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‘This is like the Wild, Wild West’: Ravens radio team adjusts to one broadcasting novelty after another in 2020

After a day at a stadium where nothing really happened, after a broadcast of a game he couldn’t really see, Gerry Sandusky will leave his WBAL radio booth and step into something unnatural, almost a photonegative version of reality.

As he walks down an M&T Bank Stadium tunnel, he can hear the patter of his footsteps: “It is one of the most unsatisfying feelings I’ve ever had.” As he heads to a parking lot that, except for his car, is almost always empty, he is almost always alone. “It’s just that blanket of loneliness.” A career in broadcasting had prepared Sandusky for a Ravens season unlike any other, one with road games in Houston and Landover and everywhere in between called from Baltimore.

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He’s still not used to how undisturbed everything seems once he’s said his last word.

“A stadium is a really big, weird, lonely place when you’re the only person in it,” Sandusky said Tuesday.

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On Sunday morning, he will return to his perch inside M&T Bank Stadium and prepare to deliver play-by-play for perhaps the final time this season. At about 1 p.m., a Week 17 game between the Ravens and Bengals will kick off. Over 400 miles away, conveying the passage of every play and the importance of every moment, will be Sandusky and analyst Femi Ayanbadejo. Three crew members will be helping along the way.

They’ve gotten used to it by now. On air, Sandusky can’t help but indulge in the occasional only-in-2020 quip. The coronavirus pandemic has already led to Trystan Colon-Castillo deep dives and long waits for Lamar Jackson appearances, just one broadcasting novelty after another. It’s only fitting that he would call a potential win-or-go-home game in Cincinnati from, well, home.

“If you do an effective job of painting the picture, it legitimately is only in 2020,” Sandusky said. “This could never happen in 2018.”

Just ask them.

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‘Wild, Wild West’

As the program director at WBAL, Scott Masteller processes a lot of news. He also oversees the production of the Ravens’ radio broadcast. And the more he came to understand the scope of the pandemic this spring, the more convinced he was that his fall plans might change, too.

When the Ravens had traveled for away games, Masteller would usually come along as part of WBAL’s crew. Even months before training camp opened, that no longer seemed possible. There was no way of knowing what else might change.

“This is like the ‘Wild, Wild West’; you really didn’t know where things were going to go,” he said. “And so we had to figure out, ‘OK, how are we going to do this?’ And really, nobody knew right away.”

Eventually, WBAL figured it out. From conversations with the Ravens, the NFL and the Maryland Stadium Authority, a framework for game-day operations emerged. The station could have no more than five people in the booth, only a slight reduction in manpower. Masteller would help coordinate from home. Face masks would be mandatory except for Sandusky and his analysts — Ayanbadejo and Dennis Pitta — and even then, only when they were on the air.

And, most consequentially, there would be no travel on the team’s chartered planes. Road game broadcasts would have to come together remotely.

The goal, Masteller said, “was always: Be able to prepare for the unexpected, always be ready to react to what might come next, knowing that in the end, the person that’s listening to the broadcast ... they don’t care. They just want to hear the broadcast, and they want it to sound like the way they’re used to having it sound.”

First-time nerves

Until this season, his 15th with the Ravens, Sandusky had never missed a road game. His Week 1 partner, Ayanbadejo, had never done a game broadcast, not even in the preseason. The closest the former Ravens fullback ever got was in front of his TV.

“I tell anyone that’ll listen, ‘If you hear me on my couch without the F-words and the cuss words, I’m basically doing the same thing as I do in the booth,’ " he said.

Which maybe prepared him for Week 2. By then, he and Sandusky were on more equal footing. After all, neither had called a Ravens game in Houston from a booth in Baltimore. All they had to work with was the CBS broadcast’s “truck feed,” a bird’s-eye angle of the field and whatever homework they’d done to prepare for Ravens-Texans.

If Ayanbadejo hadn’t called the season opener at M&T Bank Stadium one week earlier, he wouldn’t have known what he was missing.

“If you just tell me, ‘These are the tools you have, and there’s nothing else,’ I’m going to make it work,” Ayanbadejo said. This is radio, not TV, he’s reminded himself this year. He doesn’t have to be Tony Romo or Steve Young. He’s setting the scene for the fan listening in their car, not breaking down the replay for the fan at home who can see it all.

It’s taken some getting used to. There are nerves up through kickoff, when Sandusky’s play-by-play begins and Ayanbadejo picks up on the rhythm of their interplay. There is the odd background of a manicured, unlined football field and no one in pads on it. “Man, that’s such a nice plot of grass,” he remarked during one break in the action.

But then Ayanbadejo will watch someone like running back Mark Ingram II seal a Ravens win with a 30-yard touchdown at Houston’s NRG Stadium, and he’ll have to take the audience inside the play from over 1,000 miles away.

