miles in the past week — more than his average of 6,000 a week — and worked five games for three different leagues.

While many of those miles are racked up on Delta flights — he’s already amassed more than 160,000 miles with Delta this year — he accumulates enough miles with other airlines that he also has preferred frequent flyer status with US Airways, United, Continental and American.

In this busier than average week, Aronoff has worked five games for three different leagues, including a college football game in Seattle, Wash., less than 24 hours ago.

Immediately after watching the Nebraska Cornhuskers rout the Washington Huskies on ABC’s Saturday afternoon college football game, Aronoff boarded a red-eye flight for the 2,000-mile journey to Chicago.

Aronoff, who graduated from Penn State with a mathematics degree before earning his Master of Business Administration degree from Northwestern, doesn’t view all the travel as work, though.

“Most people my age are usually retired, spending time at home,” Aronoff said. “They only get to take a vacation like this maybe once or twice a year.”

But arriving in his Chicago hotel room at 8 a.m. Central time, Aronoff sleeps for only about an hour before heading off to the Sunday Night Baseball production meeting at 10, then coming back to his room to prepare for the night’s game.

Preparation isn’t limited to studying the Tigers and White Sox lineups, though.

His hotel room TV is set to the NFL matchup between the Minnesota Vikings and Miami Dolphins, and he sits at his laptop just a few feet away scrolling through MLB box scores from the day’s afternoon games.

“It’s just as important to know what’s going on in other games as it is the one you’re going to be working,” Aronoff said. “If something happens tonight that has already happened earlier in the day, I wanna be able to immediately get Jon Miller that information on the air.”

Despite the years of experience, Aronoff isn’t immune to the effects of all that travel, though.

Sitting in his computer chair, Aronoff starts to nod off, but jolts himself awake just as Brett Favre’s 4th-and-6 pass to Visanthe Shiancoe falls incomplete, ending the Vikings’ chances of a comeback.

Aronoff instantly flips over to FOX, where the Dallas Cowboys are still battling the Chicago Bears, then reaches over and nudges his mouse to get rid of the screensaver — a slideshow of baseball photos — and continues scrolling through box scores.

At about 3:30, Aronoff stands up and sorts through the stacks of notes, newspapers and press releases that he has stockpiled on the desk in his hotel room to get the materials he needs for the night’s game.

Off to the Stadium

He loads the material into a small suitcase, and wheels it behind him as he heads down from his 23rd-floor hotel room to wait for his ride to the stadium.

As soon as an ESPN staffer arrives to pick him up, Aronoff climbs into the back seat and immediately pulls out his iPad to track the Washington Redskins and Houston Texans game, which is only in the first quarter.

Minutes later, the truck pulls up to the Ritz-Carlton hotel and Miller hops in the front seat.

Aronoff and Miller waste no time catching up on all the happenings from around Major League Baseball, talking about Troy Tulowitzki’s recent hot streak — 15 homeruns and 33 RBIs in the month of September up to that point — and the Chicago Cubs’ 17-7 record since Mike Quade, or “that new guy” as Miller put it, took over as the team’s interim manager.

“It’s all about loving what you do,” Aronoff said. “I don’t study these things or research them because it’s my job. These are things I’d be interested in and talking about regardless of what I did for a living.”

Now, as he finishes up his second plate in the Stadium Club, Aronoff, the last media member left in the restaurant, makes his way up one floor to the press box.

Football is Quick Diversion

He grabs a seat in front of a TV displaying the Redskins-Texans clash, and to Aronoff — even though he’s sitting in the press box with an empty score sheet, lineups for both teams and the night’s media release in front of him — this is time to relax.

“With my hectic schedule, you have to steal moments when you can,” he said. “Like this, right now, just relaxing and watching some football.”

But with a job that doubles as a main hobby, Aronoff is never really off the clock.

CBS play-by-play man Ian Eagle comments about Texans quarterback Matt Schaub surpassing 400 yards passing on the day, and a passer-by behind Aronoff says Schaub is “surprisingly” having a good game.

Aronoff counters quickly, saying that he’s not that surprised. After all, he points out, Schaub passed for more than 4,500 yards last season.

Finally, as Neil Rackers boots the game-winning field goal for the Texans, Aronoff gathers his papers and makes his way to the ESPN booth, taking his seat alongside Miller, Morgan and Hershiser.

