Cubs TV voice Jon Sciambi dreamed of playing baseball, but fate and friendships landed him in broadcasting.
Resting in the East River of New York City, between Manhattan and Queens, is a stretch of land about two miles long and, at most, 800 feet wide. The city bought what was called Blackwell’s Island in 1828, and it became home to a penitentiary and an asylum, both developing sordid histories.
In an attempt to break from the past, the city changed the name to Welfare Island in 1921, moved the prisoners off the island and made it home to several hospitals. By 1969, the island was almost abandoned. But the state of New York stepped in and redeveloped it to provide affordable housing.
It reopened as Roosevelt Island in 1975 and became home to Jon Sciambi two years later.
‘‘It was an awesome place to grow up,’’ said Sciambi, who was 7 when he moved from his native Philadelphia with his mother. ‘‘Any neighborhood, the boundaries are defined, even if they aren’t defined specifically. On an island, the boundaries are quite literal. You’re either from there or you’re not from there.
‘‘We were all connected. It’s pretty amazing how many people I still keep in touch with from Roosevelt Island.’’
Sciambi became connected to a much larger community when the Cubs hired him to be their play-by-play voice on Marquee Sports Network in place of Len Kasper, who left for the White Sox’ radio booth.
But Sciambi always will be attached to the island.
It was a unique place during his childhood. The island had one grocery store, one deli, one pizza place, one general restaurant, etc., because competition wasn’t allowed. Dogs weren’t allowed, either.
When Sciambi arrived, residents couldn’t drive around the island, keeping Main Street — its only thoroughfare — clear. Cars stayed in a parking garage. Sciambi didn’t get his driver’s license until he was 24.
The primary way to reach Manhattan was — and still is — by cable car, aka the Roosevelt Island Tramway. Sciambi’s commute to Regis High School took 45 minutes via tramway and subway.
In Sciambi’s group of friends, everyone’s parents were divorced. His friends were also racially diverse. Kids from Queensbridge, the largest housing project in North America, would cross the Roosevelt Island Bridge from Queens, and sometimes fights would break out.
‘‘They were always kind of looking at us because it’d be, like, three white kids, two Black kids, a Hispanic and an Asian kid, and they were like, ‘Who are you?’ ’’ Sciambi said. ‘‘We were kind of like the lost boys.’’
A big advantage of growing up on the island was easy access to fields. Sciambi and his friends always played sports. He played his first organized baseball at Northtown Park. It’s where he fell in love with the game, planting the seed of a dream to play it professionally.
Though he didn’t know it at the time, Sciambi had his first brush with broadcasting greatness during his youth. In the summer of 1981, when he was 11, Sciambi went to Shibley Day Camp and befriended a boy he later would play tennis with and host for a couple of sleepovers.
About nine years later, Sciambi was listening to sports radio WFAN in New York when he heard his old friend. It was Ian Eagle, who later would receive national acclaim for his work on CBS and TNT.
Sciambi eventually would join him on the national stage.
When Sciambi calls a game, the broadcast can have an element of a performance. That’s not to say he’s putting on an act. Far from it. The Sciambi you see on TV is the Sciambi you’d see on the street. But he admits to ‘‘enhancing’’ the broadcast to make it more entertaining.
‘‘As a kid, at times I could be — the old-school phrase would be ‘a ham,’ ’’ Sciambi said.
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He wasn’t scared to speak in front of an audience. He even enjoyed it. He was the type of kid who could engage with adults.
And adults noticed. When Sciambi was a sophomore in high school, speech teacher Dr. John Tricamo strongly encouraged him to join the speech and debate team. Regis still has one of the best high school programs in the country.
‘‘He basically made me join because he thought I’d be good at it,’’ said Sciambi, who competed in the declamation category. ‘‘He said, ‘You need to do this.’ ’’
When he began looking at colleges, Sciambi knew he wanted to pursue a broadcasting career, but not before he pursued a baseball career. The summer before his senior year at Regis, Sciambi played in a Connie Mack League in Dallas, where his father lived at the time, against future major-leaguers such as pitcher Todd Van Poppel and outfielder Calvin Murray. It opened his eyes to how good he needed to be.
The best school Sciambi could get into and play baseball was William &Mary, where he was a preferred walk-on. But shoulder trouble forced him to redshirt, and he had surgery after his freshman year. He struggled with depression and found he wasn’t enjoying himself at rural William & Mary.
