Note: I spoke with Bluefield Blue Jays broadcaster Zach Helton several weeks ago. Technical problems and the limitations of the 24 hour day prevented me from fully transcribing this great hour-long interview until now. Many thanks to Zach for his time and insights.
Bluefield Blue Jays broadcaster Zach Helton is a local boy who’s returned home, but is hopeful of moving on to bigger things.
Helton grew up in Richlands, VA, about 30 minutes south of Bluefield, but for all intents and purposes, he grew up in the former home of the Orioles Appalachian League, and the current home of the Blue Jays entry in the short season (70 games) loop. Helton was a sports-mad kid:
Here in rural Appalachia, you either play sports or you get in trouble. High School football is huge, and I started playing football and t-ball at an early age. I played sports almost year round, and football always seemed to be my love. Loved playing baseball, too. Sports have always been my life.
After graduation (he played baseball for Bluefield State College) , Helton attended the Carolina Broadcasting School, and embarked on a lengthy apprenticeship that included a stint in the Audio/Visual department of the Charlotte Knights, the White Sox AAA affiliate. Helton’s travels in the broadcast business took him far before he finally returned to Virginia just over a year ago. When the Bluefield Jays’ broadcaster had a scheduling conflict late in the season last year, Helton took over play-by-play chores. He returned this year, and by his own admission has loved every minute of the experience:
This is the first full season I’ve been with the Jays. I finished with them last year, I did the last couple of homestands and the playoffs. This season has been tremendous. They’re just a great group of guys, and its been a fun season. They came out really hot, and you know it can be a long season with college kids and some kids straight out of high school, but they’ve worked their way through it, and they’re in a playoff race. It’s been a fun summer, and it’s been a blast – they’ve made my job easy. There have been great ball games, nail-biters, late-inning rallies, but they’ve kept me on my toes all season long.
While they’ve kept him on his toes, the Bluefield Jays were one of the best teams in the short-season Appy League, and you could hear the excitement in his broadcasts:
It’s been tremendous. At this level, sometimes you never know what you’re going to get. Did we have a good draft? The guys that showed well in the Dominican or the Gulf Coast, was that a fluke, or are they coming to play here as well? Guys like Cal Stevenson, Dom Abbadessa, Alejandro Kirk, P.K. Morris, Hagen Danner, just to name a few – those guys show up to play hard every night, and they play the game the right way – it makes my job easy. I just flip on a switch, and it flows straight from the field to my mouth for the broadcast.
Helton has a resume that is as long as it is varied. After serving in the military, Helton majored in English at Bluefield State. Goth Lit – Edgar Allen Poe, in particular, was his favourite form of Literature. After graduation, Helton embarked upon a peripatetic radio career that took him as far as Nebraska and upstate New York (“I lasted a winter there”). His path eventually took him back to where he started when he accepted a position with WRIC-FM in Richlands.
I’ve been doing sports here locally for the past year, and then at the end of last year I got picked up by the Jays to finish their season, then returned this year. So it’s come full circle, but I wouldn’t trade any of it for the world. It’s been fun, and every experience everywhere I’ve been has been a growth. Everything in my broadcast every night is just a piece of everywhere I’ve been.
Helton’s Twitter bio says he’s a “Trailer Park Marv Albert,” a nickname a friend labelled him with. Albert was an influence on Helton, as were several local broadcasters:
Marv was a voice I listened to…..NBA in the 90s, you think Marv, and all the Finals he did. The guy I grew up with. For baseball – Bob Costas was (an influence). Locally here – that was the thing that turned me on to radio – high school sports are huge here, and a guy who I listened to as a kid was Jim Nelson – he was a tremendous high school football voice, and did minor league baseball here as well. I’ve always tried to poke his brain when I’m around him, and he’s so underrated. If Jim Nelson applied to call games for a Division 1 school, he would be so hard to turn down. His vocabulary is so magnificent, football or basketball, it’s like poetry coming out of his mouth. He doesn’t get excited except when there’s a need, and I’ve tried to take that and apply it to my broadcasting.
