Fox Sports’ new lead baseball broadcast team is pure Michigan

Detroit News

They’ve traveled vastly different paths, but at one point or another, they used the same roads and highways.

They’ll all bring something unique to the table, but ask any one of them how they anticipate success, and they’ll typically point to the two others.

These days, none of them get to spend much time in their home state. But Michigan will certainly be in the hearts of Fox Sports’ new lead baseball broadcast team when it debuts on Saturday night.

As the New York Mets take on the Philadelphia Phillies in New York’s Citi Field, Potterville’s Joe Davis will do play-by-play alongside color commentator and Warren/Lansing native John Smoltz, in a broadcast that’s led by executive producer Brad Zager, of West Bloomfield — a booth that is pure Michigan from hundreds of miles away.

They’ll call the All-Star Game in July, the Field of Dreams Game in August and the World Series in October. Sure, it’s a little coincidental that the three most important members of that team grew up less than 100 miles apart. But when you think about why they fell in love with sports in the first place, why they wanted to sit in those chairs, is it really?

“We are all products of where we came from, and I think we would all tell you that we wouldn’t be where we are now without where we came from and the people that raised us,” Davis said. “There’s something special about these places that we all come from and we have in common that they’re the same places.”

Davis, 34, skyrocketed through all the levels of sports broadcasting in a hurry before eventually succeeding Vin Scully in the Los Angeles Dodgers booth in 2017. He’s got big shoes to fill, but that’s nothing new.

“I don’t know anybody in any other industry that replaces Vin Scully and Joe Buck. Like, man, how big are those shoes?” Smoltz said. “It’s one of the coolest things when you think about geography, and it’s such a small town we grew up in, and I think that is a testimony to Joe’s hard work, all the way, starting in broadcasting. I mean, you talk about running the gamut.”

He and Smoltz, 55, have worked together before, including last year’s American League Division Series, but with Joe Buck bolting for ESPN in a broadcasting carousel that shook up the sound of sports this past March, when it comes to baseball, Michigan is now in the driver’s seat.

Smoltz had a much different route to the booth. He was selected out of Lansing Waverly in the 1985 amateur draft, 574th overall by his hometown Detroit Tigers. His selection halfway fulfilled a prophecy by his grandfather, who worked on the grounds crew at Tiger Stadium and had been telling the Tigers brass his grandson would pitch there one day since before Smoltz was even a teen.

Smoltz intended to go to Michigan State, but he opted for the minor-league route and was dealt to Atlanta while in Double A in a deal that fetched the Tigers starting pitcher Doyle Alexander, a trade that’s one of the most debated in Tigers franchise history. Smoltz went on to a stellar career that landed him in the Hall of Fame: five NL pennants, a World Series title, a Cy Young Award, and a strikeout total (3,084) that ranks 17th all time.

Smoltz quickly joined the Braves’ booth after retirement, was hired by Fox Sports as an analyst in 2014, and became the lead analyst alongside Buck in the 2016 season.

“The Michigan connection is great, but what’s been even cooler, is that when (Smoltz) got that job, there was nobody else we knew that could do it at the level John Smoltz could,” Zager said. “We knew he had become the best analyst in baseball.”

Zager, who turned 44 this past month, was a quick riser himself. In 2021, he was named president of production & operations/executive producer for Fox Sports after a 25-year career that started as an intern.

In a twist that’s surprising to nobody reading a Detroit newspaper, there’s only one thing that strengthens the bond more than geography: A long-suffering history as Detroit Lions fans.

In fact, Zager has a crystal clear memory of the first time he met Davis in 2014.

“The first conversation we had, we literally broke down the Lions’ draft options,” Zager said. “Like a week later, Joe emailed me and said, ‘Keep an eye (out), I think they’re gonna take Eric Ebron, the North Carolina tight end.’ And I was like, ‘Tight end? They don’t need a tight end.’”

The rest, as they say, is history.

Q&A with Davis, Smoltz and Zager

(Answers have been edited for length and clarity)

► What’s the Michigan food item you crave the most?