“I do think that at the end of the day, if we’re looking at my perspective versus the listener’s, I’m going to be able to see more than them, regardless,” he said. “I think I have that kind of in the back of my head, that, ‘Hey, I’m painting a picture for you from a picture, but you’ve got to get it from my mouth.’ "

An unusual ‘confluence’

Games in Pittsburgh take Sandusky to Heinz Field, a stadium built along the banks of a river formed by a confluence. When the Ravens finally made it to their Week 12 game in Pittsburgh, he thought of the nearby Ohio River. He came back to that word — confluence.

“This was a confluence of variables that were beyond the realm of imagination when these teams first saw the schedule come out back in April,” Sandusky remembered saying.

A Thanksgiving Day game had been pushed back to the following Sunday. Then to Tuesday. Then to Wednesday. Jackson had by then tested positive for the coronavirus, one of 23 Ravens who would be added to the reserve/COVID-19 list over a 10-day span, one of the biggest outbreaks in sports.

On game day, Sandusky recalled arriving at an empty M&T Bank Stadium, almost in disbelief over the circumstances: thrice postponed, a 3:40 p.m. kickoff, just the NFL’s second Wednesday game since 1949, a remade Ravens roster “filled with guys that nobody’s ever heard of.”

“And I remember looking at everybody in the booth thinking, ‘Man, we’ve got to soak this up, because with a little luck, we are never going to have this situation again,’ " he said.

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The Ravens had already lost two straight games, and Sandusky was prepared for the possibility that the unbeaten Steelers might turn the game into a “three-hour waste of time.” He knew how to pronounce practice squad call-up Aaron Adeoye’s last name (Uh-DAY-oh-yay). He knew that quarterback Trace McSorley might be needed. He knew listeners knew nothing about Colon-Castillo, the rookie center who’d never played in an NFL game but was now starting.

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Sandusky didn’t want to drown his audience in trivia — “I’m not usually a fan of overloading information,” he said — but there was so much to tell them. If the game’s backstories could keep him engaged, they could keep the broadcast interesting. He found it refreshing to explain how the Luke Willsons and Davontae Harrises of 2020 were giving the Ravens a chance.

“As challenging as the last two weeks had been for the Ravens, those challenges gave these guys the opportunity of a lifetime that they would have never had otherwise,” Sandusky said. “And so what I like to do in those situations is just try to show people the other side of the coin. We all know the headaches of 2020. We all know what a miserable year it’s been. We all know how much everybody has struggled.

“So it’s kind of fun to be able to share with people just a little glimmer of light that this guy’s having a day he probably dreamed about, and realizes [that], had it not been for 2020, he would not have that day.”

A light in the dark

Like everyone else watching the fourth quarter of the Ravens’ “Monday Night Football” game against the Cleveland Browns, Ryan Blumberg was trying to figure out where in the world the NFL’s reigning Most Valuable Player was.

As Blumberg directed the Ravens’ game-day broadcast, there was only so much he could do from Baltimore. The only field within view was pitch-black. He searched through Twitter. He looked for updates online. Not until he saw Jackson emerge from a FirstEnergy Stadium tunnel on the ESPN broadcast’s truck feed did Blumberg have any clue he might return.

“You’re watching this game from the comfort of M&T, obviously, and just trying to be there in the moment, even though you can’t be, it’s such a surreal feeling,” Blumberg said. “It’s just a testament to what Gerry and Dennis could do that day. It’s trying to paint that picture on the air, because if you were there with us, we’re just looking at, you know, an empty field. … And so to recreate the atmosphere of that game, in the moment, it was just an incredible moment for us.”

So much of Blumberg’s job is about preserving the “infrastructure” of the game-day experience. For remote broadcasts to work, there has to be crowd noise, whether it’s authentic or piped in. He has to have the truck feed running smoothly. He has to be listening to the radio broadcast with one ear and the telecast with another, or else Sandusky can get stuck in no-man’s land, with an ad break missed and no gameplay unfolding.

Hundreds of miles away from the helter-skelter in Cleveland, directing off a screen as darkness covered the empty field outside his booth, Blumberg said it still felt “real.”

“It’s just different,” he said. “It’s tough to describe, but it’s like you have the ups and the downs, and all the emotions that you feel when you attend these NFL games and all the drama and tribulations. And it’s just different. It’s tough to describe, but it still has that same zip to it.”

It’s just not the same as being there in person. “It’s been a great learning experience,” Blumberg said, “but I do look forward to getting back.”

Regular-season finale

RAVENS@BENGALS

Sunday, 1 p.m.

TV: Chs. 13, 9 Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM

Line: Ravens by 12

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