Definitely Jim Nelson and Rocky Smith, Ron Brown, Lloyd Combs were influences on me. Just a few local guys I wanted to shout out with the big names like Vin Scully, Bob Uecker, the Careys etc.
When Helton talks about the Bluefield roster he watched this season, his excitement is obvious, starting with legendary MiLB Manager Dennis Holmberg, who recorded his 1500th W this season:
Dennis is just tremendous to talk to. He’s one of those guys that I just want to sit in his office and soak him and his stories up like a sponge. And he’s a player’s manager – in the Bluefield clubhouse, it’s colourful and fun. Last year, he had the flags of all the countries the kids on the team were from. He treats them like they’re his kids, and they play all out for him.
-On Stevenson, who led the League in Runs, Walks, and OBP, and stole 20 bases (with only one CS):
…..it’s almost as if he finds a way to get on, and anytime Cal Stevenson gets on something crazy is about to happen. He works counts full, leads the league in walks, is among the leaders in runs scored and On Base Percentage. The other night he had a solo shot, his 2nd of the year. He gets on, and he’ll either steal a base, or a passed ball or error, someone will move him over, and a sac fly or passed ball brings him home. It seems like every time he gets on base, he’s coming around to score.
-C/DH Alejandro Kirk, who bashed his way onto the prospect radar this summer:
Kirk is a DH on our roster, but he’s stepped into a Catcher’s role, and he’s been lights out. He’s handled a pitching staff with interchanging roles. His blocking ability and arm are great, you don’t see that in the stat line, but you do see his hitting. Leads the Appy League in RBIs, and never gets cheated on a swing. He is swinging full force every pitch, whether it’s 2-0 or 0-2. About a month ago, we were in Bluefield, where I’ve been going to games since I was a child. I’ve seen a lot of games in that ballpark, but Alejandro Kirk hit a ball over the CF fence – it’s 391 to straightaway center, and there’s a 32 foot batter’s eye behind that, and he cleared it, and it kept going. It was about 430 ft to dead center.
And no discussion of the Bluefield Jays would be complete without talking about Brazilian teenage sensation Eric Pardinho:
He came out firing his first couple of outings. I think he’s had 7 or 8 up to his point, and only one bad outing. He didn’t get run support the first couple of starts, now he’s among the league leaders in strikeouts. He spots his fastball well and throws hard – one of the things that stood out to me about Pardinho was is the fact that he’s so young, but he’s not intimidated by anyone. Even last weekend at Princeton, when he didn’t have his best stuff and got hit hard, but the next time out five days later, he got a big W for us to keep in a series.
Helton has a smooth, easy delivery in his broadcasts. For someone who grew up listening to Expos broadcasts on a static-filled car radio during long rides to Eastern Ontario, his cadence is reminiscent of Hall of Famer Duke Snider. He lets the game draw the outlines of his broadcast, colouring in the details with his play-by-play. His knowledge of the game is obvious – an overlooked essential for a baseball broadcaster – as is his love for it. As someone who played the game, he can appreciate the skill level of the athletes who play it, and as a baseball broadcaster with a growing resume, he can see a much bigger picture as the players perform on the field below his broadcast booth every night.
Late in the season, Helton added PxP duties with UVA-Wise Football duties. With the Blue Jays headed for a playoff berth, Helton was keeping one eye on the calendar as the Cavs’ August 30th home opener approached. Fortunately, the last Appy off day was scheduled for that day, and Helton didn’t have to miss a Bluefield post-season game. The Blue Jays, of course, were eliminated from further play after the first round of the playoffs ended on September 2nd, meaning that while Helton’s dream summer came to an end, he was able to fully focus on college football.
Players are not the only prospects to watch when you tune into a minor league game. Many broadcasters are trying to work their way up in a highly competitive business as well – one where the turnover rate is not nearly as high. On a warm summer night, a welcome distraction from the big league team’s struggles is to listen to a faraway voice like Helton’s.
You can follow Zach Helton on Twitter: @z_helton. Wherever he is next summer, you’ll be sure to get some solid prospect updates.