Interviewing Dan Dickerson – Part I
Dan Dickerson had one of the toughest jobs in sports – the guy that replaced Hall of Famer Ernie Harwell. Dickerson does play-by-play of Tiger games with Jim Price. Before becoming the voice of the Tigers Dan held a number of broadcast jobs in Detroit including two years of play-by-play for University of Michigan baseketball, and fill-in play-by-play for Michigan football.
Dan was kind enough to do an interview with DTW. Dan was very generous with his time, so the interview is quite lengthy. Part I is below, and Part II will be posted once it’s transcribed (hopefully in a day or two).
DTW: You grew up in the area (Detroit), when did you become a fan?
DD: I went to my first Tiger game in 1967 at Tiger Stadium. The 1967, 1968 teams really hooked me on baseball. Especially the end of 67, because I was just old enough, I was 8 when it went down to the last out. I do remember watching those last few games and of course the 9-1 start in 1968 and that team just had me hooked on baseball.
DTW: Did you have a favorite player as a kid?
DD: Willie Horton was it, he was. Al Kaline, absolutely, but there was just something about Willie as a kid that just captured my imagination. It looked like he could hit a home run every time he stepped to the plate. I think that really got me going, and I just didn’t miss an at-bat on radio or TV if I could possibly help it. I just thought he’d hit a home run every time.
DTW: Now you find yourself broadcasting for the team you grew up with. When you started off in broadcasting, was it your dream doing play-by-play for the Tigers?
DD: Nope, I never really thought that was a possibility. I remember telling my mom once when I was in my teens, that I was going to replace Brent Musburger someday, that was my dream. The Tiger job to me always seemed out of reach.
I loved sports, and every job I got in radio was news related. I kept trying to get into sports full time and I did for one year in Grand Rapids. When I came to Detroit it was news at WWJ, and part time sports. I was always working to get in sports, but it was just a little bit here and there. Then I did some Lions pre-game and post-game stuff. It was 1995 and it took me 15 years to get a full time sports job and that was a reporter – not play-by-play.
The thought I’d be the Tigers play-by-play guy was out of reach until the late 90’s.
DTW: You did play-by-play for Michigan basketball, how long did you do that?
DD: Two years. What got me into the Tigers booth started in 1995 when I got to WJR. I’d go out to the Silverdome and practice my football play-by-play. Ray Bentley, the former football player came over from Grand Rapids and he wanted to practice his color, so we made tapes together just practicing. I gave the tape to Chuck Swirsky, who was the sports director at WJR. There was a need for a fill-in guy for Michigan football two weeks into the season. He told me you’re the guy. They wanted him to do it, but he said “No, Dan’s ready.” To me that was the biggest break because then I got to be known as a play-by-play guy in Detroit, versus a play-by-play guy doing high school stuff in Grand Rapids.
That was the break that led to Michigan basketball. And those two things combined made me a credible play-by-play person and got me into the Tigers booth.
DTW: Did you have any apprehension following a legend like Ernie Harwell given the reception that Rick Rizzs and Bob Rathbun had received a few years earlier?
DD: Not really, just because I’d been in the booth for 3 years with him. I think if I was coming from out of town it’s almost an impossible task. whether it’s Detroit or any other town where they’ve had a broadcaster for a long time (pity the guy who follows Vin Scully in LA). Unless it’s a local guy, I think that’s important, someone that you know and are familiar with. I didn’t really have that much apprehension. I think Ernie really helped smooth the way for me.
DTW: Not to mention it was completely different circumstances
DD: Yeah, he was going out on his own terms. That’s a big difference
DTW: You’ve broadcast some pretty disappointing seasons. Does the job become more difficult with the team out of contention in August?
DD: Put it this way, I think it would be a lot more fun if they were playing meaningful games in August and September. The first 3 years on the job we had some not good season in 01 and 02, but in 03 when I was doing the job after Ernie I was really wondering what it would be like at the end of the year. That team started 3-25, that number sticks in my head, and there are numbers you can pull out and just keep going. And I wondered what August and September were going to be like. I really found out in 2003 that the job never got old. I can’t think of a day where I dreaded going to the ballpark or having fun on the job.
It really goes back to some advice Ernie gave me early in my career, when in 2001 the Tigers started 9-23, and that was supposed to be a pretty good team with the Juan Gonzalez trade and the deals they made. I said “How do you do this?” This was my team, they are 9-23 and I was down. He said “Remember, every game stands on its own.” That advice was very simple but it really stuck. You might see something you’ve never seen before, you might see a great individual performance, you might see a great game between two bad teams. And it’s true, it sounds so simple and I think all fans realize that, and that’s why you have fans at games. For some reason, just to hear him say that, it really stuck with me and I found it’s true. In 2003 there was always something to look forward to, like a pitcher on another team. I always looked forward to Jeremy Bonderman’s starts because you never knew when he might do what he did in Oakland when they were 1-18. I think 2003 really drove home the point this is the best job you can have, because it never got old.
DTW: Being a big fan of the team before becoming the broadcaster, do you find yourself worrying about being too much of a homer? How do you balance it?
DD: It is a bit of a balance. I think it helped to listen to Ernie all those years, because as a listener I appreciated he always gave a good call to both teams. Obviously the better call was to the Tigers. I think there’s a bit of a fine line in that you don’t want to get too down or too up. I think you can let a little bit of the fan in you out during a broadcast. If there’s a disappointing play or a game ending home run that goes the opposite way, you have to make sure you strike the right tone and not be overly down – or over the top. Although I do think I’ve probably gone over the top a few times.
DTW: But those were really exciting moments (laughing)
DD: (laughing) They were, so I guess they deserved it. But I guess Ernie helped, and I try to think about what I want to hear.
DTW: You’re employed by the team. Does it ever get uncomfortable, or do you find yourself censoring yourself because you’re employed by the team?
DD: Yeah, I think you have to. I think that’s the reality even if you aren’t employed by the team, and my first year I wasn’t. I think that’s the reality of being a play-by-play person is that you do a little bit of self censorship, but it’s not to the detriment of the broadcast I don’t think. I think it means you don’t get into the things like the soap opera kind of stuff that gets in the papers sometimes. It’s legitimate reporting, but it’s not something that I believe needs to be in a broadcast unless it has spilled over and is so obvious. It’s like the elephant in the corner, you have to talk about it at some point. I think Jim and I have found that there are times, and I’ll bounce it off of him “We should probably talk about this today.” We’ll bring it up, acknowledge that it happened, whatever it is, and then just kind of move on from there.
But I think there is some of that, and it’s part of being a play-by-play person. You learn some things being so close to the team that other people might not learn. You learn things in confidence from players that gives you some perspective about what’s going on that you’re not going to use in a broadcast. I think it helps the broadcast because you’ve learned about it and you have the perspective in the back of your brain.
In terms of criticizing the team, as a listener I don’t want to hear a lot of criticism of the team anyways. You can certainly point out they’ve lost 8 out of 10. I don’t hesitate to talk about if their pitching has gone well. I’ll try and point out the stretch they’re in. If it’s going bad I’ll point out the stretch they’re in without dwelling on it too much or repeating and repeating. The game is still there, you have to call the game, but I think you can point out the good and the bad as long as you don’t over do either – especially the bad. I’ve never had anybody from the team say anything to me about “you have to be more positive” or “you’ve got to watch what you say about this.” Hopefully that means I’m walking the line and bringing up both the good and the bad.
Continue Reading Part 2