No voice for radio? Turns out Rangers’ Nadel has perfect pitch

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The Voice comes to us mostly in the night, weaving its magic through the humid summer air of a thousand Texas twilight evenings. *  It finds us as we sip cool beverages on patios and screened porches, settled comfortably into our Adirondacks or rocking chairs, or as we wend our way through traffic on the way home from a long day at the office. *  For more than 3 1/2 decades it has been The Voice that soothes our troubled souls, that comforts us, that fits our reflective moods like an old pair of faded blue jeans, soft and secure. *  Somehow, it makes us believe again. *  Hard to believe now, that there were those who once told Eric Nadel that he likely didn’t have a voice big enough for baseball or a radio career.

Perhaps that’s what they should engrave on his plaque when they hang it on the wall at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown on Saturday. Or maybe, instead, they should steal these words from Nadel’s sister, Dr. Laurie Nadel:

“I truly believe that baseball has some kind of magical healing power, and Eric somehow manages to exude that with his enthusiasm. After 36 years, he still captures that magic in his broadcasts.”

It absolutely is magical, what Nadel does with a microphone and the game so many Americans grew up with and learned to love as it was handed down from fathers to sons and daughters. The mike is Nadel’s artist’s brush and the airwaves are his canvas.

For Rangers fans, Nadel is to Texas baseball what Frederic Remington is to Western art.

And all we have to do to appreciate the artistry, to feel the magic, is settle back and listen as he paints his masterpieces on warm summer evenings.

No wonder he keeps being invited back into our homes, and cars, and backyards over, and over, and over again. Through the years, he has become one of our best friends.

No surprise then, that that’s exactly what Nadel aims to do each summer night when he takes his place in the booth, whether it be at Globe Life Park in Arlington, or in Seattle, or New York, or wherever the Rangers’ travels take them. Nadel is there to describe the action in his own inimitable way.

It’s like two friends talking baseball: Eric and the listener.

“I can tell you as an announcer — and this would be true even if I hadn’t had the benefit of sitting next to him every day for three years — that he does the little things, little picture-painting things, that is the essence of what we’re supposed to do,” said Brad Sham, longtime radio voice of the Dallas Cowboys. “They put you in the ballpark. You can picture every little detail.

“In radio, we’re talking to truck drivers and sightless people. You listen to [Nadel] tell you the color of the lettering on the players’ jerseys, the color of the pitcher’s sweatshirt under the jersey, what his glove looks like, how he’s holding it; that’s what all of us in radio are supposed to do every day. I don’t know anyone who does that more consistently or better than Eric.”

A childhood dream

There is definitely some irony that a skinny kid who grew up playing stickball on the streets of Brooklyn, listening to Yankee games on the radio with his dad, would someday become the beloved voice of the Texas Rangers. His folks wanted him to be a lawyer, or maybe a dentist like his dad.

But Nadel knew by age 7 exactly what he hoped to be when he grew up.

“I was riding in the car with my dad, listening to a Yankees game, and I asked him if [Hall of Fame broadcaster] Mel Allen was getting paid,” Nadel recalls. “He said, yes. So I said, ‘You go to the office and pull teeth and fill cavities and he goes to Yankee Stadium, drinks beer, eats hot dogs and watches baseball games? I think I like his deal better than yours.’ 

Nobody ever said Nadel wasn’t smart. After all, he darn near made a perfect SAT score coming out of high school (800 on the math portion, slightly less than that on the English, back when 1,600 was as good as it gets). And though he would major in political science at Ivy League Brown University (there were no radio courses), there was never any doubt where Nadel was headed.

Laurie still remembers Eric doing play-by-play for the stickball games the neighborhood kids played there on East 27th Street, between Avenue L and Avenue M in Brooklyn. By the time he was 14, Nadel’s parents had bought him a tape recorder and he was turning the TV sound down so he could “broadcast” Yankee games in the living room.

After his senior year in high school, he spent six summer weeks as a disc jockey — “a really bad one,” he says now — at Hope, Ark. But it gave him his first taste of professional radio. When he arrived at Brown, he knew how to run the studio equipment, putting him a giant step ahead of other freshmen.

By then, Nadel was doubting that baseball announcing was for him. During his junior year he’d attended a program at Northwestern University for aspiring radio announcers and that allowed him to spend a day with the White Sox broadcasters at Comiskey Park.

