Orioles announcer joins small club of female play-by-play voices

Tribune Content Agency

BALTIMORE — Melanie Newman walked into a silent Camden Yards, devoid of any human souls but the security guards, her broadcast partner Geoff Arnold and their sound engineer.

The setting was so unusual, so austere, that she did not have much cause to contemplate her small revolution, to imagine all the ears that would be hearing an Orioles game narrated by a female voice for the first time.

The on-air light flashed and off she went, telling the story of another ballgame.

When Newman called a Salem (Va.) Red Sox game last year with her friend Suzie Cool, a pack of reporters showed up to chronicle the first all-female booth in baseball history. But thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, there was no such hullabaloo last month when she became the first woman to handle play-by-play on an Orioles game.

That was just fine with the 29-year-old Georgian, who’s proud of what she’s accomplished but does not want her story to eclipse the game she’s broadcasting on a given night.

“I prefer to make things about the guys,” she said. “My story will get told eventually, but I want to tell theirs.”

For all the battles women have fought to carve out a vital place in sports media, you can still count on one hand the female announcers who’ve called play-by-play on a Major League Baseball broadcast. The current roster includes Suzyn Waldman, who called her first New York Yankees game in 1992, and Jenny Cavnar with the Colorado Rockies. Jessica Mendoza works as an analyst on ESPN’s national telecasts.

The women in this small club have become used to demeaning comments, and far worse, from fans who say they’re not “comfortable” with a female voice bringing the games into their homes night after night.

Waldman, who maintains an active texting friendship with Newman, had to exit stadiums with a security detail when she began reporting on the Yankees in the late 1980s. Fans mailed her envelopes stuffed with soiled toilet paper and used condoms. She still feels “tolerated, not totally accepted.” But she sees in Newman the same toughness that carried her through those awful days along with a generational optimism that was harder to come by 30 years ago.

“If you can look yourself in the mirror and say, ‘I have something that nobody else has,’ then keep going,” Waldman said. “She looks in the mirror, and all she wants to be is the first Melanie Newman. That’s a very good thing for her.”

Waldman’s sincerest hope is that at some point, the next female play-by-play announcer won’t be a big deal.

“I would really love it if every time a woman comes into the league, and there’s going to be many in back of Melanie, they weren’t treated like some kind of novelty act,” she said. “The Baltimore Orioles did not give Melanie Newman a job because she’s a novelty act. They did it because she’s really good.”

Newman was largely unaware of this history when her interest in broadcasting blossomed at Troy University in Alabama. When she earned her first professional baseball announcing job for the Mobile BayBears, an Arizona Diamondbacks affiliate, she had no idea her friend Justin Baker, who had put her in the booth, was shielding her from a flood of hateful messages.

“My parents never made me feel like I was doing something weird that other women didn’t do. Baker never made me feel that way,” she said. “I was in a very normalized environment that kind of allowed me to have my head in the sand and not realize that people outside were talking about how weird it was. I got to focus just on growing my craft.”

Baker said his job was even threatened by executives who never grumbled about male announcers learning on the job. “People would say, ‘Hey, she’s a nice girl, she’s great at all these things, but maybe you could limit her innings,’ ” he recalled. “And I basically said, ‘No, I’m not going to do that, because I think she can get a lot better at this. But we’re never going to know if we don’t give her the opportunity.’ ”

To this day, Newman sees herself more as a workaholic opportunist who loves her job than as a crusader. She likes the idea that young women might look at her and see a world of widening possibilities. But she’s just as willing to offer counsel to aspiring male broadcasters. No matter the gender, she wants them to understand the humbling grind required to make it. She did not always know when the next job would come, and if that gig required her to move to Arizona on short notice or deliver sideline reports for the World Axe Throwing League, she did not balk. If she had to bartend or substitute-teach to supplement her meager income, so be it.

“There is just a dogged determination that I really have not seen many times,” said Bob Rathbun, the voice of the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks and an early mentor to Newman.

Here’s a strange fact about the person who would go on to win pageants, be named “Most Outstanding Woman” at her university and crash through barriers as a baseball announcer: She was reluctant to say much of anything as a high school student coming of age in the Atlanta suburbs.

“I was extremely introverted,” she said. “I had three friends, and that was it. I said something to one of my friends at our lockers one day, and I’ll never forget, a kid turned around and shouted, ‘Wow, I heard Melanie talk.’ ”

She grew up in a sports-obsessed area, with the sprawling East Cobb amateur baseball complex 10 minutes down the road and the brilliant Atlanta Braves teams of the 1990s playing 30 miles away. She actually did not root for the home team; her mother, Susan, hailed from a Red Sox-loving Boston family, and her father, Mike, was an Army brat who fancied the Texas Rangers.

