BY MATT LaWELL
PEORIA, Illinois | In the depths of the minor leagues, every radio broadcaster does something more than just sit behind a microphone for three or four hours every night. Some churn out game notes and programs and media guides. Others sell sponsorships and tickets. One or two handle stadium operations. A lucky few do get to talk more.
Nathan Baliva, the voice of the Peoria Chiefs, is part of that last group.
Hired more than a decade ago as an intern out of the University of Florida, Baliva has spent the last 11 seasons with the Chiefs, calling balls and strikes and the rest of the action on the field from high up in his radio booth. He works for the team during the offseason, too, though he spends more of those months in his car, crossing Illinois again and again, thousands of miles on four tires, to do the same thing all winter in high school and college gyms. “Last year, when I filled out my taxes, I put 11,000 miles on my car,” Baliva says. “And that’s just from September 1 to April 1.”
“Last year, when I filled out my taxes, I put 11,000 miles on my car — and that’s just from September 1 to April 1.” — Peoria Chiefs radio broadcaster Nathan Baliva
Raised outside Springfield, Missouri, and reared in press boxes as early as his years at Chatham-Glenwood High School — where he was a high school classmate of future Phillies and Nationals outfielder Jayson Werth — Baliva is a glutton for games. Two years ago, he called all 137 Chiefs games by Labor Day, then tacked on 68 high school games and four college games — 211 games in all. Last year, he called all 139 Chiefs games and landed a handful of additional television games, which cut his overall number to somewhere south of 200. His count over the last 27 months is still close to 500 games and somewhere around 1,300 hours on the air.
The challenges are different for minor league baseball and high school basketball or football. The press boxes are different, the speeds are different, even the information available is different. “Preparing for our games is easy for me because I know everything I can know about our players,” Baliva says. “But when you’re given a high school girls’ basketball roster 24 hours before a game and you’re working here, 9 to 5, you’re not getting a whole lot of research on those 12 girls. You’re not mixing in a biographical story in a high school basketball game.” The drives are different, too, of course. All those miles lead to longer days during the winter, when Illinois roads are often covered in snow and ice, speeds are slower and game times are normally unbending. “I drink a lot of caffeine. You have to keep it going.”
Baliva says he has entertained a few offers to move on to other teams and other radio booths in the minors. He has turned down every one of them to remain in Peoria. His family is still less than two hours away over in Missouri, he has a good professional and personal relationship with Chiefs president Rocky Vonachen, and he has the freedom to fill his offseason schedule with as many games as his vocal cords can handle. “For them to let you leave a few hours, to miss a few days,” he says, “it works all around for me.”
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Time for minor league trivia. During their almost three decades in the Midwest League, the Chiefs have won just one league championship, back in 2002, when they were affiliated with what Major League team? (Keep reading for the answer.)
Another night, another shutout for the Chiefs. Righty Michael Jensen started and held the Cedar Rapids Kernels scoreless over five innings, and righty Felix Pena and lefty Hunter Cervenka each pitched a pair of innings out of the bullpen on their way to a 2-0 win — their third straight win and their third straight shutout, as many in three games as they had turned in over their first 57 games. The bats supported the arms just enough, as centerfielder Taiwan Easterling drove in second baseman Zeke DeVoss in the first and designated hitter Anthony Giasanti drove in Easterling in the eighth.
Now in the middle of his third season with the Chiefs, Casey Kopitzke is a lucky man. Granted, his 159-177 record during his three seasons is still well under .500 and his teams have never qualified for the league playoffs, but at least he stepped into the dugout in Peoria two seasons after Cubs legend Ryne Sandberg moved onward and upward. Sandberg managed the Chiefs for two seasons, his first two as a minor league manager, before moving up the ladder to manage the Tennessee Smokies, Iowa Cubs and Lehigh Valley IronPigs. “I don’t think anybody, with the quality of person Ryne is, you don’t come in and follow him,” Kopitkze says. “He sets his own path. I was fortunate to be around him for a few years, coming in, working with catchers, watching him do his thing. He’s just great, a great baseball guy, a great person. Nobody comes in and follows him, not with all he’s done.”
Kopitzke is a career Cub, drafted by the organization back in 1999 out of Wisconsin-Oshkosh and a minor leaguer for eight seasons before stints as a roving instructor and manager. He wants to move up, just like his players, just like Sandberg. He trusts the Cubs, no matter what they might have in store for him. “They’ve always treated me extremely well,” he says. “I’ve always felt like I’ve been a part of the family from the top down. They’ve always looked out for me and I feel like they’ve always had my best interests in mind when it comes to my career. I feel fortunate to be with the Cubs as long as I have.”
Want the answer? The Chiefs have been the Chiefs since 1984, their second season in Peoria (they were the Suns for a season), though their affiliates have changed three times over the years, from the Angels (1983-84) to the Cubs (1985-95) to the Cardinals (1996-2004), who were their affiliate during that championship season. The team returned to the Cubs in 2005.
And in random statistical news, the game started on time, the first pitch was a strike, the first batter grounded out to short and a young woman sang the national anthem in 1 minute and 36.0 seconds. We feasted on a plate of Philly cheesesteak nachos and a food truck cheeseburger so loaded with chili, barbecue sauce, pickles and onion straws that the burger itself disappeared under a mess of toppings. No hot dogs, though.
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