“That’s when I decided I didn’t want to do baseball,” Nadel recalls. “It was too hard and too boring and slow. It was a bad, long, Sunday doubleheader and it was hot and these guys were wearing coats and ties because they were traveling that day. I thought, ‘This is too hard. I have to find a sport with a little more action.’ 

At Brown, where the college radio station was strictly extracurricular, Nadel immediately became a DJ and newscaster. That experience along with his love and knowledge of sports, helped him land a job doing minor league hockey play-by-play in Muskegon, Mich., after he graduated.

By his third winter, Nadel was cold and discouraged. He decided if he couldn’t get out of Muskegon by the end of that season, he would finally bow to his parents’ wishes and pursue the law degree they wished for him. He began applying to law schools across the country.

Then came “The Break” that would eventually bring Nadel to Texas. He was hired to do Triple A hockey at Oklahoma City. A year later, the team merged with the Dallas Blackhawks and moved south across the Red River.

Finally, Nadel thought, a big-city job. But his high spirits were soon dashed.

“After my second year in Dallas, the team told me they were moving to New Brunswick,” Nadel says. “I thought, ‘Oh, no!’ but they told me, ‘Don’t worry, you can’t go.’ We have to hire a Canadian for the job.”

A new career path

Just like that, Nadel’s broadcasting career had stalled yet again. What he didn’t know was that his warm and outgoing personality had already laid the groundwork for his life’s work.

While broadcasting Blackhawks games, he had met and talked to Rangers general manager Dan O’Brien a couple of times at sports banquets. When the Rangers began looking for a young announcer to groom as Bill Merrill’s replacement as the second man on their broadcasts — remember, this was when the team was looking for every financial shortcut it could find — O’Brien told Roy Parks, the head of the Rangers’ radio network, he should give Nadel a call. Parks did.

“They were looking for a younger guy who could eventually replace Bill and a guy who could immediately help them sell advertising and put the network together,” Nadel says. “They were actually looking for two different people, but I told Roy if they’d give me the broadcast job, I’d do the other one, too.”

It was an offer the budget-minded Parks couldn’t resist.

This was in August 1978. By the ’79 season, Nadel was doing color for the Rangers’ 27 TV games and also spent two innings doing play-by-play on the radio during those games, working with No. 1 guy Jon Miller.

“I actually worked with Eric the very first game that he did at spring training against Kansas City in Fort Myers,” says Miller, now the voice of the San Francisco Giants and a Ford Frick winner himself. “I remember the game went into extra innings and Kansas City brought in some guy with the number 92 or 97, or whatever it was, and I’m looking through the press guide, trying to find him and Eric says, ‘Oh, I’ve got stuff on him.’ And I look over and he has this yellow legal pad with page after page of stuff on this guy. To this day, that’s the most prepared that I’ve ever seen anyone in this business.”

Miller would learn later that Nadel’s penchant for preparation had taken him from Port Charlotte, Fla., to Fort Lauderdale a few days earlier when the Royals were there playing the Yankees. Nadel had stocked up on info about the Royals so he’d be ready when the Rangers played them a few a days later.

“The fact that he took the time to go to that game in the spring really impressed me,” says Miller. It’s why Miller recommended to Parks that Nadel get some play-by-play exposure on the Rangers’ broadcasts that coming season.

“The great positive that Eric brings, and why the fans like him so much, is that he paints such a vivid picture of the game,” Miller notes. “He doesn’t leave any blank spaces. He paints a complete sequential picture that makes fans feel like they actually saw the play.

“That’s not as easy to do as people might think. There are plenty of announcers who don’t paint as complete a picture. Eric focuses on the game. He’s got his stats and stories, he’s got anecdotes, he has things that are pertinent to the game that he filters through his excellent sense of humor.”

Miller and Nadel have remained fast friends, each appreciating the other’s talents. Not every team has had two Ford Frick Award winners pass through their booth in the last 36 years.

“I think Eric is one of the very best radio play-by-play men in the game,” Miller says. “There are plenty of guys who have a deeper voice, a more commanding voice, however you want to put it. But what Eric does is much more complex than that and much more demanding that that.

“For him to be that popular and as well-loved as he is, says everything about how good he is.”

On the job training

By 1980, Miller had moved on to Boston, replaced by Mel Proctor, and Nadel was involved in all of the team’s broadcasts. He was learning on the job, but his greatest teacher was still to come.

