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Len Kasper is once again living his dream

Kasper is set to embark on a new challenge on White Sox radio after 16 seasons on Cubs TV.

Len Kasper, shown in 2012 with former broadcast partner Jim Deshaies, surprised fans on both sides of town by switching from Cubs television to White Sox radio.
Len Kasper, shown in 2012 with former broadcast partner Jim Deshaies, surprised fans on both sides of town by switching from Cubs television to White Sox radio.
Sun-Times Media

‘’Traitor.”

That’s the tweet Len Kasper has received dozens of times since announcing he was leaving Cubs TV for White Sox radio.

All Kasper had done in 16 years on the North Side — equaling Hall of Famer Harry Caray — was call the action with an acuity that had been missing from the team’s play-by-play voice for years. But the ugly side of the Cubs-Sox rivalry, not to mention social media, still pops up in his Twitter feed.

Amiable in demeanor and composed in manner, Kasper finds a compliment in the ire.

‘‘I take it as a sense of some Cubs fans feel like they lost a family member,’’ he said. ‘‘I get it. It’s a visceral, emotional thing, and people who are angry with me are angry because they feel betrayed.’’

Kasper was genuine when he said upon joining the Cubs in 2005 that he wanted to be their announcer until he was told to leave or died. But he also thought he was going to be the Marlins’ announcer forever when he worked for them.

“You’re allowed in this life and in a career to change your mind,” he said. “I knew a lot of people would be surprised. I guess I was a little naive to how big a deal it was.”

Though many have looked for an ulterior or sinister motive, Kasper’s decision had neither, only the fulfillment of a dream. At his introductory — or re-introductory — conference call with reporters in December, the Michigan native said he was speaking as his 12-year-old self, who wanted to broadcast baseball just like his hero and mentor, former Tigers voice and Hall of Famer Ernie Harwell.

‘‘I was surprised,’’ said Jim Deshaies, Kasper’s partner on Cubs TV for eight years. ‘‘But knowing Len, in hindsight, his explanation and knowing the way he thinks, it ultimately made perfect sense. If you want to be a radio guy, [if] a radio opportunity opens up and you don’t have to leave town, I completely get it.’’

The seat in the Sox’ booth became available after Ed Farmer died April 1, 2020. Farmer had served as their play-by-play voice or analyst for 28 full seasons. He grew up a Sox fan on the South Side and pitched 2½ seasons for them. He had institutional knowledge of the team.

Kasper, who turned 50 on Jan. 21, has dived into Sox history, mining as much information as he can. He also will lean on radio partner Darrin Jackson, who has broadcast the Sox on TV or radio since 2000 and played on both sides of town.

But if some Sox fans are wary of a longtime North Sider infiltrating their turf, they can sit back, relax and strap it down because they’re in for a treat.

‘‘I pride myself on my consistency, my genuine nature,’’ said Kasper, who will be heard on the Sox’ new flagship, ESPN 1000. ‘‘I am who I am, and I think Chicago in general appreciates that. . . .

‘‘When I got the Cubs job, Ron Santo called me and said, ‘You’re a Cub now.’ And that always tickled me. He was right. And so I’m a White Sox now.’’

* * *

In his first radio job, Kasper didn’t make calls; he took them.

He started at WTMJ in Milwaukee in 1994, producing a nighttime sports-talk show and co-hosting a Brewers postgame call-in show Sundays with former Brewers catcher Bill Schroeder. Kasper eventually became the afternoon sports anchor and hosted the nighttime show. He then hosted Packers pregame and postgame shows, in addition to a weekly show with then-Packers safety LeRoy Butler. Then came the morning show.

‘‘I did everything sportswise you could do at TMJ,’’ Kasper said.

Well, almost.

Kasper longed to do play-by-play, and he received some intel that longtime Brewers broadcasting director Bill Haig believed an announcer needed 500 games of minor-league experience to be ready for the majors. That was problematic for Kasper, who had zero games of experience.

In 1996, Haig called Brett Dolan, the lone radio announcer for the Beloit (Wisconsin) Snappers, the Brewers’ Class A affiliate. Haig asked whether Dolan would mind giving Kasper some reps in the booth. Dolan was more than amenable.

‘‘Sometimes when you’re broadcasting in the Midwest League, you wonder if you’re truly talking to yourself,’’ Dolan said. ‘‘And there may be nights when that is the case. So to have another person to interact with, it becomes more of a baseball conversation.’’