Smoltz: I’m kind of a junk food junkie. I used to make a pig of myself at (Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlour). I think it was like two gallons of ice cream that I ate, which you can’t find anymore. Between that and Anchor Inn all-you-can-eat shrimp, those are my go-to. Fifth-three shrimp is my record.

Davis: That’s another thing John and I have in common, our love for sweets. We’ve crushed some desserts around the booth. … For me, Michigan food, love Buddy’s Pizza. An Oberon, love an Oberon. Quality Dairy Ice Cream, (that’s) big-time Lansing area.

Zager: My No. 1 is Greene’s Hamburgers on Orchard Lake Road in Farmington. … I still miss Coney Island and will always be a fan of Little Caesars, since I lived on it in high school.

► What’s your favorite Michigan vacation spot?

Smoltz: What’s crazy is that I never got to do any vacations because of baseball. So I would like to go to Mackinac Island. … I’d like to visit Up North in the lakes and the dunes and Traverse City. … That’s something I’d like to go back and experience even though I grew up and never did.

Davis: I think back to high school days. Our big thing is we started to gain freedom and had cars, we’d go to Grand Haven and cruise the strip with our music bumping, thinking we were hot stuff. … Mackinac Island is awesome, and I think that now that I’m older and boring, I would love to go Up North and do the Pictured Rocks things again. I did that as a kid, but when I was at the age where I was too cool for everything.

Zager: Charlevoix. I went to camp up there for a couple years growing up. … For me, would love to have a house in Charlevoix one day and be able to spend some time up there.

► Which Detroit/Michigan team did you root for the hardest growing up?

Smoltz: Michigan State. I liked underdogs. When I was growing up, probably nothing better than ’78, Magic Johnson coming from nowhere. … I probably root harder for Michigan State, besides the Lions, when I was growing up.

Davis: Lions would be the answer for me.

Zager: Tigers for me, but if you ask people that knew me growing up, they would say that I was passionate about everyone of the sports teams, because literally, there was nothing I loved more growing up than the Pistons, Red Wings, Lions, Tigers, Michigan and Michigan State.

► If you’re taking someone to a restaurant in your hometown, where are you going and what’s your order?

Smoltz: I hate to say in Lansing, we didn’t have many. The one that comes to mind, it’s no longer there, DeLuca’s Pizza was a pretty good place. Also, I was a pretty big fan of Chi-Chi’s. I know it’s not exactly homegrown, but fried ice cream, chimichangas, I crushed both of those.

Davis: I think I’m obligated to say Joe’s Gizzard City. Potterville is Gizzard City, USA. I, full disclosure, have never had a gizzard. I have had the deep-fried cheeseburger there. … So yeah, Joe’s Gizzard City. It’s also by default, because it’s literally the only place in Potterville.

Zager: West Bloomfield really didn’t have a restaurant that I ever looked forward to, but for us, going to Lelli’s Steakhouse growing up was a big deal. … They had homemade chocolate ice cream that I used to just put my arms around it.

► Favorite Michigan musician?

Smoltz: That’s not fair for me, because I grew up in a house of accordion players. … Music and musicians were kind of taking me in a different direction. … It would hurt my dad’s heart if I didn’t say Lawrence Welk, I guess, or even my dad and his band.

Writer’s note: Welk is from North Dakota and appears to have recorded in pretty much every midwestern state besides Michigan, so we’ll give the split-decision victory to Smoltz’s dad here.

Davis: I would say John took my answer, but I’ve never heard of Lawrence Welk, so my answer is Eminem.

Zager: I’ll go with Eminem, with Jack White right there, too.

► Pop or soda?

Smoltz: We were always referring to it as pop. I also lived not too far from the old Towne Club bottling — you know, with Orange Crush. I was also on Bozo the Clown, if that tells you anything about my upbringing, and I won a six-pack of Crush on Bozo the Clown. It was always pop. (My parents) said both, but I remember pop more than anything.

Davis: Pop, for me.

Zager: Not only is it pop, but when you’re an 18-year-old intern that moved from Michigan to LA, and your job is to get everyone drinks, and you say pop, you take a lot of abuse in Southern California. … I have changed to soda over the last 25 years, because of the verbal abuse I took calling it pop as an intern.

Nolan Bianchi is a freelance writer.

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