By: Tim Britton
April 3, 2016
Jon Sciambi explained it like this.
“We all want to be Scully,” said the veteran broadcaster for ESPN, “and we figure out we don’t have the thesaurus-like vocabulary, and then you need to figure out your style. And your style is you.”
This is the lesson Sciambi took away from the years he worked alongside Dave O’Brien calling the Florida Marlins on the radio, and it’s the lesson that may best serve O’Brien in his new gig as the play-by-play announcer for the Red Sox on NESN.
O’Brien is stepping into the large and idiosyncratic shoes of Don Orsillo. The fervor that surrounded Orsillo’s dismissal could have colored how his successor went about the job, trying to replicate the exact rapport with Jerry Remy or the off-the-cuff moments that became Orsillo’s signature. That’s not a concern with O’Brien, a veteran who has built a reputation as one of sports’ most versatile voices and one of baseball’s strongest storytellers.
“If you want an idea of how OB is on the air, have a five-minute conversation with him,” Sciambi said. “And that’s as good a compliment as you can give any announcer.”
O’Brien knows what he’s stepping into. A self-described “Quincy boy” who grew up on the South Shore and in New Hampshire, O’Brien would lay in bed listening to Ken Coleman and Ned Martin and Jim Woods on the radio from his father’s office. He went to college with Sean McDonough at Syracuse. He wanted this job precisely because it was this job.
“It’s more than a dream come true for me in many respects, because I never really sat around and believed it would ever happen,” O’Brien said. “It was Jupiter for me. The fact that it did, I just feel really blessed and really lucky.”
O’Brien is moving one booth down at Fenway Park, from radio with Joe Castiglione to TV with Remy. The medium is different, with less focus on describing the scene and more on a back-and-forth with the analyst. Radio can have a more intimate feel; it often feels like it’s you and you alone putting together the broadcast. On television, O’Brien said, you have to be more cognizant of the team around you.
O’Brien’s storytelling on the air derives from scrupulous preparation. His lineup card is covered in a rainbow of largely inscrutable penmanship, although he claims Sciambi’s story that he turned the card upside-down to understand his own writing is an exaggeration. The notes on the card are gathered from O’Brien’s daily reading material, and he’s thankful that task will be more manageable now that he isn’t doing national games for ESPN on a weekly basis. (Those games required six or seven hours of prepwork, O’Brien said, and it’s less for a Red Sox team he sees on a daily basis.)
The notes are color-coded, so on a September night in the Bronx the ones that correspond to Jacoby Ellsbury are red and Alex Rodriguez purple and so forth. He has to write them all out himself, he said, to better ingrain them in his mind.
“Baseball is a great announcers’ medium because you have so much time,” O’Brien said. “I spend a lot of time looking for storytelling elements, minutiae. If I’m curious about it, I think most baseball fans would be, too.”
“It’s just a great classic baseball broadcast that he delivers,” said Sciambi. “He’s got a real appreciation for language. His ability to articulate whether it’s radio or TV is as good as anyone’s. He’s a great storyteller. On television, he just understands the fundamentals — the ability to set up the analyst, knows how to humanize the players and tell those stories.
“He’s not someone that’s interested in putting his stamp on it, per se. It’s conversational. That’s what everyone strives for.”
That said, O’Brien now has the platform to put a stamp on those Red Sox broadcasts.
“It’s the team I grew up loving. My parents did and my grandparents did and my brothers do. The Red Sox are special,” O’Brien said. “They have a place in my heart that no other athletic team ever will.
“I wouldn’t want to do it for anyone else.”