‘‘He very easily could have said no and could have been territorial,’’ said Kasper, who also called Dolan to make sure he was comfortable with the arrangement. ‘‘But he was like: ‘Absolutely. That would be awesome.’ ’’

Kasper joined Dolan in Beloit on some weekends and went on trips to Appleton, Wisconsin, and Lansing, Michigan. He usually called three innings of play-by-play and did color. And it was all on his own dime. The experience was the payment.

Though Kasper fell well short of 500 games, he made enough of an impression on the Brewers, who hired him in 1999 to fill in when regular TV announcer Matt Vasgersian had a national game.

‘‘With someone of Len’s talent, it doesn’t take that many games before you realize they have an opportunity to do this at the big-league level,’’ said Dolan, who called the Astros on radio for seven seasons and now calls Arkansas football for the SEC Network.

‘‘What I remember most is that what Len is now is what he was then: just a relaxed guy on the air, a professional, someone who enjoyed the game. And, for me, that was great to be around and team up with from time to time.’’

Said Kasper: ‘‘I think that whole scenario was instructive for me, too, to make sure I do everything I can to help young broadcasters along the way because that was a pretty selfless thing he did for me.’’

* * *

Kasper was born in Mount Pleasant, Michigan, but he grew up in nearby Shepherd, a rural town of about 1,500. Kasper figured it was about a 10-minute walk from one end of town to the other.

But Shepherd’s size accentuated and accelerated Kasper’s love of sports because it made them feel so distant, like a fantasy world.

His family had an old stereo, and Kasper would lie on the floor next to a speaker, reach above his head and turn the dial in search of games on faraway stations. Cable TV arrived in 1982, expanding Kasper’s world.

‘‘ ‘Oh, my gosh, there’s an Expos-Giants game on USA tonight. I’ve gotta watch it,’ ’’ Kasper said of his younger self. ‘‘Anytime there was a game on, it was this huge deal to me.’’

As a kid, Kasper went to Tiger Stadium a handful of times and visited Joe Louis Arena to see his beloved Red Wings. But the family didn’t make the three-hour drive to Detroit much. So when it was time for college, Kasper sought an urban environment and chose Marquette. Milwaukee isn’t the metropolis New York or Chicago is, but it was eye-popping to him.

Though he set his sights on a broadcasting career, Kasper hedged his bet by majoring in public relations. It was tangentially related as part of the communications school, and Kasper figured he could gain broadcasting experience at the student radio station and have PR work as a fallback.

Kasper’s adviser his freshman year in 1989 was Prof. Bill Baxter, a PR titan at the school who had a broadcasting background. He had been the public-address announcer for Oklahoma football, so he and Kasper immediately clicked.

In one of their first meetings, Baxter suggested Kasper pursue an internship in the Bucks’ PR department. Baxter said it usually went to upperclassmen, but he believed Kasper could handle it. Sure enough, the Bucks made Kasper their first freshman intern.

‘‘Two months after I left home, I’m in Milwaukee, this unfamiliar place, and I’m on a bus to Green Bay to work an exhibition game, and the first person I see is Jack Sikma,’’ Kasper said. ‘‘I’ll never forget [seeing] this 7-1 center. That’s one of those bigger-than-life moments where it’s like, ‘Oh, this is really cool.’

‘‘That was a pretty big turning point for me, being in that environment at that age. I met a lot of broadcasters. And I think public relations was really instructive for me because half of our job is dealing with media-relations people, and I understand what their job is.’’

Kasper eventually called Marquette men’s basketball games, and he hooked on with WISN radio to produce a sports-talk show. That gave him credentials to Brewers games at County Stadium, where he would practice calling some innings. As he later would learn, it’s all about the reps.

‘‘It was kind of the bludgeoning experience required to get better at broadcasting,’’ Kasper said. ‘‘Every time I talk to young broadcasters, I can’t stress how important experience is. Broadcasting is the easiest thing in the world to do; it’s the hardest thing to do well.’’

* * *

If you ever had the pleasure of listening to Harwell call Tigers games, you might notice some similarities when you listen to Kasper. Not so much in the exclamations or the prose, but in the style of the broadcast.

Harwell never made you feel a game didn’t matter. He didn’t sulk and was never overly excited. He maintained his energy. Most of all, he made you want to listen.

