Benefield: Meet the online voice of the Healdsburg Prune Packers

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How To Listen

To listen to Healdsburg Prune Packers play-by-play, go to @prunepackers on Twitter or log on to Periscope at www.pscp.tv and search for Healdsburg Prune Packers.

HEALDSBURG — The game was 1-0 in favor of the Healdsburg Prune Packers Wednesday night at Recreation Park when the visiting Humboldt Crabs’ manager Robin Guiver walked toward home plate and spent some time pleading his case with the umpire. Guiver, and a good many Crabs fans, felt the Packers had missed a tag at second that was called an out.

With shouts of “Ask for help,” and “This isn’t horseshoes” spouting from Crabs fans in the stands, Guiver made his case but to no avail.

All through the delay in play, sitting at his perch in the stands behind home plate, Griffin Epstein, 18, spoke into his headset and broadcast to the wider world his take on what was unfolding.

“The umpires have had to deal with a lot of angry visiting coaches of late,” he said. “On Saturday against the Ports, San Leandro’s manager got about as close to getting thrown out of a ballgame without doing so. He could have spent enough time having dinner with his wife as he did talking with the umpire.”

Epstein is three weeks beyond his graduation from Petaluma High School and 14 games into his new gig as the online voice of Prune Packers baseball. Yes, public address announcer Dick Bugarske is still calling games for fans in the stadium, sprinkling in baseball nuggets from “This Day in History,” but Epstein is offering Packers fans from near and far a chance to hear games unfold live via Twitter and Periscope.

As manager Joey Gomes tells it, Epstein has taken the California College League program “to the next level.”

“He is very savvy,” he said. “He knows baseball and it’s been pretty cool.”

And it’s been all Epstein’s creation.

“He reached out to us,” said Bugarske, who is also a board member with Healdsburg Prune Packers Baseball Club, the nonprofit organization that runs the team. “He sent us an email, sent us his resume.”

He got their attention. And then, Epstein, a three-year veteran of Petaluma High’s Trojan Live broadcast program, made his pitch in person. And he killed it, according to Bugarske.

“We are all in our Sunday grubbies,” he recalled of the board meeting back in February. “He comes walking in with a suit and tie on.”

Epstein is nothing if not professional, despite technically not being a professional. He skipped his high school Project Grad celebration to call the Prune Packers’ home opener on June 1 and was up and going again the next day for an 11 a.m. opening pitch.

His setup looks scant — his laptop is open and set on a folded card table that spans two rows of seats high behind home plate at Rec Park. On Wednesday, Epstein had 13 tabs open and toggled repeatedly between pages of stats and other information. He had an 8-x-11 sheet of paper with a hand-drawn diamond and players’ names at each position. On one side, the Prune Packers’ lineup; on the other, the Crabs’. When teams made pitching changes, he crossed out one name and wrote in another. Color-coded spreadsheets featured stats and information about players.

He streams live through the Prune Packers’ Twitter account as well as onto Periscope. He manages all of the technology himself. Last week a game garnered nearly 800 listeners.

How To Listen

To listen to Healdsburg Prune Packers play-by-play, go to @prunepackers on Twitter or log on to Periscope at www.pscp.tv and search for Healdsburg Prune Packers.

“Every game he’s going deeper,” Bugarske said. “There are great interviews. It’s just marvelous. We are just so happy to have him.”

So is Gomes.

Players’ college programs — including the University of Connecticut, Cal and Texas Tech — are taking note of what Epstein is doing and sharing broadcast info with their fan base, he said.

“The colleges are like all over this because they are like ‘Dude, you have gone to the next level,’” Gomes said. “It’s all this kid. It takes us, and what we view the Prune Packers as, to the next level.”

“That’s how unique this kid is. It’s amazing,” he said.

In April, Epstein was named The Press Democrat’s outstanding journalist at the 2019 High School Journalism Awards. For three years he’s been a mainstay on Trojan Live, covering all manner of prep sports. This fall, he’s taking his work rate to Indiana University, where he plans on studying sports media. It will likely surprise no one that he’s been in contact with his department’s faculty and already has a gig calling Hoosier women’s soccer games this fall.

“I’m a big sports fanatic,” he said. “By the time I got to fifth or sixth grade, I realized I wasn’t athletic enough to play sports as a career.”