The trio shoots their pregame introduction, and then Aronoff quickly proves his worth before many fans are even settled into their seats, as he is already scribbling and holding up little notes for Miller in the first inning.

Aronoff flashes a scrap paper saying “33,” and Miller effortlessly slips it into his broadcast that Jeremy Bonderman is about to throw his 33rd pitch.

The interactions continue throughout the night, with Aronoff jotting down numbers and abbreviations that Miller seamlessly incorporates into the broadcast, a result of the chemistry the two have developed working together over the past 20 years.

Miller isn’t the only beneficiary of Aronoff’s number-crunching abilities, though, as a couple times throughout the night Aronoff hands a paper to someone in the booth and has them deliver it down the line to Hershiser.

“The great thing about Marty is you don’t get conventional statistics,” Hershiser said. “He thinks outside the box. He will give you stats and you’re just like, ‘Wow, that’s amazing that he would even think of that.’ They’re things where you’d have to really break down your score sheet to find, and you know he’s really watching the game closely.”

And that’s never more evident than when the game enters the bottom of the ninth inning.

With the visiting Tigers holding a four-run lead, many of the fans have found their way to the exits with the game seemingly out of reach — not to mention, the game is meaningless in the standings, as both teams are out of the playoff race.

And while the announcers obviously can’t leave early, they have begun doing their equivalent, packing up some of their papers and getting ready to do their postgame reaction segment.

But not Aronoff.

He’s Still in the Game

As A.J. Pierzynski walks to the plate to lead off the ninth inning, Aronoff is still shuffling his papers and scribbling notes — almost like he knows the White Sox are about to storm back with a four-run ninth, and force extra innings.

“I take every game, regardless who’s playing or what the situation is, the same,” Aronoff said. “I have reputations to protect, both mine and the announcers for that night, and whatever game I’m doing on a particular night, that’s the only game that matters at the time.”

Don’t think Aronoff doesn’t have his share of fun during games, though.

Surrounded by stat sheets and used scrap pieces of paper, Aronoff has a headset on along with the other three guys, listening in on the broadcast and sharing in the fun.

“The best thing about Marty being here is every time he gives me a stat and I use it, I crumple up the paper and throw it back at him,” said Hershiser, a former Cy Young award-winning pitcher. “One time I mistakenly hit him in the face, though. I was aiming for the back of his head and he turned toward me to give me the next stat and it hit him in the face. I got really gunshy after that, so now I only throw changeups.”

And sure enough, in the fourth inning, Aronoff sends a stat down to Hershiser, who after reading it on the air, rolls up the paper, but only fakes throwing it back. Aronoff laughs, shakes his head and then scribbles the next stat, handing it to Miller.

Three innings later, though, Hershiser balls up one of Aronoff’s tidbits and lets it fly in his direction.

The 72-year-old Aronoff turns just in time to see the paper coming toward him — but that doesn’t stop him from swiftly dropping his pen, lifting his hand to catch the paper and throwing it right back at an unsuspecting Hershiser.

He Likes the Pace

All the travel and constant work over the years hasn’t seemed to slow Aronoff down, but he says it has actually had the opposite effect.

Having a job that demands so much focus, time and energy has kept him “sharp” over the years, Aronoff said, which is one of the reasons he doesn’t plan on lessening his work load from the usual four to six games he does each week, anytime soon.

“It all comes back to just loving this job so much,” Aronoff said. “Because I do love it so much, I’d be sitting at home watching the game on TV anyway and saying, ‘Hey, I should be working that game.’ ”

So it’s no surprise that after working the 11-inning Tigers’ victory on Chicago’s South Side, Aronoff was up early the next morning, boarding a flight for a 2,000-mile trip to San Francisco for Monday Night Football.

There’s no need to book a hotel room for the nomadic Aronoff, though.

He’ll get there just in time to go straight to the stadium, work the game, and then board a red-eye flight home to Washington, D.C. to spend his one day at home of the week in his house on D.C’s upper Northwest side, just minutes from the Maryland border.

The following morning he’s boarding on a plane at Reagan Airport — which he flies out of all but about two times a year when he uses Dulles International — to New York City for a Wednesday night clash between the Yankees and Red Sox.