‘‘I’ve always tried to be that way,’’ Kasper said. ‘‘Most guys emulate Vin Scully. For me, it was Ernie. You end up kind of doing the thing that sounds right in your head, and it’s not you. The more experience you get, the more your inner voice comes out, and then you become you.

‘‘I am who I am, but I’m completely influenced by how Ernie would do it. The first homer I ever called in the big leagues in ’99, I did a [Harwell trademark] ‘Long gone,’ and it was my nod to Ernie.’’

Kasper’s style became appreciated outside the Midwest. The Marlins made him their full-time TV play-by-play announcer in 2002. When his three-year contract was coming to an end, Kasper was assured he would return, but he wouldn’t receive his next contract until Fox Sports Florida renewed its deal with the Marlins. It was all a formality that just took time.

On the last day of the season, Kasper was sitting on the team bus in Philadelphia when he noticed a newspaper article in the Marlins’ media clip packet. It said Cubs TV voice Chip Caray was leaving to broadcast the Braves. Kasper turned in his seat to show Marlins radio voice Jon ‘‘Boog’’ Sciambi, sitting behind him.

‘‘Did you see this?’’ Kasper asked.

Sciambi said he had.

‘‘That’ll be OB’s job,’’ Kasper said.

‘‘OB’’ was Dave O’Brien, whom Kasper had replaced in the Marlins’ booth when O’Brien left for ESPN. He was highly regarded in the industry and indeed was on the short list for the Cubs’ highly sought booth. Kasper was so sure of it, he didn’t give the Cubs a second thought.

It turned out the Cubs were giving him a lot of thought.

Andy Masur, who was part of Cubs radio broadcasts on WGN at the time, heard of the team’s interest and called Kasper, telling him to call the Cubs. Kasper eventually connected with WGN-TV director of production Bob Vorwald, who had him fly to Chicago three days later.

‘‘I had an eye on him,’’ Vorwald said. ‘‘I knew who he was. I knew he was a comer.

‘‘We were at dinner and had our meetings, and he just carried the day. He was confident, he was prepared and he was Len. How do you not like the guy? To some of the Tribune higher-ups [the Tribune Company owned the Cubs], everyone thinks they invented Harry. You know, ‘When Harry was here . . . ’ Len wasn’t Harry, but you could just tell he got it.’’

The Cubs also met with O’Brien and then-Padres TV voice Vasgersian. Kasper, friends with both, knew he was third on the list and was prepared to return to the Marlins, viewing the process as a good learning experience.

But when it came down to it, ESPN wouldn’t let O’Brien out of his contract and the Padres wanted compensation for Vasgersian, who was still under contract. The Tribune wouldn’t oblige.

So Kasper, the only one without a contract — on a technicality, no less — was free to take the job. He joined Bob Brenly, who replaced longtime analyst Steve Stone.

‘‘If the Marlins or Fox had come to me in September and offered me an extension, I would have signed it and I would not have called the Cubs,’’ Kasper said. ‘‘We can sit here and talk about things are meant to happen. I generally believe the world is fairly random, but there are moments along the way where you wonder, ‘How the hell did this happen?’ ’’

* * *

The way Vorwald sees it, Kasper wasn’t christened as the Cubs’ announcer until June 29, 2007. That’s when Aramis Ramirez hit a game-winning, two-run homer with two outs to beat the Brewers 6-5, sparking the Cubs’ ascent to a division title.

‘‘Len called it, and his voice broke,’’ Vorwald said. ‘‘That’s when he arrived. That’s everybody’s favorite call. From then on, he was the Cubs’ guy.’’

What will the moment be when he becomes the Sox’ guy?

And will it come against the Cubs?

Kasper knows he might inadvertently refer to the Sox as the Cubs during a broadcast. Sox fans will have to cut him some slack. But they should know he doesn’t just feel a professional obligation to them; he feels a personal connection to the job.

‘‘I connect on what Len did,’’ said Sciambi, who replaced Kasper on the Cubs’ Marquee Sports Network. ‘‘I still have a real love for baseball on the radio, the force of a brilliant, descriptive phrase.’’

Eventually, Kasper’s voice on Sox broadcasts will sound as natural as the crack of a bat or the roar of a crowd. Eventually.

‘‘As time goes on and we do this every day,’’ Kasper said, ‘‘there will be a point where people will say, ‘Do you remember when Len was the Cubs’ guy?’ You’ll be like: ‘Yeah, it’s weird. Now he’s the White Sox’ guy.’ It’ll naturally happen over the course of time.’’