A life in baseball radio: An interview with Greenville Drive’s Ed Jenson

I’ve had the unique pleasure to work in a minor league press box for the past 11 seasons and for a baseball junkie like me, there’s nothing like it.

One of the cool things for me is to meet the visiting radio guys from across the South Atlantic League. Many of the teams have radio play-by-play guys that are here today and gone the next, as they move up to better and brighter jobs in order to one day to get to the major leagues. But there are some names and faces you get used to seeing as they are synonymous with the teams and their cities.

Ed Jenson is one of those familiar faces I’ve come to know over the past decade. Ed has been the radio voice of the Greenville Drive since they began in 2005 and one of those faces I look forward to seeing each year when the Drive come to L.P. Frans Stadium in Hickory. No matter what I have going on with player interviews, setting up for my scorekeeping duties, etc. I try to make time to chat with Ed on that first game of a series to catch up. Mostly, it’s how each of our teams are doing – honest conversations, for better or worse.

When the Drive came to Hickory in late June for their lone series of the year, I arrived at the ballpark around 5 for a 7 p.m. game, set my briefcase down at my chair, then made my way to the visitor’s radio booth to say hello to Ed.

I pulled back the curtain, said, “Hey Ed, how’s it going?” When he turned around, my expression was such that you could’ve picked my jaw up off the ground. Ed’s response was, “Not very well.” He’d lost a ton of weight and his face was gaunt.

Ed had a couple of heart attacks over the past year and another heart situation during a series at Kannapolis that sent him to the hospital a few days. His travel bag at the time had not only his radio equipment, but a collection of nebulizers and medications and such. As we got to talking about what was happening, though the same strong radio voice was still present, it dawned on me that this could be the last time I see Ed.

Ed is a radio nut. He’s followed jobs from Iowa to Florida to Georgia to South Carolina doing a variety of sports. But his first love is baseball – correction, his first love is Greenville Drive baseball.  To hear his stories – of which I’ve heard probably a lone chapter in a volume of work – is hearing a history of small town baseball.

As we talked on that June day, knowing that this is a man that could very well not come to Hickory again, I got Ed’s permission to do an interview about his life in radio, baseball, some of his favorite players, and life in general, including the plans he has for his own memorial service.

I typed up the interview quickly, but then as my own life has taken twists and turns, it sat on my computer waiting for the right day to post on my blog as other stories took precedent. About a month ago, I knew when it had to post – the closing day of the season.

Here is the interview.

 

How did you get from Storm Lake, Iowa to the South?

Jenson: I went from Storm Lake to Florida, then I went up into Georgia and up into South Carolina just following different jobs in radio and doing play-by-play as well.

Have you always done baseball?

Jenson: No, baseball, basketball, football, softball, wrestling – which you don’t want to think about doing.

I’m guessing that’s amateur wrestling and not the pro stuff.

Jenson: College and high school wrestling. You always wanted to have somebody that knew the different moves and calls. That was fun.

Did some Clemson baseball, St. Leo’s (FL) – that was a lot of fun. I did some Florida Gators games as well.

How did you get hooked up with the Drive?

Jenson: I was helping with the Greenville Braves when they were here and got to know Eric Jarinko, who at the time was the media relations guy coming with the Drive. We got to talking and he said, “I can either have you do PA and we can do play-by-play.” We just started off day one and he called me with about a week-and-a half to go and says, “We’re going to do the game.” And he said, “you’re going to do it.” I said, “oh my God, it’s a dream come true.”

So baseball has been your main sport?

Jenson: Baseball is my number one sport. Probably after baseball, I’d have to go basketball. I’ve not been a real big football lover.

What have you enjoyed about calling baseball?

Jenson: A lot people say, ‘How can you do baseball? It’s boring. There’s so much time in between.’ And I say, ‘To pinpoint one thing, it’s kind of hard.’ Just kind of growing up in the game and playing a lot of baseball, I guess I just fell in love with the game early in my life.

Did you every have the inclination to do this in the major league at some point?

Jenson: In the old days, yes (chuckles). Now, probably not. I mean, you’ve come to Greenville and you saw the ballclub. You come to the ballpark and you’ve seen the organization, it’s a Red Sox affiliate. I’m 65 years old, who wants to leave that kind of setup.

What’s struck you about working and staying in Greenville?

Jenson: It’s a great city, it really is. It continues to grow. We draw 5.000 people a night, every home game. It’ll be four to five and sometimes six-and-a-half a game. People just enjoy coming to the game, coming to the park. You look out and you see the stands filled, it puts a little extra spark in you.

What do you enjoy as far as the game on the field with the Drive? Obviously, you get the Red Sox product and you get to see them move up. What are some memories you have of the last ten years?

Jenson: Making it to the playoffs a couple of times. We did wrap up a divisional title at home and had a big dog pile out on the pitcher’s mound.  The big party down in the locker room.

I guess it’s been fun to watch so many of the Drive players go from us, up to Salem, up to Portland and make the jump into the majors. I forget the count, but I think there are 15 or 16 former Drive players that are now wearing major league uniforms. Not necessarily with Boston, but playing in the major leagues.

Who do you remember most that has stuck out in your mind?

Jenson: (Anthony) Rizzo, who is with the Cubs. You’ve got (Mookie) Betts, (Clay) Buchholz. Those are the guys that really stuck in my head.

