Cubs Broadcaster Len Kasper on the 2015 Chicago Cubs, Kris Bryant, Ernie Banks and Leaving the Booth for a Roadie Gig

Cubs Broadcaster Len Kasper on the 2015 Chicago Cubs, Kris Bryant, Ernie Banks and Leaving the Booth for a Roadie Gig

Heading into his 11th season as play-by-play man for the Chicago Cubs, and on the end of a five-week stint in Arizona for spring training, Len Kasper gave a few minutes of his time to talk with Cubs Behind the Pinstripes to talk about the hype around this team, Kris Bryant, what fans can expect to see this year, his approach to broadcasting and what Ernie Banks meant to him. Oh, we also asked him about leaving the booth to tour with a band.

Be sure to catch Len’s band Len and the Rosin Bags today at the 93 XRT Opening Night Broadcast at Yakzie’s. Although he claimed no idea he knew the band’s listed name on the XRT website, Kasper still promises a fun set of XRT-focused songs. “I’m just going to hang on to the train as it goes down the tracks,” he said.

Although the set time has yet to be announced, the event starts at 4:00 PM. You can also tune in on Mondays and Fridays at 8:20 AM on XRT to hear Len talking baseball with morning DJ Lin Brehmer.

 

You are on your fifth manager as Cubs broadcaster. How does Joe Maddon stack up against the other Cubs managers you’ve worked with?

joe maddonI’ve been fortunate that all the managers we’ve had have all been great to us. Joe might be the best manager in baseball right now in terms of getting what we want and what we need. I don’t claim to know him that well, but he’s been off-the-charts accommodating, so I don’t think there will be much of a learning curve that way. He’s pretty honest, and we get what we need. That’s really all you ask as a broadcaster of a manager. Getting to hang out before the game for a few minutes to talk baseball and going over what happened the night before and to get their philosophy on how they do things.

Is the hype around this team overdone by the media trying to create a narrative for the Cubs, or is it justified?

I think the Cubs absolutely deserve the attention they get, and because it’s the Cubs I think there’s going to be more attention than there will be with other teams. The way this process is going, with the moves that were made this past off-season, there is a lot of curiosity in terms of how well this team will play. I think fans are more than ready to watch meaningful baseball for hopefully an entire six-month season, because it has been a while.

As Theo has said, “We haven’t accomplished anything yet,” but I think this is the year where people will really start to dissect the lineup and there will be major league moves as opposed to making trades that don’t necessarily affect what goes on at the big league level for a couple years. Everything that happens now pretty much directly affects what goes on on a daily basis with the big league team, and I think that’s the way everyone pretty much likes it.

Where do you see this team finishing this year? Can they be contenders?

That remains to be seen. I hate making predictions. This is a team which, because a lot of changes have been made, it’s really hard for me say they will win between this many and this many games. They won 73 last year, but this is clearly a much more talented club than it was one year ago today, so I expect them to be better.

I think winning more than they lose is a good place to start. That and being in some sort of race, whether it’s the division or Wild Card, as long as possible and as deep into the season as possible would be nice as well.

It only comes if you get off to a good start. From a baseball perspective, April and May are just as important as August and September, if not more so, and I think over the long haul, you are what you are in terms of your record. I’m just excited to see it play out. I really like not knowing what is going to happen. That’s, to me, part of the fun of this.

How do you compare the hype and expectations surrounding this team with that of the 2007 and 2008 teams you watched?

It’s similar, but those teams felt like they were built to win in a very small window. This feels like the start of something that is going to last a long time. In some ways there was more pressure on that team because you had a borderline Hall of Fame manager at the end of his career. You also had an ownership flux with the Tribune, so it was a really interesting time for this franchise.

I think there is more stability now and the team is built on a big-time farm system and younger players who are going to be here for a while. The teams are similar in terms of expectations, but this one feels like it’s going to last a lot longer, whereas [in 2007 and 2008] you definitely felt like with that veteran group, they really had to win it now because in a few years they would be retired or certainly would not be on the Cubs.

For the fans who were not able to keep close tabs on the team during spring training, who would you tell them to watch out for this year?

