High School sports have long held a rich tradition in Western Pennsylvania. Over decades football and basketball have become big revenue streams for schools and their communities. Media coverage of sports in print, radio, television—as well as the Internet—continues to grow every year.
Add to that, this region may be the only area in the country in which a sports broadcaster of Major League pedigree is having a grand time calling all of that high school action.
In the fourth year of a self-professed “second career,” Lanny Frattare, 65, is very comfortable behind the MSA Sports microphone, calling games on hardwood sidelines all over the region. “I enjoy basketball,” he says. “The timing is predictable and conditions are good. But I love them all.”
Calling basketball is not entirely new to Frattare. In an interesting twist that some of the most diehard sports connoisseurs might have forgotten, he was the play-by-play broadcaster for ESPN on February 23, 1985 when Indiana Hoosiers head coach Bobby Knight flung a red plastic chair across the Assembly Hall playing surface within the first five minutes of first-half action against Purdue University. The action—spurred by the Boilermaker’s quick 11-5 lead, Indiana’s 6 team fouls and Knight’s fiery temper—has been replayed countless times in the subsequent 28 years. (Gene Keady’s team won the game 72-63.) Frattare also spent about five years broadcasting Ohio State basketball games and for two years he worked at Penn State.
But Major League baseball was Frattare’s first and most ardent love. Locally, he was a different breed than the uber-colorful 28-year veteran Bob Prince, but Frattare’s tenure was longer.
After 33 years as the “Voice” of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Frattare—surprisingly to some—retired after the 2008 baseball campaign. While he hedges just a bit on mitigating circumstances (he had a year remaining on his contract), it becomes evident that due in large part to nearly 20 years of constant losing, the enthusiasm for the process had expired. Circumstances had to be soul-scraping. Coming from the AAA Charleston Charlies, Frattare first joined the Pirates’ broadcast team in 1976. The Buccos finished 2nd in the NL East, with a 92-70 record, only behind the Phillies’ 101 wins in the NL East. From 1976 to 1992, the Pirates collected 1,396 wins and accumulated 1,295 losses for a .519 winning percentage and 11 winning seasons. After Sid Bream slid under Mike LaValliere’s glove at 11:52 p.m. on Wednesday, October 14, 1992, the team suffered 1,104 wins and 1,419 losses—for a .438 winning percentage. Over that time they did not record a single winning campaign. The Pirates grinded their way to a 67-95 season in 2008, the fourth season in a row they posted 94 losses or more. Frattare had had enough.
The fan favorite’s departure was significant. Major League baseball announcers generally hang on for as long as they possibly can speak into a microphone. Milwaukee’s Bob Uecker, 78, just completed his 42nd year in the booth and Vin Scully, 86, will return to the Dodgers’ microphone for his 65th season on March 22, 2014. At 60 years of age and 11th in MLB broadcasting seniority when he retired, Lanny Frattare was looking forward to a new challenge. He found it almost immediately.
“I prayed to God about what I wanted to do next and came up with three goals. Number one, I wanted to work in a smaller community. Number two, I wanted to work with young people. Number three, I wanted to do something in announcing and broadcasting.”
In March 2009, Frattare responded to a newspaper classified advertisement for an Assistant Professor of Communication at Waynesburg University. He didn’t think he had much of a shot, seeing a qualified candidate would need a Master’s Degree and teaching experience, two resume builders Frattare didn’t possess. But once he made a few telephone calls to longtime friends, interest in him becoming a professor escalated. Then Waynesburg University President Timothy Thyreen called and asked if Frattare was “serious” about the job and the broadcaster said, “I’m so serious, I can be in your office tomorrow morning at 9:00.” Soon after the initial discussion, the post was his.
Since that time he has been teaching two classes a semester, grooming the next generation of broadcasters, just as he learned the craft at Ithaca College in New York, about two hours southeast from his hometown of Rochester.
“Admittedly, it’s been a challenge,” Frattare says. “There are about 10-12 (from his most recent class) who have what it takes if they continue.” Frattare is without a doubt the highest-profile announcer tutoring broadcast students in the region, and he’s cashed in favors to deepen the bullpen. Paul and John Steigerwald, current Pirate broadcaster Bob Walk and others have guested in Professor Frattare’s class.