“Jon Miller had the most impact on me initially,” Nadel points out. “That first year I didn’t know what I was doing and he taught me how to keep score, how to use your personality, pacing, things like that.

“Then I improved by leaps and bounds after Holtzie came in ’82. He was the best.”

Mark Holtz. Has there ever been a better radio twosome in baseball than Holtz and Nadel? You could start a brawl in just about any saloon in the Metroplex by taking the wrong side of that argument.

Nadel learned more than he could articulate from working alongside Holtz, but mostly he learned how important it was to communicate with the audience on a personal level.

“The ability to communicate the joy of just being there, at the ballpark,” Nadel said. “To get the warmth across, that was one of Holtzie’s greatest gifts; the idea that if you were a good guy and could somehow communicate that to the audience, that was half the battle. Make them want to just hang out with you; Holtzie did that better than anybody.”

What Holtz, who died of a blood disease at age 51 in 1997, once did so well is now Nadel’s greatest strength as a broadcaster.

After the ’94 season, the Rangers were changing radio stations, from WBAP to KRLD, and Holtz knew his new insurance company probably wouldn’t insure his wife, who had a pre-existing condition. So he struck a deal to do TV only and stayed with WBAP as well, doing commentaries and making appearances in order to keep his insurance in effect.

Suddenly, in 1995, Nadel was no longer just Holtz’s wacky sidekick. The floor was his.

“His decision to go to TV allowed me to become the No. 1 guy, but I would have been happy being the No. 2 guy forever if Holtzie had been the No. 1 guy,” Nadel says. “I didn’t aspire to his chair.”

And yes, Nadel realizes that would mean he wouldn’t be about to go into the Hall of Fame.

“I wouldn’t have the success I’ve had now. I wouldn’t have won the Ford Frick Award ever; he would have won it years ago as he should have,” Nadel says. “But when he did make the decision to go to TV, it gave me the opportunity to do the more expanded role, to grow as an announcer, to find out if I really was suited to be the No. 1 guy, which I didn’t know if I could do, nobody did at the time.”

Losing Holtz just two years later devastated Nadel.

“He brought light and love into my life every day,” Nadel says. “Rarely a day goes by that I don’t think about him when I walk into the booth or I’m preparing for a game, and that’s even on the road, where they’re not saying, ‘It’s baseball time in Texas,’ or they’re not flashing ‘Hello Win Column!’ on the scoreboard.

“I just loved having him around, loved sharing everything with him. He was just a super, warm, giving guy, a great friend. I’ve never had a friend that close to me die, and I can still feel that.”

Beyond baseball

That doesn’t surprise those close to Nadel, who is known for his warmth, his generosity and his variety of interests outside of baseball.

He especially loves music, which has led him to becoming part-owner of a Greenville club in Dallas called The Vagabond, where Nadel books the music acts.

He and wife Jeannie have been married 27 years. Jeannie, a former school teacher, is now a pet grief counselor — and they’re also dedicated dog lovers and the proud “parents” of 15-year-old Nemo, a husky-lab mix. Nadel personally secured the funding for Dallas’ first leash-free dog park.

Nemo has been fighting a terminal illness and when he became deathly sick in June while the Rangers were on the road, Nadel immediately flew home from Detroit to be with Jeannie and Nemo. Nemo recovered and the Nadels consider each day with him a blessing.

Spanish culture is another of Nadel’s interests. He began studying Spanish in 1990 and has traveled extensively through Latin and Central America, where he has established long-lasting relationships.

He and Jeannie have vacation homes in Austin (soon to be sold) and Durango, Colo., where Jeannie hopes they’ll retire one day.

Nadel, however, has no plans in that direction.

“When Vin Scully announced that he was coming back to the Dodgers for another year at 86, I sent Jeannie a link to the story,” Nadel said. “She emailed back, ‘Over my dead body!’ 

That they can still have fun with each other after more than a quarter of a century is what keeps their marriage healthy and vibrant.

What Jeannie loves most about Eric is “his open-mindedness, [his] willingness to compromise and willingness to change and stretch beyond his limits.”

Jeannie describes him as “supportive, emotionally available, and always available to help me [and others], even if he’s on the road. One of the best guys on the planet. He’s always seeking to unite rather than divide.”

Nice try, Jeannie, but he’s still not ready to hang up his mike anytime soon.

Nadel, 62, is well aware that many baseball play-by-play men work well into their 80s. He enjoys his job too much to even contemplate quitting yet and has no idea when that notion might strike him. He can’t see that far into the future.