Were there any of those you saw in Greenville that you said immediately, this is going to be a major leaguer?

Jenson: Yeah, (Xander) Bogaerts is another one. The year that we had Bogaerts, we could see that it’s not going to take very long.

Betts is kind of a funny story, because he started off the year with us really slow, barely hit over .210, .215. But something tripped and boom, he’s gone. By August, he was up to Salem and upwards you go from there.

You and I talked yesterday about some of your medical issues and so on. You said you had two heart attacks?

Jenson: I’ve had two heart attacks, two stints and the guy says some serious infection in the chest. So, you’re having the good days and the bad days.

When was your last heart attack? You said a month-and-a half ago?

Jenson: Yep, I did. I had the first one back in November.

The other one was during the season?

Jenson: Right before.

Did you miss the first part of the season?

Jenson: Nope, I did not miss. I did miss a game in Kannapolis. We were playing a four-game series up there and I pulled in the fourth day and I just couldn’t move even out of the car. And they called the EMS and I told the guys from the EMS, “In two hours I’ve got to be on the air.” So they worked on me and we were in contact with the hospital. The EMS guys says, “How much time do you have before the ballgame?” And I said, “About an hour-and-a half, now.” And he said, “Well, you’re not going to make it.” He says, “We’re taking you to the hospital.”  So they took me down to one of the hospitals in Charlotte. I was there for three days.  I came back and I had a day off and then I went right back to work

This thing in Kannapolis, that was not your second heart attack?

Jenson: No, I thought it maybe was the third. That ended up being a real bad case of bronchitis that kind of set in and it forced me to have some heavy problems with breathing.

You said that you are taking different things now. You said you had a chest infection, or getting one?

Jenson: I’m real susceptible to be able to get it. I do take the medication. I have nebulizers when I do and this and that. Like I said, it’s a day-by-day thing. Some days you’re good, some days you’re bad. They put me on some medicine that they’re hoping that will take care and keep me going. That’s what I’m hoping for right now.

How long do you want to do this?

Jenson: Probably until I die.

Are we going to find you in a radio booth some afternoon or some evening?

Jenson: If that was the way I’d have to go, that’s the way I would want to go. Calling a game, or calling a playoff win.

What’s your prognosis long term?

Jenson: They say, “we feel confident that this (the medication) could work. But, if doesn’t, maybe a year, year-and-a-half.  But they’re confident it could work if it’s treating right. And I said, “well, let’s hope it’s treated right.”

It’s not cognitive heart failure, is it?

Jenson: No, just some problems up there and they’ve got some spots there that they don’t like and that’s that.

Do they think that if it’s something that ‘s not going to heal that it will deteriorate over time?

Jenson: That’s the hope. (chuckles)

When you and I chatted yesterday, you said you’ve got your funeral planned?

Jenson: Yeah. If it happens, I want the funeral at the ballpark. I really do. That’s kind of my home away from the home where I’m at by myself. The people and the organization with the Drive, that’s a close family. I’d like to have it at the ballpark.

And you want the ashes placed there at the ballpark?

Jenson: Yeah, I’d love to. (laughs). Probably the federal government will have something to say about that.

Maybe they can put you in an urn, or something like that.

Jenson: Well, you never know. Obama’s approved stupider things, so you never know what could happen.

What do you want folks to remember about you?

Jenson: I can’t even think of anything for people to remember me. Just, don’t remember me, just live your life. Have fun with it because sometimes it’s short. That’s the thing: have fun. Treat people nice. Treat people the way you want to be treated. If you don’t, change your ways.

Is your family here?

Jenson: No, I don’t. All of my kids are up in Iowa. I’ve got a couple of grandchildren that live up in Iowa. I get a chance to talk with them a little bit by phone, and mostly we text back and forth. But like I tell them, hey, you guys have got a life. Don’t worry about me. I’ll be here.

How many kids?

Jenson: Three. I’ve got two boys and a girl. All grown up, thank goodness, and al in their 30s and enjoying life in Iowa.

Do they get to come down and see you at all?

Jenson: No. Being the fact that they’re so cotton-picking busy, they don’t. And I’m not going to force it on them. They’ve got their lives to lead. They’ve got wives and husband. I’m just, “Don’t worry about me; you’ve got to worry about your family first.”

Do you have a baseball dream that you want to see before you pass?

Jenson: Yeah, I’d like to go to Fenway. I’ve never been there. I would really love to see Fenway once. I was close, I got to see Pawtucket and I’ve been to Portland. But stupid me, I didn’t go to Boston. That’s one dream, before I go, I want to see Fenway, whether it’d be sitting in the stands, sitting in the dugout, sitting in the radio booth, or whatever.

When you and I talked, I was struck that you have a realistic attitude that time is short for you, likely. But then again, it’s short for everybody.

Jenson: It is. But I kind of go on the aspect that: it is what it is. Whatever happens, happens. I don’t have control. It’s the man upstairs. Every morning, I ask him, “Get me through another day.” That’s all I can say. That’s all I can ask for.

Ed Jenson has been the voice of the Greenville Drive since their inception in 2005 (photo by Mark Parker

Ed Jenson has been the voice of the Greenville Drive since their inception in 2005 (photo by Mark Parker

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