Jorge SolerI think Jorge Soler has been lost in the shuffle a little bit. With all the Kris Bryant hype, which is totally deserved, and a lot of focus on Javier Baez and the adjustments he needed to make, and with Jon Lester coming in and the other veteran acquisitions, you’ve got a guy in right field who I would definitely say is one of the top Rookie of the Year candidates right off the bat.

In terms of his strike zone judgement, ability to play defense in right and accurate arm, you just kind of have everything you want. The only issue going into the season is keeping his legs healthy, which is something the Cubs will do by maybe giving him a day off every week. If he does remain healthy throughout the season, the sky’s the limit.

They also signed him to a nine-year, $30 million deal. If you look at some of the deals that have been made since then, it could go down as an amazing bargain when it is all said and done.

What do you see as the greatest strengths and weaknesses of this team?

Their strength, right off the bat, is the top of the rotation with Lester and Arrieta and its depth with Hendricks and Hammel. I also have a feeling Travis Wood is going to have a comeback season. He had a really good spring, and I think last year was a wakeup call for him.

jon lesterThere’s also much more stability now in the bullpen. If you go back the last two years to start the season, that had not been the case, and it kind of felt like the early part of the season got derailed because of closer issues.

Offensively, I had some questions about whether this team could score enough runs. I think a lot of those issues will be addressed with Fowler and Montero coming in, Soler playing a full season, and we are going to see Bryant for much of the season. Tommy La Stella is also a really intriguing player in terms of getting on base.

I think they are going to strike out, but I think they will walk, which is something they have not done enough of in the past.

There is just a more dynamic makeup to this lineup. I’m not saying they are going to lead the league in runs this year, but I think they can be in the top half. At that point, with the pitching they have, now you’re talking about something.

What do you think was the problem with the Kris Bryant situation? It seems like Theo and Jed had been straight with him all along about their plans for him.

I can’t answer for him. I just know the way Theo has run things, and this goes back deep into his Boston days. I feel like they had a plan all along, so I trust his judgement.

The thing people don’t seem to give any possibility to is the fact that he might struggle, so it’s nice to get in a groove at triple A, dominate at that level for a couple weeks and then blend into the big league lineup at some point probably on the road, so you downplay the hype a little bit. And then away we go.

kris bryant anthony rizzoI trust [Theo and Jed] know what they are doing in this regard. Kris had a great spring, he is going to have probably a fantastic year and a great career here in Chicago. I’ve never quite seen anything like it in terms of the interest around a prospect like him, and it is absolutely deserved. When it’s all said and done, I don’t think we are going to remember what happened here, whether there were hurt feelings or not.

If you put yourself in his shoes at his age and what he’s already accomplished, you can understand why there would be some frustrations, but ultimately it’s about what’s best for him and the organization moving forward.

But do you think this was a business decision?

San Diego Padres v Chicago CubsI buy the baseball reasons. If you go back and check his track record, Theo has had a lot of prospects throughout his tenure as a GM and president, and he feels this is the best way to go. The system is what it is, and until that changes I think most clubs will probably handle this the way the Cubs have. There have been exceptions to that rule over the course of time, but my thing is if it’s two weeks, three weeks or whatever it is, and he still has a chance to play 130 to 140 games and be a big part of this club this year, it’s not as if he’s become a non-factor in 2015.

Do you have any concerns with the guys who will be on the Opening Day roster, from what you saw of them in spring?

I don’t view spring training as very important, so it’s hard for me to say someone has been bad. Actually I think most guys had a really good spring.

I can give you numerous examples of guys who had huge springs and then got off to terrible starts or guys who had terrible springs and got off to great starts. The cycles of baseball generally tell you if you’ve been red hot for a month, you are probably going to get cold for a week or two. In some ways you don’t want too many guys hitting .400 in spring, because there’s no evidence that it carries over [into the regular season].

You will have a few hiccups along the way, but in spring training, especially with veterans, I don’t worry about results at this point.

You are entering your 11th season with the Cubs. How, if at all, have you adjusted your approach to calling a game based on what you hear from fans?

I try to be myself as much as possible. I guess if anything, that’s the answer, in that Chicago Cubs fans—and this goes back to Brickhouse and Caray—want you to be yourself. They don’t mind if you let your hair down every once in a while.

