Pittsburgh native voice of Little Rock minor league ball club

Pittsburgh native voice of Little Rock minor league ball club

Phil Elson recalls how he first saw his wife in the stands of Dickey-Stephens Park in
Little Rock while he was broadcasting a Travelers game. Finding young, datable Jews
in Little Rock wasn’t easy. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/John Sykes Jr.)
Phil Elson recalls how he first saw his wife in the stands of Dickey-Stephens Park in Little Rock while he was broadcasting a Travelers game. Finding young, datable Jews in Little Rock wasn’t easy. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/John Sykes Jr.)

It’s the top of the fifth inning at Dickey-Stephens Park, with the Arkansas Travelers holding a precarious 1-0 lead against the San Antonio Missions. Up in the radio booth Phil Elson sees some life in the Travelers’ bullpen, way out in right field, and picks up his binoculars for a look.

Binoculars are important to this story. No, that’s not quite right. Binoculars are important to Phil Elson’s life.

But first let’s set the scene.

Elson, the radio voice of the Travelers — the first full-time radio voice in the long history of the team — works in the booth overlooking home plate. The window is, as always, open, no matter the weather, no matter the foul balls that fly upstairs.

The smell of ballpark food drifts in. As does the tintinnabulation of baseball: The murmur of the crowd, the chatter of vendors, the slap of a gloved ball, the crack of the bat.

Elson is surrounded by his tools. He has a desktop computer monitor, a laptop, an iPad, a cell phone, a calculator, a notebook full of Texas League facts and figures, a clipboard, a pen, a scorecard, and those binoculars. Every time a player strolls to the plate, Elson has data at his fingertips, accessed through those devices both modern and traditional.

But Elson’s most important tools are his knowledge, his personality and his voice.

That voice talks — a lot. Between innings, he wonders how many words he speaks over the course of a game. One thing he knows: he forgot his throat lozenges. Gotta have those lozenges.

Elson is in his 13th year in the Travelers booth. He has 16 years as a baseball broadcaster. He is all of 36 years old.

“He’s doing what he’s wanted to do since he was 12 years old,” his wife, Julie, says.

And adds: “I want people to know how good he is at his job, and if they don’t listen they’re missing out.”

Local journalist Todd Traub concurs.

“Phil’s the kind of guy you want to listen to when the game is on,” he says. “But he’s also the kind of guy you want to sit around and talk baseball with because he’s so approachable.

“No artifice. No big-headedness. No ego.”

Russ Meeks, president of the Travelers, appreciates Elson’s work ethic.

“He’s dedicated himself to the game,” Meeks says. “He understands the game, and what makes the game interesting to the fans who watch it and listen to it. He’s one of the few people in minor-league baseball who approaches the job as if he’s sitting in the stands watching and explaining it to someone right next to him.”

Paul Allen, the general manager of the Travelers, comes quietly into the booth in the seventh inning. Many times, he says, sponsors come to the booth to talk on-air with Elson. They’re usually nervous, not being radio people, but Elson puts them at ease.

“He’s like everybody’s best friend,” Allen says.

• • •

Elson’s love affair with baseball began in 1983. He was 6. His father, Howard, took him to Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, home of the Pirates, for opening night.

“My father would explain things to me, things like batting average and earned run average. It was a comfortable place, an exciting place, a place I wanted to be.”

Elson spent many nights listening to Pirates games on the radio.

“I remember the smell of the air in my room, and the voices of Lanny Frattare and Steve Blass,” the Pirates’ broadcasters.

Baseball runs deep for the Elson clan. Julie Elson grew up in St. Louis, loves the Cardinals. Howard Elson, a pediatric dentist, still plays hardball — he’s 65. He’s a pitcher, and his son is a catcher.

“That’s what made us such a great tandem,” Phil Elson says.

Elson was an all-star catcher in high school. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote about him and headlined the story this way: “Intelligent Elson loves tools of ignorance.” That’s baseball language for the catcher’s helmet, facemask, shin guards and mitt. The position is so demanding, physically and mentally, that only the ignorant would willingly pick up those tools.

“I took to it,” Elson said. “The catcher is the only person, other than the umpire, who’s looking out onto the field. It’s the same perspective as a broadcaster. You can see where everyone is positioned. I loved the physical, mental and emotional nature of the position. It’s cerebral; the catcher is involved in everything.”

Elson made the first cut of the walk-ons at Indiana University, but no further. “I wasn’t good enough to play Big Ten baseball.”

Determined to be in baseball one way or another, Elson sent letters to 140 minor-league and big-league teams asking for an internship. The Fayetteville, N.C., Generals offered $15 a game, but no pay when the team was on the road. He later had internships in Pittsburgh and Akron, Ohio. His first on-air job was for the Helena, Mont., Brewers in 1998. From there, he went to the Ogden, Utah, Raptors, then to the Mudville Nine in Stockton, Calif.

He heard the Travelers, the Double-A affiliate of the Los Angeles Angels, were hiring a full-time broadcaster, applied, got the job in 2001 and now is in his 13th season as director of broadcasting and media relations.

Radio and baseball are made for each other.

“The nature of the game is that it’s laid-back and you watch or listen to it in a laid back manner. Listening to the radio isn’t intense, it’s in the background, part of another activity. It’s what makes the game so much fun.”

Being at the park is a similar experience, Elson says.

“The minor-league fan is laid-back, and we provide an experience people can enjoy even if they don’t like baseball.”

“When you come here, you can just be,” he says. “Look at the people in the beer garden.

Three-quarters of those people don’t even know there’s a game on.”

So if they’re not watching the game, what are they doing? They’re watching each other — sometimes with binoculars.

• • •

Beshert. It’s Hebrew, explains Julie Elson, and means “meant to be,” or “soul mate.”