Aronoff spends the next 12 days traveling around the country, working two college football games in Texas, another New York baseball game, an NFL game in Illinois, a baseball contest in California and a college football game in Utah — a primetime Friday night clash between Utah State and Brigham Young University.

Immediately following that game, Aronoff is on his way to Chestnut Hill, Mass., for a primetime Saturday night rivalry game on ABC between Boston College and Notre Dame.

Aronoff took off from Utah after the Friday night game, connected in Atlanta, Ga., and, because of the time zone changes, didn’t arrive in Massachusetts until 3 p.m. Saturday.

But he was in the booth plenty of time before kickoff, and one man who was certainly happy he was, aside from that night’s broadcasters obviously, was Wildhack, who has known the well-traveled statistician for 30 years.

“He’s somebody who has an extremely important role in the telecast and does it in a very professional, understated manner,” Wildhack said. “He’s an absolute legend in the sports business.”

Wildhack also noted that any play-by-play announcer who has worked alongside Aronoff has become a better commentator as a direct result of Aronoff’s presence.

The play-by-play announcer in Boston that night, Sean McDonough, agreed and said Aronoff deserves the credit for a lot of the things he, or any commentator working with Aronoff, says on the air.

‘It’s Obviously Marty’

“He makes all of us a lot better, he hands you little nuggets of information that you never would have thought of yourself,” McDonough said. “And then you make an interesting point on the air and you look smart, and people think it’s because you generated it when, in fact, it’s obviously Marty.”

And while McDonough might not mention Aronoff at the start of the telecast when introducing himself and Matt Millen, that night’s analyst, or when he signs off at the end of the night, Aronoff still ends up being a key part of the broadcast on that chilly, cloudless Boston night.

As Millen rants about Boston College’s struggling offense behind freshman quarterback Chase Rittig midway through the first quarter, Aronoff listens carefully through his headset and quickly writes down “0-4” on one of his scrap pieces of paper.

Millen, without missing a beat, glances down the line and sees the paper. He ends his analysis by saying, “Rittig has started 0-for-4 so far tonight,” providing statistical evidence for everything he had just talked about. Millen smoothly incorporates the stat, which was made possible by Aronoff not only following the game and keeping precise stats, but also by his ability to balance that with also following everything the commentators talk about during the broadcast.

It’s those kinds of things that make McDonough and other commentators believe that Aronoff truly makes them better at their own jobs, and that’s something McDonough hopes Aronoff can provide for a long time to come, even with the high demand of working so many games each week.

“I don’t know how he does it,” McDonough said. “But he’s somewhere every night, I worry about him a little bit because I love him dearly, he’s a wonderful friend. I just hope he doesn’t run himself into the ground, but he keeps showing up, and I hope he does for a long, long time because he’s a joy to work with.”

And as far as Aronoff is concerned, McDonough won’t need to start looking for a new partner anytime soon.

Aronoff said he hasn’t considered retirement yet because it’s one of those things where he will just know when it’s time — and Tirico, for one, is thankful it hasn’t crossed his mind.

“You could put someone in Marty’s place,” he said, “but you could never, ever replace him.”

Not retiring, or even cutting back his workload, despite his acknowledging that most people his age are retired, again comes back to the passion Aronoff has for his job.

“I might not have many years left,” Aronoff said, “so I’m going to enjoy the ones I do have.”

While the commentators he works with, the networks he works for and the viewers at home may all benefit from this decision, that lingering knee problem might not.

As Aronoff leaves U.S Cellular Field on that mid-September night, Scott Maynard, a cameraman for Sunday Night Baseball and a long-time friend of Aronoff’s, walks with him down the tunnel toward the parking lot.

“I hate seeing you like that Marty,” Maynard says about Aronoff’s noticeable limp. “When are you going to get that knee taken care of?”

Aronoff, as usual, doesn’t hesitate with his answer.

“When I retire,” he says, with a smile.

Paul: You are getting there, but you also need to:

  1. Talk to a producer, or whomever, about how these teams go together and who comprises them.
  2. Work in: Where does Marty live? How far is he from the airport? Which airport does he normally fly out of when home? Does he have a favorite airline? Give us an estimate of how many miles he flies a year. Is he single? Does he live in a apartmet or house, etc?And we need, very simply, more non-Marty stuff on the broadcast teams themselves. Remember: This is a feature, with Marty as the thread.