Maybe some fans want me to sound more disappointed or excited. I’m not going to be as emotional on the air as a lot of other broadcasters, but that’s my personality. I’m definitely more even keel than a lot of announcers.

I think fans put themselves in my position, but if they did that, they might have a heart procedure about two weeks into the season. You just can’t get too up or down based on every single game when you do what I do. Again, as a fan, you’re allowed to get emotional, but when you are a broadcaster doing it every day, play-by-play guys will tell you, today’s game is today’s game. As exciting or disappointing as it can be, you usually have another game the next day and the day after that.

It’s not as if it’s an NFL season, where every game carries an enormous weight. Baseball doesn’t work quite that way. Sure, when you get into the late part of the season, the games become a lot more important, and I want my call and my tone to reflect all those things. An RBI single in the first inning on May 2nd is not going to be like a game-winning three-run homer in the bottom of the 10th on August 15. I would like to think my call would reflect that.

You get excited for things that happen on a daily basis, but there are levels of excitement. If you get too excited too early in a game or in a season, there is nowhere to go later.

You had the fortune of getting to know Ernie Banks on a personal level. What can you tell fans about the Ernie you knew and what he meant to Cubs baseball?

ernie banksHe was the same all the time. He was probably the most positive person I’ve ever met. He was the best ambassador we could ever have for baseball, the Cubs and Wrigley Field. He loved Wrigley Field, he loved the Chicago Cubs and he loved baseball. Every time I wanted to talk about him or his career, he would always turn it around to talk about those things or to ask me about myself or my family.

I know that story is repeated a lot by a lot of people, but it is true. That’s the way Ernie carried himself every single day.

I was honored to know him and call him a friend. I talked to him on the phone, and we had a lot of conversations at the ballpark on and off the air, so that one hit me really hard. It will be strange to be at the ballpark and not have Ernie there. He will be with us in spirit, no doubt.

The other thing I want to say about Ernie is he was a better player than people remember, because he didn’t want to talk about [his numbers]. Most Hall of Famers are more than happy to talk about their accomplishments. I don’t mean they are all egotistical or immodest, but Ernie was as modest and as humble a Hall of Famer I have ever met.

I wish he had tasted the playoffs and World Series, but that had nothing to do with him. It was just the teams he played on. I never felt like he had any regrets in that regard, in that he was cheated out of anything in his career. He just loved being a Chicago Cub.

Have you gotten used to the guest conductors?

I’m still putting my arms around it 10 years later. I enjoy most of them, but it is what it is. [Celebrity] Cubs fans are great and former players are awesome, because it is more about the game. It’s best when someone knows what they are getting into, and knowing the song helps a lot, but if they don’t they’ll probably end up on the local news that night.

Even the ones who are unintentionally bad or self-deprecating in a way that makes it fun, though it distracts a little, end up becoming memorable. That part of it’s fun. They’re not all going to be home runs.

eddie vedderMy job is to try to make that person comfortable and make them part of our broadcast, but to also remember the fans at home who are watching the baseball game. There are certain times when the guest is going to talk about a book they’ve written or a movie they’ve made and a guy is going to hit a three-run homer. It’s kind of the nature of the beast.

When pressed about his favorite guest conductors, Len didn’t want to offend by naming too many names, but there is one person who he always enjoys having in the booth.

Eddie Vedder, because he is a Cubs fan so he wants to talk about baseball. He doesn’t want to talk about Pearl Jam or his new record. Eddie is a prince. I put him in my top-three guest conductors of all time. No question about it.
the replacements

While on the subject of music, and especially Pearl Jam, Theo took time off from his career to tour with Pearl Jam. What band’s invitation would it take for you to miss a season and go on tour?

If The Replacements, for the year-long tour, wanted me to be the roadie, I might think about it, but I guess I’ll keep my day job for now. The good thing for me is I get time in the off-season to do stuff like that as a super fan.

It would take a lot for me to miss a season of broadcasting.

 

Catch Len Kasper all this year calling the Cubs on WGN, CSN Chicago, WPWR-Channel 50 and WGN-Channel 7. 

Filed under: Interviews

Leave a comment