Busy Chargers' announcer Josh Lewin has one foot on ground and the other in the air as he shuttles between coasts to meet demands of NFL and MLB broadcasts
by Kirk Wilson on May 20, 2014
Sure, there had been close calls before, but the announcer, keeping his promise to his employer, had never once missed an assignment.
The 6 a.m. flight from New York to San Diego was scheduled to land at Lindbergh Field at 11, leaving six hours before the start of the pre-season game between the Chargers and the Green Bay Packers. Plenty of time to check in to the hotel, review game notes and head to Mission Valley.
It was two minutes past kickoff when the plane touched down in San Diego. The taxi could get no closer than Friars Road before traffic was at a standstill, leaving the passenger with a half-mile sprint in 88-degree heat to get to his office, the radio broadcast booth at Qualcomm Stadium.
But that run was nothing new. Josh Lewin has always been a young man in a hurry.
Lewin is entering his 10th season as the radio voice of the Chargers, doing play-by-play while former Charger player and coach Hank Bauer - now in his 17th year as a broadcaster - handles analyst duties. It is a bi-coastal existence for the 45-year-old Lewin, who also shares radio announcing duties for the New York Mets. If that isn't sufficiently complicated, there's this: his children live in Dallas, where Lewin previously worked as the long-time TV broadcaster for the Texas Rangers, so he maintains a home there, too.
You won't hear any complaints from him, though. It is all part of living the dream for Lewin, who discovered his passion for calling sports while growing up in Rochester, N.Y.
"I still have tapes of Bears and Lions games from when I was 9, 10, 11 years old, when they would come on TV on Sunday afternoons," said Lewin. "I would turn down the sound and babble into a cassette recorder," doing his own play by play. It wasn't much later that he was doing games for real.
When he was 16 he nabbed an unpaid job with the announcers of the Rochester Red Wings, his hometown's AAA International League baseball team. "I loudly announced to them that I was going to be their intern and I kept showing up. I would do whatever it took to be around the broadcast. Eventually, they let me read the scores during the fifth inning, then do play by play during the fifth inning, then pre- and post-game shows," said Lewin.
By the time he graduated with a degree in journalism from Northwestern, the full-time job as the Red Wings' broadcaster awaited him.
"I was that snotty kid that wouldn't go away," explaining the key to his success. "I tell people, you make your own luck." You don't want to irritate people, said Lewin, but "the secret is sometimes just showing up."
Within a few years, he was showing up everywhere.
In 1994, he won a promotion from the Orioles' top minor league affiliate to the big-league team's flagship station, WBAL. The next two years, he broadcast the O's games on radio. He moved to the Midwest to broadcast the Chicago Cubs on WGN-TV for a season then on to Detroit for Tigers' games for three years on the Fox Sports Network.
Those jobs led to him landing the play-by-play TV job with the Texas Rangers in 2002 at just 33 years old, a job he remained at for nine years. But it wasn't his only job.
Lewin grew up a passionate fan of both baseball and football (he said that, at 5-foot-6, he didn't play much football but loved it nonetheless) but "I didn't have much of an ‘in' with football at first; baseball was my purview." That began to change while he was at the Fox Network, working its Saturday afternoon Major League Baseball and National Hockey League broadcasts.
"Every once in a while Fox would have a need for a play-by-play broadcaster when they had a seventh or eighth weekend game," said Lewin. "They had six crews already set but they would need a random seventh or eighth guy. For a few years, I was ‘Random Seventh Guy' and did a lot of Arizona Cardinal games," where he would broadcast to a tiny fraction of the nation.
"That got me into the NFL," he said, and he later added gigs broadcasting the NFL on SportsUSA Radio, Conference USA football, Big 12 basketball, and even pro and college hockey when not covering the Rangers.
It also opened the door to become the lead radio announcer for the Bolts.
"The Chargers were changing radio stations and Jim Steeg (the Chargers' former chief operating officer) was kicking around who they could bring in and recommend to the new station" as play-by-play man, explained Lewin. "From Jim's days with the NFL, he was very tight with (then-Fox Sports CEO) David Hill. David said, ‘I have a guy who is always bugging me about doing football. I don't have room for him, but you are welcome to talk to him.'"
Lewin jumped at the opportunity.
"I had been a Chargers' fan on the periphery," said Lewin while chatting in a Washington, D.C.-area hotel hours before the Mets were playing the Washington Nationals. "I always liked their style, going back to the (Dan) Fouts' days.
"I liked the cut of their jib. I didn't grow up in San Diego, so I wasn't a dyed-in-the-wool fan. If they played the (Buffalo) Bills, I rooted for the Bills; if they played anyone else, I pulled for the Chargers."
It was Lewin's good fortune that he was carefully watching the Chargers' 2004 wildcard playoff game. An otherwise crushing 20-17 Chargers' overtime loss turned out to be an opportune victory for Lewin.
"When I came to interview and audition with the radio station, they put the fourth quarter of the Jets' game on and had me and Hank do the game. I was really familiar with it and I knew Hank from his days with the Padres," so - to use a baseball analogy since football doesn't seem to have many - they knocked the ball out of the park and won the job.
His good fortune didn't end there. His first week in the new assignment was a sports lover's nirvana.