Newman said any athletic genes bypassed her in favor of her younger sister, Stephanie. But she loved to lock her eyes on the games, peppering her father with questions about how plays worked or why calls went the way they did.

Newman thought she wanted to become an early childhood teacher when she went off to college, but her mother, a veteran educator, said no way. She’d be making a 30-year commitment to one of the lowest-paying careers in the country. “So I always joke that I one-upped her by picking an even less stable, lower-paying job,” she said with a laugh.

The path to broadcasting began at Troy, a university of 17,000 in the heart of Alabama. An adviser suggested she try it, even though the prospect of speaking in front of people made her hands shake and her face turn red.

“She was very shy,” said Ricky Hazel, the former Troy sports information director who handed out Newman’s first assignment, a soccer game. “I just told them, ‘More than likely, no one’s going to be watching this, so don’t worry about it. Have fun.’ She just took it and ran with it.”

The craft clicked for her when she accepted a paid gig as a sideline reporter for a college baseball tournament at Stetson University in Florida. She took the job reluctantly, not wanting to be pigeonholed as a sideline reporter, the role to which women in sports broadcasting are often funneled.

“You have a chance to change the perception of what that role is,” her father advised. “So you’d be kind of stupid if you don’t take it.”

“You come in having never met these coaches and players, and you have to gain their trust in a short period of time so you can tell their stories with justice,” Newman recalled. “I fell in love with it from that point forward.”

She appreciates that her professors did not glamorize the profession.

Because she expected her career to be daunting and chaotic, Newman brushed past whatever gender bias she encountered. “‘It was just, ‘Yeah, this is a tough industry and you’ve got to get through it,’ ” she recalled.

Not that it was always easy. Sometimes, she’d read a nasty comment on social media — “something that just did not need to be said,” in her words — and take it to heart. But she’d fall back on the advice of another broadcasting friend, Jessica Kleinschmidt of NBC Sports, who told her to stop caring about the noise.

Though Newman accepted a wide variety of jobs, some for no pay, Rathbun advised her to focus on baseball. He’d sensed her passion for the game when they met for a 3 1/2-hour brunch to discuss her plans.

She agreed, beginning her path through the minors with that Mobile BayBears job in 2014.

When Newman first talked with Orioles officials in February, she felt an instant kinship over broadcasting philosophy. But she fully expected to go back to Salem for another single-A season. The call offering a full season in Baltimore left her “in shock.”

When she saw Orioles third baseman Rio Ruiz, whom she’d known in the minors, his face lit up. Arnold, her radio partner, is also an old pal from the Carolina League.

“Talent matters in this industry,” he said. “But a lot of it comes down to: Who are the people willing to stick it out the longest and never lose sight of what they want to do?”

Newman’s position combines play-by-play with sideline reporting and pre- and postgame hosting, an unusual amalgam for a big league announcer. But she believes her game calling is more distinctive because she incorporates the storytelling chops she’s honed working the sidelines.

She and Arnold already share an easy rapport.

“Hey, you’re on television,” he teased during the second inning of her debut as MASN broke to a shot of Newman to mark the milestone.

“I looked over, and I was like, ‘I’m looking at myself,’” she replied, laughing.

They quickly transitioned to Orioles starter John Means, who built his velocity in the offseason by firing baseballs into a mattress in his garage.

“Has Means started a trend with that?” Newman wondered. “I don’t know if you saw it, but the Cardinals’ Jack Flaherty, he’s now throwing into a mattress in the room he’s quarantined in. Do you start selling that hotel room at an upcharge because you’ve had a major leaguer use it as a bullpen?”

“I think the problem is, some people like a firm mattress, some people like a soft mattress,” Arnold cracked.

“Now I need sports science on how different mattresses, the traditional box spring vs. the Tempur-Pedic, how do each of these receive pitches differently?” Newman mused. “What’s the longevity?”

“The 1-2 pitch, outside corner with a fastball for strike three,” Arnold interjected.

Newman points to former Los Angeles Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully, beloved for his anecdotal touch and empathetic nature, as a stylistic beacon.

Of course, Scully didn’t have to break into the major leagues amid a pandemic or confront age-old gender biases. For a while, it seemed Newman might never make her Orioles debut as the season teetered on the brink of cancellation. Her planned broadcast debut was pushed back because of an outbreak on the Miami Marlins.

But the minor leagues prepared her for the unknown and downright weird.

And so many female friends and colleagues, her “tribe,” have touched base since she called that first Orioles game Aug. 4.

“There’s multiple of us now,” Newman said. “It’s not just a one-person fight anymore.”


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