When Cubs radio voice Pat Hughes moves to TV for five games this season, Zach Zaidman will fill in. Spiegel will give Zaidman a break in the fifth inning. “This is the first dream I ever had,” Spiegel said.
It might have come off as a stunt, but Matt Spiegel wants you to know there’s nothing insincere about it.
On Feb. 17, the Cubs’ Marquee Sports Network announced three fill-ins for play-by-play voice Jon Sciambi when he calls games for ESPN Radio. One of them was Cubs radio voice Pat Hughes, who will call five games on TV this season.
Naturally, pre- and postgame show host Zach Zaidman will fill in for Hughes on the Cubs’ flagship, 670 The Score. But who would fill in for Zaidman, who also calls the fifth inning to give Hughes a break?
Danny Parkins, Spiegel’s partner on The Score’s afternoon show, stumped for Spiegel on the air that day. It wasn’t long before station operations director Mitch Rosen texted in his approval and Parkins announced the news: The job was Spiegel’s.
On April 25, when the Cubs host the Brewers, Spiegel will handle the pre- and postgame shows and call his first inning of regular-season major-league baseball.
“I’m sure a lot of people think that this is just a radio gimmick, and, ‘Oh, talk-show host gets to do an inning,’ ” Spiegel said this week. “Obviously, there’s an element of promotion that I think Mitch Rosen enjoys, and I don’t begrudge him that.
“But my respect level for the job and the booth is so high that it’s daunting to me. And while I’ve achieved a lot of other dreams in broadcasting, this is the first dream I ever had. So to get a chance to actually do it is really, really special.”
Spiegel planted the seed in Rosen’s mind in 2019, when he hosted the shoulder programming for 13 games (he’s proud of the Cubs’ 11-2 record in those games). He inquired with Rosen whether he ever could call an inning. Though he lacked play-by-play chops, he had ample broadcasting experience and baseball knowledge.
Rosen was noncommittal on the regular-season inning, but he granted Spiegel a Mariners-Cubs spring-training game March 1, 2020. To say Spiegel was nervous would be an understatement, and he’s still picked on for some of his calls. When the Mariners’ J.P. Crawford tried to steal second base in the first inning, Spiegel said, “He’s gonna be dead.” So the running joke is Spiegel kills baserunners.
Despite his foibles, Spiegel has appreciated the support the Cubs’ crew has given him.
“In 2019, Pat Hughes, Ron Coomer and Zach Zaidman were incredibly warm and welcoming to me and sensed my nervousness, and it meant the world,” Spiegel said. “Zach, in particular, has been very supportive, and I enjoy supporting him when I get to do the pre and post because part of that job is to support, encourage and work together as a team. And I love that.”
Play-by-play is hardly foreign to Spiegel. He called some basketball games at Emerson College, and in the 1990s, he would take a portable DAT (digital audio tape recorder) into the upper reaches of Comiskey Park and Wrigley Field, find an empty section and call a few innings.
You might think a person who talks for a living would quickly adapt those skills to announcing. But that isn’t always the case.
“There’s a level of calm which you cannot fake in baseball play-by-play,” Spiegel said. “You actually have to get to that calm because I feel it coming out of my radio. I don’t want my personal tension to get in between the ballgame and the listener.
“On the radio show, you’re creating the moment. Doing a ballgame, you’re accompanying the moment. And the moment is bigger than you, and you better not mess up.”
Spiegel plans to be less nervous and more equipped this season, with an assist from his 23-year-old nephew, Jack McMullen, the voice of the Fort Wayne TinCaps, the Padres’ High-A affiliate. On Thursday, McMullen visited his uncle and provided pointers as Spiegel called the middle innings of the Cubs-Pirates game off TV.
“He’s a legit baseball play-by-play guy,” Spiegel said. “He grew up wanting to be Uncle Matt, which is pretty cool.
“I have the baseball knowledge; I have the aesthetic appreciation of what I want to sound like. I just need some of the mechanics. And like so many in this business, the first sound of sports media that I ever heard and wanted to be a part of was baseball on the radio.”
It’s a testament to Spiegel that he has this opportunity. Three years ago, previous management unceremoniously removed him from The Score’s midday show with Parkins after nearly a decade as part of the station’s weekday lineup. But instead of leaving out of spite, he stayed as a fill-in host, eventually reclaiming his spot alongside Parkins and gaining stature in a loftier time slot.
“I did feel karmically rewarded,” said Spiegel, who also is in his third season hosting “Hit & Run,” The Score’s Sunday morning baseball show. “That was nice because it’s easy to get cynical and it’s nice when optimism and team play and trying to ride it out get rewarded. It always was a goal to get to afternoons. Afternoon feels like a different kind of pressure [with more listeners].”
Spiegel knows that calling the Cubs, even for just five innings of the season, will bring its own kind of pressure.
“I might be used in perpetuity,” he said. “I might end up calling an inside-the-park grand slam that is remembered for decades. That could be true at any moment during a ballgame.”