Frick winner Nadel recalls late Holtz's impact
Rangers radio broadcaster looks back fondly on former partner's talent
As Cliff Lee settled in to face B.J. Upton, the excitement was as palpable in the visitors' radio booth at Tropicana Field as in the visitors' dugout down below. The Rangers were on the verge of winning Game 5 of the American League Division Series in 2010, one out away from their first trip to the AL Championship Series in franchise history.
Eric Nadel called the action for listeners in North Texas.
"Lee looking in to Molina. The pitch to the right-handed batter. Swung on. High fly ball, short left-center field. Backing out is Andrus. Waving his arms. He's got it, and the Rangers are on their way to the American League Championship Series! Hello, win column at Tropicana Field!"
For Nadel, who in July will receive the Ford C. Frick Award for broadcast excellence during Hall of Fame ceremonies in Cooperstown, N.Y., "Hello, win column at Tropicana Field" might be the six sweetest words he's said. "Hello, win column" was the signature phrase of former partner on WBAP radio, the late Mark Holtz, and Nadel had never before used it.
Nadel had thought about breaking it out over the years since Holtz's death from leukemia in 1997. It had never felt right. But when Nadel checked his email during the eighth inning of this dramatic game, he found a note from a listener suggesting it was time.
It was a delightfully appropriate tip of the cap to his friend and mentor, one that was magic to the ears of the Rangers' loyal fans, especially those who were following the team in 1982. This 98-loss season marked the start of Nadel's 13 seasons serving as a color man -- or, in Nadel's words, the "wacky sidekick" -- for Holtz.
In all the best of ways, Nadel remains joined at the hip with Holtz, at least in the memory of the baseball fans lucky enough to have listened to them. Nadel, a Brown University graduate who learned to speak Spanish so he can communicate with Latin ballplayers, has moved forward in his career, but he's never felt more right than when he was sitting to the left of Holtz, working the middle innings.
For a baseball broadcaster, there's no higher honor than the Frick Award. It has been won by all of the legends, from Mel Allen and Red Barber to Curt Gowdy, Harry Caray, Jack Buck, Ernie Harwell, Vin Scully and Jon Miller. Nadel doubts he would have won the award had he not outlived Holtz.
"It's weird," Nadel said. "I think about Holtzie most days, especially this year, because of the Frick Award. He would have won this award years ago, and I still think he's deserving of the award. People tell me he didn't have a long career. He's the Sandy Koufax of baseball broadcasting. He had a career prematurely cut short, but to me, he was the best. He was the best in his era."
The back-and-forth banter -- at the start, a family man in Holtz taking jabs at a bachelor bon vivant in Nadel -- filled broadcasts also made rich by Holtz's strong, velvety voice and Nadel's curiosity about all things baseball, from its history to its future.
There were frequent detours from the game on the field to the action in Holtz's backyard, where his dog, the Bone Man, was the central character. There was talk about the team hotel or the hotel restaurant, which was always five-star in Holtz's opinion.
"He just relished the small things in life," Nadel said. "He and I share that to a great extent. He would go on and on about the water pressure in the shower and the soup in the hotel restaurant, wherever it was. The steak soup at the Crown Center in Kansas City. He loved [relief pitcher] Joey McLaughlin, because Joey appreciated the steak soup in Kansas City as much as he did."
Holtz, who had grown up broadcasting childhood Strat-o-Matic games that started with his father playing the national anthem on the piano, was a natural at choosing words. It was impossible to turn off the radio when he was describing the key moments of a close game.
"He handled the dramatic moments the best of anyone I've ever heard, in terms of the inflection of his voice, establishing the mood, developing the drama, the tension and then the actual call of whatever the big play was, whether it was successful or unsuccessful for the Rangers," Nadel said. "It was flawless. He was phenomenal. If you could teach that to an announcer, you'd want to bottle it up … and it was in combination with his unbelievable voice, all of that done in one of the best voices I've ever heard doing baseball."
Nadel and Holtz would never describe what they were doing as working games, because neither of them saw the way they made their livelihood as work.
Nadel has had six partners in the 20 seasons since Holtz left the radio side to do television play-by-play for the Rangers in 1995. He says his time with Holtz was the most fun he's had in broadcasting, and when he looks back, he can't believe they had such a relatively short time together.
"It still seems like the majority of time I've been doing the Rangers, when actually I've been doing the lead job without him for several years longer than I spent with him," Nadel said. "Among the most satisfying moments for me now are when people tell me not specifically that they grew up listening to me, but that they grew up listening to Holtzie and me."
Nadel first met Holtz after the 1979 season, when the Rangers were interviewing candidates to replace Miller as their play-by-play man. He picked him up at DFW Airport and they had lunch together at an unpretentious little place in Arlington, and Nadel was hooked.
