Leader Blues

Friday, January 22, 2010

SPORTS >> Voice of Travelers earns statewide honor

Leader sports editor

Arkansas Travelers broadcaster Phil Elson has seen the ridiculous and the sublime from his press-box perch. He has seen triumph and tragedy.

Elson has called Arkansas Travelers games since 2001 and more recently has been the man behind the microphone for the UALR women’s basketball team.

Elson’s friendly voice and flair for description were recognized by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association, which recently voted him Arkansas sports broadcaster of the year for 2009.

“It’s a great award, I think, because people who are in the industry and are members of this organization are the ones who voted on it,” Elson said.

Elson’s award puts him in the company of Arkansas broadcast legends like the late Jim Elder and Paul Eells.

Elder, who died in 1998, was the long-time voice of the Travelers and one of the last to do road-game recreations and Eells, killed in a car accident in 2006, was the beloved television and radio sportscaster noted for his “Touchdown Arkansas” call when describing Razorbacks games.

“I’ve always been honored to follow in the footsteps of Jim Elder, as far as the Travelers are concerned,” Elson said. “And being mentioned in the same class, I guess, as Paul Eells means a lot as well.”

Elson became the first Travelers radio man to travel with the team and broadcast road games live. He became the voice of UALR women’s basketball in 2005.

“It’s good to show a little bit of versatility as a broadcaster,” Elson said. “I got into broadcasting for baseball, first and foremost, and I’m going to ride that as long as I can, but I really get a lot of joy and pride in being part of the UALR program.”

Elson, 33, was an all-city league catcher at Pittsburgh’s Taylor Allderdice High School. He grew up listening to Pirates baseball and Penguins hockey on 50,000-watt KDKA-AM 1020, and his father hosted a weekend sports talk show on the station.

Elson tagged along and was quickly entranced by the workings of a real radio station.

“I listened to baseball as a kid,” Elson said. “From the time I was 6 or 7 years old I knew what I liked to do, at least at night — watch baseball as much as I could and if it was too late then you’d listen to baseball.”

Not long before taking his first job, Elson was in a New York bar with a friend when legendary Penguins broadcaster Mike Lange, in town for a game, walked in. Elson sent Lange a drink, the two hit it off, and Elson recalls the advice he was given: “For the first five years, you won’t know what you’re doing.”

In 1995, when he was 18, Elson interned for the Class A South Atlantic League team in Fayetteville, N.C. His first on-air job was at Helena, Mont., in the Rookie Pioneer League, then he moved to Stockton, of the Class A California League and finally, in 2001, to Arkansas and the Class AA Texas League.

“I had such an excitement level out of being here in 2001,” Elson said. “And then looking down the road at some of the names that were going to be on that team: John Lackey, Bobby Jenks.”

Elson got a chance to work for the legendary Bill Valentine, the former American League umpire who lost his job for trying to organize a union in 1968 and, with his wacky promotions and giveaways, revived Travelers attendance after taking over as general manager in 1976.

Valentine retired in 2009.

“I knew that this was what I always wanted to do; I just didn’t quite know where it would take me,” Elson said.

Elson’s toughest day on the job was July 22, 2007 when Tulsa first base coach Mike Coolbaugh was struck and killed by a foul ball while in the coaches box at Dickey-Stephens Park.

Elson will also never forget opening day last year, April 9, when Los Angeles Angels pitcher and 2007 Traveler Nick Adenhart was killed in a car accident in California.

In 2001, Elson was on the road with the Travelers at Round Rock, Texas, during the Texas League Championship Series, when on Sept. 11 terrorists struck in New York and Washington D.C. The series was eventually called off and the Travelers were named champions by virtue of their 2-0 series lead without playing a TLCS game before their home fans.

In what was perhaps his most famous call, at least as far as Travelers fans are concerned, Elson was forced to describe the last out of the 2005 TLCS, when umpire Steve Fritzoni lost track of the count and failed to award a ninth-inning, two-out walk to Travelers batter Jason Aspito.

Aspito then struck out on what was essentially a 4-2 count, and the Midland RockHounds took a 5-4 victory and the series.

But it hasn’t all been tragedy and frustration. The 2008 Travelers rallied to win the Texas League first-half clincher over Springfield, 7-6 in 11 innings, then beat Northwest Arkansas and Frisco, Texas, in the playoffs to take the championship.

Elson’s job has also allowed him to hobnob with hall-of-famers like Yogi Berra, George Kell, Jim Palmer and Ferguson Jenkins.

“I hope you can tell I’m having fun; you better have fun if you have people like that with you,” Elson said.

But if Elson is asked what was his best day at the ballpark, it’s no contest.

While scanning the crowd from the press box at old Ray Winder Field during the 2001 season, Elson spied a vivacious brunette apparently signaling her phone number. Elson hastily scribbled down the digits, and got them wrong, but the young woman fortunately made a return visit to the ballpark and the two hit it off.

Elson and Julie Polsky were married in 2005 and the couple welcomed their first child, Sadie Grace, late last summer.

“It makes a lot of sense that I found the love of my life while I was doing something that I loved,” Elson said. “That’s the best way that I can put it.”