So he channeled his passion into another outlet.

“I’d like to turn off the TV audio sometimes and do play-by-play,” he said.

At Petaluma, he started with a focus on the big-ticket sports: Football and basketball. But then he started to hear it from athletes and coaches in other sports, so he expanded his resume.

“I remember the first lacrosse game I did, the only thing I knew about it was that you were trying to put the ball into the other team’s net,” he said. A viewer promptly emailed him the rules.

The same thing happened in wrestling.

“I will always remember how upset they were that we weren’t covering them as much,” he said. “That was a really good lesson for me, that I’m not doing this for myself. It means so much to the students to see their hard work put up on the television for other students to see. That was really valuable in learning my role as a journalist.”

The better one is at something like what Epstein does, the easier it looks. Or in his case, sounds. But it’s not easy. Describing each pitch, each play as it unfolds takes a keen understanding of the game and razor-sharp concentration. And to make blowout games — of which the Prune Packers, 12-1 heading into Thursday’s game with the Crabs, have had a few — worth listening to takes some pregame homework. Lots of it.

He’s spending hours at Rec Park calling games, doing postgame interviews and perhaps spending even more time prepping for each game — learning something about players on both the Packers and the visiting teams: where they play in college, what kind of season they are coming off of and perhaps, even, if they like to cook.

After Texas A&M senior Cam Blake made an appearance and Wednesday’s game was out of reach in the Packers’ favor, Epstein recalled for listeners how the Texan out of Round Rock is an enthusiastic chef and partial to barbecue. He then segued into an endorsement of the grub being served at the Rec Park concession stand by Summer’s Market and Deli.

A pro.

And he’s got the lyrical flair for this, too. He sprinkled some gems throughout Wednesday night’s broadcast: When the Prune Packers took the lead, it was “rinse and repeat” for a team cruising to a 12-1 record; in describing catcher Bryan Sturges’ second of three stolen bases: “He is just too fast, that roadrunner.” At the beginning of the game, the diamond is “sun splashed” and at the end, it’s “bathed in shadow.”

His understanding of stats moving from one inning to the next feels seamless: “That’s the third straight inning (Crabs starting pitcher Tyler) Condie has had two outs, nobody on and allowed a hit.”

This is not a pro game in which a staffer is compiling stats and factoids for members of the media — Epstein is keeping up on totals as the game unfolds and all the while telling listeners about balls, strikes and the players on the field. When University of the Pacific sophomore Elijah Birdsong took the mound in relief, Epstein offered this: “Sixtenn pitches, 14 strikes and he’s struck out three,” noting that Birdsong’s curveball is “a piece of artwork.”

When the Prune Packers put together a rare 5-2-1 double play to get out of a bind in the fifth inning, the crowd erupted and Epstein told listeners, “You could not have orchestrated that any better if you were a violin player.”

When University of Portland sophomore Travis Turney rocked a two-run homer in the sixth inning to put the Prune Packers up 3-0, Epstein made the call: “No need to go to Allstate for the Packers because they have some insurance.”

At the conclusion of the Packers’ four-run seventh inning, Epstein gave listeners a rundown of how the team had put the runs on the board while sprinkling in some banter as the game increasingly felt decided.

“It’s a lot more time to prep than calling the game, which is how you have a good broadcaster,” he said. “They say you use 20% of how much you prep.”

And in this new assignment, Epstein is having to get comfortable describing the little details of the scene. When he was working with Trojan Live, he was calling plays over a video feed. Audio is different.

“So often with video you can lay back and something big happens, you can go silent for a while,” he said — although many broadcasters haven’t learned this trick. “With radio, you really have to make the picture for the viewers: How many people are in the stands? What are the shadows on the field? What are the players’ jerseys? After a pitch, how does a player react, what is their body language?”

Epstein calls these games “reps” but he doesn’t approach his position as practice or anything less than a job. His long-term goal is to be calling college football games someday.

“That is kind of my dream,” he said.

As good as Epstein is, Bugarske is pretty sure this is the one season the Prune Packers will get him. A bigger gig will come along for a guy that works as hard as he does.

“He carries himself at a really high level right now,” Bugarske said. “It’s almost like one person at a time, he’s building his base. I know the feedback we are getting online and to the website is ‘Thanks so much’ and ‘It’s great to listen.’”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud, “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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