There are those who will tell you that Nadel has seen so much bad baseball in his 36 years of doing Rangers games that he deserves Hall of Fame recognition for that if nothing else.

But for Nadel, his highest and lowest moments as a Rangers’ broadcaster are inevitably linked in his mind and in his heart and came within 12 months of each other.

“Winning the pennant in 2010, that’s head and shoulders above everything else,” he says. “The moment that A-Rod struck out and The Ballpark went crazy. I kind of lost it for about half a minute; I teared up and got really emotional as the stadium exploded and I could feel the euphoria from the fans.

“The best thing was to just lay out and let the crowd tell the story, the question was how long. The decision on how long was made entirely by by how long it took me to get it back together so that I could actually talk and say the things I wanted to say in summation.”

What Nadel said was, “The Rangers are going to the World Series!’’ and then he didn’t say anything more for about 40 seconds, letting the sounds of the joyous ballpark fill the Texas airways as he regained his composure.

“Later that night I started hearing from people, through emails, Facebook and stuff like that, about how moved they were by the moment and how people had driven off the road overcome with emotion,” he recalls. “It was probably the most satisfying night career-wise I’d ever had.

“It had taken this long for the Rangers to get to that point and we’d gone through so many difficult times and to do it against the Yankees and to do it against A-Rod, you couldn’t write a better script.”

Clubhouse manager Rich “Hoggy” Price had handed Nadel an American League Champion T-shirt as he was leaving that night. After celebrating with friends at home until about 4 in the morning, Nadel spread the T-shirt on the floor next to his bed, “so that when I woke up in the middle of the night or the next morning, I would know immediately that it wasn’t a dream, that we really were going to the World Series.”

The low point, of course, came a year later, when the Rangers lost Game 6, and then Game 7, in the 2011 World Series in St. Louis.

“I don’t know if I’ve recovered from that and I don’t know if I ever will,” Nadel admits. “If we do win the World Series someday, maybe I’ll stop thinking the way I do about St. Louis, but right now it’s a really painful memory.”

Pinnacle of honors

Nadel was inducted into the Rangers Hall of Fame two years ago and has been cemented into the hearts of Rangers fans for many years before that. Now comes the pinnacle of honors for a major league baseball broadcaster: the Ford Frick Award.

“It was never a high priority for me, never a goal,” Nadel says. “I would have been perfectly fine working the rest of my career if I hadn’t won.

“But it’s the highest award you can receive as a baseball announcer and it’s validation that everything I’ve done, I’ve done it the right way. I’ve always done it in my own unique style, which is very different from other announcers.”

Nadel sees himself as more of a “personality announcer,” and that has served him well.

“I don’t have a big voice,” he says, repeating what he was once told over and over again. “I was told at the beginning of my Ranger career that I might not even have a good enough voice to keep the job. For me to win the award despite not having a classic announcer’s voice indicates that I have been able to use whatever my talents are, my intelligence, my humor, my personality and my hard work, to do a good job.

“The main thing is the validation that people like listening to you, that I’ve entertained them, and that’s my No. 1 aim.”

Nadel expects more than 150 friends and family to attend the ceremony Saturday, even though he was given only 80 tickets to distribute.

Nolan Ryan thinks so much of Eric as a friend and a broadcaster, he will make the trek to Cooperstown — and it’s not easy to get into or out of in upstate New York — for the first time since his own induction in 1999.

“What I like about Eric is that he’s what I consider an old-style announcer,” Ryan says. “You look forward to listening to his broadcasts, not just because of the game but because of his delivery and the relationship he develops with his listeners.

“That’s what I really enjoy in a radio announcer. I always enjoyed listening to different broadcasters who made a special connection with the fans over the course of my career and Eric falls into that category.”

Nadel starts each broadcast with this goal in mind: observe, describe, react.

“Painting a word picture, that’s observing and describing,” he says. “Reacting is using my personality and expertise to provide whatever insights I’m going to provide within my own personality.”

Nadel has done that with a flair, a warmth, an intimacy, that has made him a member of the family ... yours, mine, all of us who listened to him weave his magic over the years.

For thousands upon thousands of Rangers’ fans over much of the last four decades, The Voice that wasn’t supposed to be good enough has supplied us with the soundtrack of our lives.

If you don’t believe it, just close your eyes, open your ears, and listen.

Leave a message for Jim Reeves at 817-390-7697.

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