Sciambi transferred to Boston College and gave baseball one more shot. He still wasn’t healthy, though, and he didn’t make the team. But the minute he stepped on campus, he visited the student radio station, WZBC. The supervisor listened to him read, liked his voice and put him on the air to give news and sports updates.
But Sciambi’s experiences off the air at BC were just as important inlaying the groundwork for his broadcasting career.
Boston College isn’t known for its communications program, so it was pure coincidence that Sciambi connected with Joe Tessitore and Bob Wischusen at WZBC. The three future ESPN announcers hosted a sportstalk show Monday nights and called BC basketball, football and hockey.
‘‘We had a really good draft class,’’ joked Sciambi, who graduated in1993, one year before his partners. ‘‘We’d do the show, we might get two calls. On a good day, four. Then we’d go sit in the cafeteria and talk sports afterward. I remember Tess being a huge Vikings fan, and Bob being from New Jersey and me being from New York, he and I had a WFAN sensibility to us. We wanted to be sports-talk-show hosts.”
‘‘It was like 24/7 of unintended masters-class training,’’ said Wischusen, who also is the radio voice for the Jets. ‘‘You could’ve had a microphone on us whenever we were hanging out together, and [the show] pretty much sounded like that. We would be in our apartment yelling at each other about whatever game was on TV. We would be at lunch with the sports page in front of us.’’
After college, Sciambi worked at a small station in Bradford, Pennsylvania, where he read updates, covered school-board meetings and even DJ’d. But he was living in the middle of nowhere, making minimum wage, and he lasted only one shift as the midnight-to-8 a.m. doughnut maker at the local supermarket in an effort to supplement his income.
Meanwhile, Wischusen was producing the afternoon show at sports radioWQAM in Miami, making more than double what Sciambi was making, which is to say about $7 an hour. One day, program director Joe Zagacki — who to this day calls Miami Hurricanes football, basketball and baseball — walked into the studio where Wischusen was working.
‘‘I’m not sure exactly what he said,’’ Wischusen said. ‘‘But for all intents and purposes he said, Do you know anybody else dumb enough to come down here and do what you’re doing for this peanut hourly wage, because he needed another producer. And I was like, ‘I got just the guy.’
‘‘Because no matter how miserable the job was that Joe was gonna offer him, he was working a much more miserable job in Pennsylvania. Sure enough, I said, ‘Do you wanna come down to Miami and work this horrible producing job for no money?’ And he was like, ‘Yes, I’m on my way.’ ’’
Wischusen already was living with another BC alum who was in South Florida for grad school. So Sciambi slept on the couch for a couple of years. He and Wischusen picked up where they left off in college, talking, debating, living and breathing sports. It was invaluable time in which they helped each other hone their broadcasting skills.
It also was when Sciambi received his nickname, ‘‘Boog,’’ from morning-show co-host Dave LaMont, an Orioles fan who thought the stocky Sciambi resembled former Orioles first baseman Boog Powell. The next day, ‘‘Boog Powell’’ was taped over Sciambi’s name on his mailbox.
Wischusen eventually left for WFAN, and Sciambi was offered a job calling the Class A Boise Hawks in 1996. He had been practicing by calling games into a tape recorder. Looking for feedback before his first baseball play-by-play job, Sciambi gave a tape to Dave O’Brien, who called Marlins games on WQAM.
‘‘He listened to it, and he said, ‘You know, I thought this was really gonna stink, and it didn’t,’ ’’ Sciambi said. ‘‘That was his compliment.’’
Truth be told, Sciambi thought he was ‘‘pretty stinky’’ in Boise. But the tape he made for O’Brien lived on in Miami. WQAM brought him back after the season, and when the Marlins added a job in their radio booth to handle pregame interviews, update scores and provide color, they chose Sciambi. He did a little more play-by-play each year and eventually was calling three innings a game.
His career took off from there. He began calling baseball and college basketball for ESPN in 2005, was the Braves’ TV play-by-play voice in2007-09 and went full-time at ESPN in 2010.
His next move was to Chicago.
If there’s a disease that’s connected to baseball, it’s Lou Gehrig’s disease, also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). But that’s not why it has a place in Sciambi’s life.
Sciambi helps run a charity called Project Main Street in honor of a childhood friend from Roosevelt Island, Tim Sheehy, who died from the disease in 2007. The organization hosts a softball game at the park where they played Little League baseball.