"When people ask me, 'What kind of a guy is Holtzie?' I use the word 'jolly,'" Nadel said. "He was a jolly guy. He was almost always in a good mood. He was laughing, joking -- just so much fun to be around. Everybody loved to be around him. He was always grateful to be doing what he was doing. He wanted to do this from the time he was a kid. He never took it for granted. He loved being at the ballpark. He loved the players."
Holtz was denied in his run at the Rangers' job, with the chance to replace Miller going to the other finalist, Mel Proctor. That meant Holtz stayed in Denver, where he did play-by-play for the Triple-A team on KOA, a station with a powerful signal. Nadel would listen to him when he drove from Arlington to Dallas after games.
"I realized how incredible he was before he got to Texas to take the job," he said.
When Holtz came to Dallas-Fort Worth in 1981, it was to do play-by-play for the Dallas Mavericks, an expansion NBA team. He made the move to the Rangers in 1982, and bonded with Nadel that spring. The team trained in Pompano Beach, Fla., and played road games all around the southern part of the state, on both coasts. The broadcast team did all but three games that spring, those coming when the station had conflicts with Mavs games.
"Holtzie, [producer] Jim Birdsong and I drove together everywhere for those games," Nadel said. "We just had a great time. We goofed around a lot. We talked about it before we started -- 'We can't make this sound more important than it is. Let's just let our personalities come out and have a good time.' And people loved it. We were goofing around, Holtzie was ripping me for staying out late at night. I was single then. Different lifestyles, talking about that stuff on the air and people loved it.
"We got back from Spring Training and Roy [Parks, the team executive in charge of broadcasts] said, 'Keep doing it in the regular season, don't change anything about the way you're doing it. People are really enjoying it. They can tell you guys like each other, you're having fun, that's the main thing. We want people to realize baseball is fun and you guys are the personification of that right now. Don't change just because the games now mean something. You guys will talk baseball when it's called for, but keep goofing around.'"
Baseball was still fairly new in Texas, and the Rangers struggled to get fans to come to Arlington Stadium. It's hard to believe now, with the team fifth in attendance last year at almost 3.2 million, but the franchise almost moved to St. Petersburg, Fla., in 1988.
"They educated people here about baseball," said Barry Horn, a longtime media reporter for the Dallas Morning News. "They made baseball fun here when the teams weren't always fun. You can't discount the importance of what they did for the franchise. … They had such a great chemistry between them."
Nolan Ryan noticed. He was a player for the Rangers from 1989-93, and he loved the way Holtz and Nadel ran their broadcasts.
"They were friends, and it came across on the air," Ryan said. "In that business, you see some people with real big egos. They never were like that. There was never a sense that they were competing against each other, trying to get a foot up at the other's expense. They were a team. They enjoyed working together. They were stronger together."
The last game that Holtz and Nadel worked together was Aug. 10, 1994, the final game before a player strike wiped out what could have been the Rangers' first playoff season. Holtz moved to television broadcasts in '95, both because he felt radio was losing its significance with the increase of games on TV and because his wife, Alice, had been diagnosed with cancer. The Rangers had sold their broadcast rights to KRLD, ending a 23-season run on WBAP, and Holtz did not think he could get insurance benefits if he changed employers.
Nadel was heartbroken, but he knew Holtz was doing the right thing for his family.
"I stayed completely out of it," he said. "Didn't say a word. I agreed with it. Back in those days, the chance of him getting insurance with KRLD seemed slim. It was before Obamacare."
At some point the previous season, Holtz had revealed to Nadel that he had his own health issues.
"Holtzie came in one day [during the 1993 season] and he was really shaken," Nadel said. "I thought it had to do with Alice, because Alice had already been diagnosed, and he said, 'No, this is about me.' He told me he had this blood disorder and that eventually it's going to develop into something serious, they have no idea how quickly -- could be tomorrow, could be 10 years. But he was told he was doomed unless there's some medical procedure that can work."
Holtz lived about four years after the diagnosis, working his final Rangers game on May 22, 1997. He underwent a bone marrow transplant but lost his fight to leukemia, dying that September at age 51.
To Nadel, who had grown up in Brooklyn enamored of the Dodgers, this was like Koufax being granted only nine full seasons to share his greatness on the mound before his arm failed him. Nadel heads toward his Hall of Fame ceremony grateful for his career but mourning the partnership that was lost.
As a Frick Award winner, Nadel will have a vote in future elections. It's safe to say Holtz will have his vote if he lands on future ballots.
"I'm hopeful that when they start doing the voting by eras, when the '80s guys are up, he gets considered," Nadel said. "Maybe his chances aren't good now that a Texas guy has won. But he certainly would have been going to Cooperstown long before I would have gone."
Nadel would have preferred it that way.
"Had he stayed on radio, I would have been happy to be his No. 2 forever," he said. "It was so much fun. I didn't have my heart set on being a No. 1 guy. I wanted to call baseball games and have a good time, enjoy my job. Nothing was ever more enjoyable than doing it with him. I would have been fine in that role forever. I wouldn't have gotten this award and I wouldn't be making the money I'm making, and it would have been just fine."
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.