Meant to be. How else to explain this part?

“It’s a charming story,” Traub says. “Near legendary, and more or less true.”

Julie Polsky was moving from St. Louis to Little Rock for a job. Right before moving she was at a friend’s house.

The friend went to a social media website called JDate.com, J for Jewish. The only person who popped up from Little Rock was Phil Elson.

“I thought, ‘He’s cute.’”

The whole Polsky family moved Julie to Little Rock. They all went to Ray Winder Field, the old home of the Travelers, to find out something about Elson. Julie saw him in the radio booth. “Stupid me, I could have called the front office.”

She went to another game with a friend. And Elson, up in the booth, was scanning the crowd with his binoculars. He saw this beautiful girl; she saw him — and she used her fingers to give Elson her phone number. Tommy Adam, another Travelers employee, gave Elson an elbow in the ribs. Elson wrote down the number — incorrectly.

“I still have the score book with the wrong number on it,” he says.

So he called the wrong number.

The team then went on a long road trip. Opportunity lost? No, because it was a beshert kind of year for the Arkansas Travelers. The team made the Texas League playoffs, with games to be played at Ray Winder Field. Julie Polsky came to one, Phil Elson saw her from the booth and called down to her.

“I looked up at him and I laughed,” Julie said.

Howard Elson composed and sang a song at their wedding in St. Louis: “The Only Jewish Girl in Little Rock.”

Phil and Julie Elson have two children. Sadie is almost 4. Gabriel is 1. They are, Julie says, miniature Phils.

But it’s not all peanuts and Cracker Jack being married to a play-by-play man. The Travs play 70 games on the road. Elson also does the University of Arkansas at Little Rock women’s basketball games and Henderson State University football. Julie estimates that Phil is gone 100 days out of the year. She couldn’t do it, she said, if her mother, Ellyn Polsky, didn’t live here.

“I’m gone so much my kids look different when I come home,” Elson says.

Julie has a thought about this.

“Think about how tired you would be after a 10-hour bus ride from Corpus Christi, Texas, and all you want to do is play with your children.”

That, too, must be beshert.

• • •

Baseball is a small universe in which lives and events intersect. One of the tragedies and great what-ifs of baseball was the beaning of Tony Conigliaro in 1967. Tony “C” was a rising star for the Boston Red Sox — the youngest player in American League history to hit 100 homers — when a pitch from Jack Hamilton of the California Angels hit him in the left cheekbone. Conigliaro came back from the injury, but permanent damage to his left retina forced his early retirement.

Bill Valentine was the home plate umpire that day at Fenway Park. And Valentine, now retired as Travs general manager, was in the booth with Elson to witness another tragedy.

On the night of July 22, 2007, a line drive off the bat of Tino Sanchez of the Tulsa Drillers struck first-base coach Mike Coolbaugh on the left side of the neck.

When Coolbaugh went down, Elson remembers, Valentine mentioned the Conigliaro beaning, and he said, ‘This looks worse than that.’ ”

It was worse. Coolbaugh, 35, was dead.

“I did the 1,000-yard stare for a week after that,” Elson says. “It took away the innocence of the game for a while, the joy of the game, for the players, too.”

Death “doesn’t happen at the baseball park — ever.”

Elson called Julie the first chance he could.

“He called me from the booth,” Julie says. “He said it was bad, really bad. I tried to calm him down. At some point he called me and said, ‘He’s dead.’ Phil was devastated. He said, ‘I just saw a man die.’ He was shook up for a long time.”

The effect on Phil lingers, Julie says.

“He’s still pretty much scared by it. He’s sensitive. He has a huge heart. What doesn’t make most men teary makes him teary.”

Phil Elson, sitting in the press box at Dickey-Stephens, looks out over the field.

“Any time I look at that coaching box,” he says, “I think of what happened there.”

• • •

Did Darwin know baseball? There’s a cosmic question, posed in dugouts everywhere. If Darwin had known baseball, he would have appreciated the game for its essence — survival of the fittest.

Elson has aspirations. He’d like to be a play-by-play broadcaster in the big leagues. Like the players, he wants to move up the ladder to Triple A and then The Show. He also knows those jobs are few and far between.

“We all know when we show up at the ballpark that we’re doing something we love. But we know we don’t always reach the pinnacle of our profession,” he says.

Look at the players.

“Anyone on this field can play a game in the major leagues. The question is, can they do it for 162 games?”

Elson is still in Little Rock in part because he hasn’t scored a broadcasting job elsewhere. It’s not for lack of trying. His most recent shot was with the Albuquerque Isotopes, the Triple A farm team of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“I joke with him that it’s not too late to become a dentist,” Julie says. “He’d never be happy doing anything else. But the next job he gets would have to be major for us to leave here.”

“I have to be happy with where I work,” Elson says. “A bad day at this office would be a good day at any other office. I love working here and becoming part of the franchise.”

“We’d wish him godspeed and good luck if he found any other position that was better for his family and his profession,” Meeks, the Travs’ president, says. “I’ve always taken the position that I would help him in any way I could to become a big-league broadcaster. Of all the minor-league broadcasters I’ve heard, he’s the one who could do that.

“Phil deserves that chance at some point. We’d hate to lose him, but we would love to see anyone who works for us work at a higher level.”

“I still hold out hope — my wife and parents do, too — there will be a major-league job in my future,” Elson says. “I’m a relentless dreamer.

“Baseball is part of my soul. I need to have a game in front of me. I need to have a microphone in front of me.”

(Frank Fellone a deputy editor and columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, can be reached at ffellone@arkansasonline.com. This story first appeared in the Democrat-Gazette and is reprinted here with the paper’s permission.)