‘‘We help people living with the disease because so much stuff isn’t covered by health care, so we raise money,’’ Sciambi said. ‘‘The reason we started the charity was because Tim and [wife] Katie were getting crushed by so much of the cost with his condition declining.’’
Sheehy attended the University of South Carolina, where he played goalie for the soccer team. A teammate, Jim Sonefeld, played in the fledgling band Hootie & the Blowfish. Sciambi remembers Sheehy giving him a tape to play with the songs ‘‘Hold My Hand’’ and ‘‘I Only Wanna Be With You.’’
‘‘Fast-forward to 1993, and I’m in my car and heard ‘Hold My Hand,’ and I knew every word,’’ Sciambi said. ‘‘It was from Tim giving me the tape when we were in college.’’
In 2006, Sciambi reached out to the band to play his first charity event. The band played for free, and lead singer Darius Rucker and the guys put on a show. Sciambi gave two-thirds of the proceeds to Tim and Katie. The rest was used to form Project Main Street, named for the one street on Roosevelt Island.
‘‘The passion for the charity is anchored in Tim Sheehy and all the people we grew up with,’’ Sciambi said. ‘‘I’m down to advocate for anything in the ALS sphere.’’
In 2002-04, Kasper called the Marlins on TV while Sciambi called them on radio, and they became close friends. In March 2003, Kasper predicted his colleague’s future for the South Florida Sun Sentinel:
‘‘The sky’s the limit with ‘Boog,’ ’’ Kasper said. ‘‘I have no doubt that within the next 10 years, he’ll have a nice national profile as a baseball announcer and anything else he wants to do.’’
‘‘Nailed it,’’ Kasper said recently.
How did he know?
‘‘You just knew,’’ Kasper said. ‘‘We meshed as friends from day one. He’s such a great broadcaster. I love everything about the way he does it. I’ve talked more broadcasting philosophy and the nuts and bolts of it with him than probably everybody else on the planet combined. I’m his biggest fan.’’
Cubs fans will have to overlook Sciambi’s Phillie-itis. He grew up a fan and maintained his allegiance when he moved. His mom would hang the Phillies’ score from the previous night on the knob of his bedroom door, so he knew what happened when he woke up. His favorite player was Mike Schmidt.
But Cubs fans should enjoy what they hear from Sciambi. Phillies broadcaster Harry Kalas, the voice of Sciambi’s childhood, was an influence. So were O’Brien and longtime Giants voice Jon Miller. And everyone wants to emulate former Dodgers announcer Vin Scully.
But after almost three decades in the business, Sciambi has his own voice.
‘‘The thing that’s fun is, I get to just do me on the air,’’ Sciambi said. ‘‘The one thing I’m trying to do that I think I’m good at is, if you watch me on the air, you know what I’m like.’’
From a broadcast perspective, he sounds a lot like Kasper, which should make the transition easy for viewers and analyst Jim Deshaies.
‘‘Over the last 20 years, [Len is] the person I’ve talked broadcasting with the most,’’ Sciambi said. ‘‘So I’m certain we influenced each other. We just share a sensibility in terms of information, telling stories.’’
Said Deshaies: ‘‘Because he’s such a good buddy of Len’s, when ‘Boog’ was doing a Cub game for ESPN, we’d spend more time in our booth or in the lunchroom talking. I’ve gotten to know him pretty well. I have areal good idea of what he’s all about, and I like every bit of it.’’
Sciambi is in the unique position of having broadcast with three active managers: the Yankees’ Aaron Boone, the Red Sox’ Alex Cora and the Cubs’ David Ross.
‘‘He’s a great guy, a smart guy, a quality human being,’’ Ross said of Sciambi. ‘‘But he also knows the game. He knows how to talk analytics. He’s funny, witty. I think the Cubs got a really special guy.’’
Sciambi joins a really special group. The Cubs have had some of the biggest names in broadcasting call their games. Bob Elson, Jack Brickhouse, Milo Hamilton and Harry Caray are Hall of Famers. Vince Lloyd, Jack Quinlan, Lou Boudreau and Lloyd Pettit are local favorites. Pat Hughes still is going strong on radio, and Steve Stone is still sharp with the White Sox.
When Sciambi met the Chicago media for the first time after being hired as the Cubs’ announcer, he was keenly aware of that.
‘‘I want to be where baseball matters,’’ he said. ‘‘And it matters on the North Side of Chicago.’’
The broadcasts matter, too. And they’re in good hands.