It started with the Rangers playing the Boston Red Sox in Fenway Park on a Thursday night. The next evening, the Chargers opened their pre-season at Lambeau Field against the Packers. On Saturday, Lewin headed south to Wrigley Field for a Fox Game of the Week featuring the rivalry between the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs. On Sunday, he was at Yankee Stadium for another Rangers' game.
"The most amazing run ever," said Lewin, still smiling at the nine-year-old memory. "Some pretty crazy travel, but four days in a row at arguably the most iconic venues in sports. That's how I got going. I remember thinking, ‘This is just heaven.'"
But all good runs come to an end. For Lewin, that happened after the 2010 baseball season when he and the Rangers jointly ended their relationship. He was criticized in the media for his ironic sense of humor, his tendency to reference Seinfeld episodes, and missing Saturday Rangers' games to broadcast for the Chargers (apparently the last charge would have been forgivable had they been Dallas Cowboys' games).
Lewin takes it all in stride and knows it is best to be true to himself.
And part of being true to himself was acknowledging that radio is his true passion and calling. He answered the call, and bounced back from the career detour in Texas, when he was named part of the radio broadcasting team for the Mets in 2012.
"Radio is by far my preference. It certainly doesn't pay what TV does but it gives you the creative freedom to paint a picture. With TV, all you are doing is putting captions on a picture. ... Good ‘scratch' but I really like radio better," he said.
He refuses to name a preference between baseball and football.
"It is not even like apples and oranges," said Lewin. "It is more like apples and pancakes. They are completely different. Baseball is a story teller's medium. You are sipping a lemonade on the porch, just completely kicking back. Baseball lends itself to research and description. I really enjoy that."
On the other hand, "football is kind of like Twitter. As a play-by-play announcer you get 140 characters and that's it. You have to be concise. The issue there is making sure you are in and out in time, giving Hank time enough to be Hank. Football is more of an analyst's medium. I'm not going to be able to explain like Hank can why something is happening the way it is happening."
If there is a similarity between the sports, it is in the preparation to broadcast them. Both require long hours of research, maintenance of files, and one-on-one time with the players.
Baseball is everyday upkeep," Lewin said. "Constant maintenance. By 11 a.m. I am looking at every newspaper I can find, reading everything I can on the internet" about the Mets and the day's opponent.
Lewin tries to visit the opposing clubhouse on the first day of a series in order to talk to everybody he can and learn things that he can pass along to the listener. "How's this guy swinging right now? Is his wife having a baby? Does he have a bad hamstring?"
In the offseason, he updates his files on every Major League player. The day we chatted, the Miami Marlins had traded Greg Dobbs to the Nationals. "I have a biographical file on Dobbs. Probably have five, six or seven articles on him. I've talked with him and seen him live. All this goes into a ‘Greg Dobbs file' that I can update in November or February so that when he gets traded I can just move it from one team to another."
With just one game a week as opposed to five or six, football's homework is very different, according to Lewin.
By now he has the week down to a science.
"Monday is a rest day. A clear-your-head day," he said. "Starting Tuesday, I will put together everything from what happened the week before regarding the Chargers. Tuesday is Chargers' upkeep day: Who did what? Who needs to get better at what? What happened in the last game that will affect things going forward? I update every player and coach."
That leaves Wednesday, Thursday and Friday to go bananas on the opponent," Lewin said.
"Friday and Saturday are the hardest ones," he continued. "I will work 20 to 30 hours up to Saturday just compiling information" - from tapes, reading material and player interviews. "Saturday is the day for organizing that. Put a cheat sheet together. Memorize numbers."
He also uses the time to study likely offensive and defensive formations and which players are likely to be grouped together. "It is like line changes in hockey. If somebody is out in the slot on the far side, who is that likely to be and what are they likely to do? You get a sense of your own team pretty quickly and Kansas City, Denver and Oakland, too, because you see them all the time."
And make no mistake, while purists argue for no cheering in the press box, the Chargers are Lewin's team.
"I know it flies in the convention of journalism that you are supposed to be disinterested and dispassionate, but the Chargers are my guys," emphasized Lewin. "You travel with them; you eat with them; you meet their families. Just like any other walk of life, once you get on the inside you are going to feel their passion and you are going to wear it."
He is particularly fond of the players who were there when he first began his Chargers' job.
"Nick Hardwick ... Philip Rivers joined when I joined. Shawn Phillips was always a really interesting guy to talk to. Obviously LT (LaDanian Tomlinson) when he was there. (Antonio) Gates is a personal favorite just because he is a very kind, very approachable guy. Always there with a smile and asking about your kids. Nate Kaeding has remained a terrific friend."
He feels a similar warmth toward Chargers' fans.
"I can't thank Chargers fans enough. I showed up 10 years ago as a complete no-name. No one had any reason to trust my devotion to the team," he said. "Yet to a person they have been tremendously supportive. I am surprised and delighted how quickly the friendship with San Diego has formed."
It is a friendship that Lewin has no interest in seeing end.
The contract with flagship station, Rock 105.3, ends after the coming season. As an employee of the radio station and not the Chargers, Lewin's job could hang in the balance.
"I think 105.3 is the perfect spot for the Chargers but if for whatever reason a change is made one day, I don't want to be a free agent. I don't want to go anywhere.
"Someday I'd like to be able to say, ‘This is the 30th year of Josh and Hank together.' We are a third of the way there."
That young man in a hurry would be plenty happy to just settle down in San Diego.