“The people of Greene County have been very hospitable,” he says. The commute from his home in Collier Township to Waynesburg is almost a straight shot, one-hour south on I-79. “It’s really a great place.”
While teaching has been a delight, the desire for calling games from behind a microphone—a dream he started cultivating at age 13—never wavered. In 2010, Frattare began working for MSA Sports, a division of Management Science Associates, Inc. in Green Tree. The data and analytic systems conglomerate has developed its sports broadcasting wing to 25 affiliated radio stations as well as online content at msasports.net.
At first changing gears from luxurious Major League Baseball press booths to sometimes cobbled-together media facilities in high school football stadiums was a challenge. Major League productions have plenty of background research and other amenities, such as spotters. That doesn’t exist on the high school level, so Frattare was undeniably frustrated. Plus, he felt that his initial work was subpar.
A consummate and extraordinarily detailed professional, Frattare reached out to MSA boss Don Rebel and nearly quit after the first few games that freshman year. It took the faith of football color commentator Bob Orkwis to help him over the hump. “Bob was very supportive,” Frattare says enthusiastically. The two grew closer and Frattare says if it weren’t for Orkwis—a long-time high school sports reporter in his own right—he probably wouldn’t be broadcasting high school games today. “We care a great deal about each other.”
Typical broadcast preparation means Frattare talks with coaches, athletic directors, referees and others (even to synchronize hard-to-pronounce surnames) while Orkwis handles technical aspects of the remote. Orkwis says he greatly enjoys working with Frattare and revels at his meticulous prep work. The mix of expertise has been best for both presenters.
“If I had to choose between watching a World Series game and broadcasting a high school baseball game, I would announce the high school game,” he continues. “My preparation for a high school game is as close to a Major League Baseball game as I can make it.” It’s a difficult task, and that’s why he spends so much time talking to those closest to the local game.
His favorite game behind a microphone in recent years was the 2012 WPIAL AAAA semifinal game between Upper St. Clair and Central Catholic. Upper St. Clair played without injured quarterback Dakota Conwell. Backup Pete Coughlin stepped in for the first start of his high school career and defeated Central Catholic in an upset, 28-14. At the time, Central Catholic was the #10 ranked high school football team in the country.
Frattare, who also considered an open Athletic Director position at USC at the same time he saw the Waynesburg ad, has been friends with Panther’s coach Jim Render for years.
Unfortunately, USC couldn’t get past North Allegheny the following week during the WPIAL Quad-A championship game at Heinz Field. Upper St. Clair was on the losing end of that contest, 28-21, but Frattare was ecstatic with the games and memories.
The friendship with Orkwis has introduced Frattare to a different arena of the sporting pantheon. Orkwis has been involved in the Lawrenceville-based Keystone State Wrestling Alliance (KSWA) for several years.
Every December the group holds its FanFest/Toy Drive in which big wrestling names like George “The Animal” Steele, “Luscious” Johnny Valiant, Dominic DeNucci and Bruno Sammartino have been showcased. Frattare has guested as a Ring Announcer for a match in each of the last four years. It was something that made him nervous at first, but the fans (who are usually among the most fervent Pirate fans) have welcomed him with warm arms and ruckus applause.
This Dec. 7 outing, Pittsburgh native Valiant said meeting Frattare was a highlight of his night. Current wrestler Shawn Blanchard says he’s been able to point to Frattare on two different occasions after stunning moves in the ring and shout Lanny’s signature “There’s no doubt about it.” Frattare laughed heartily both times.
Frattare thinks it’s fantastic that this year’s Pirate team finished 94-68 in the Central Division, broke an historic 20-year losing slump, and made the playoffs for the first time since the Clinton Administration’s first term.
He’s most appreciative of the fans that showed up more than any year since PNC Park opened in 2001. He hasn’t been back to the ball park at all, not even once, since walking away from the North Shore and calling more than 5,000 games. And he doesn’t miss it. “It was clearly time to move on,” he said. “I had wonderful years. I am deeply indebted to the team, and the fans.”
He does miss his colleagues. “Jim Rooker and I were like brothers,” he said. “Bob Walk taught me about me about the inner workings of baseball.” Frattare stops, gathers a thought and adds, “And Steve Blass. His sense of humor got us through a lot of days.”
Frattare said he recently had dinner with another Pittsburgh transplant-turned-Pirate icon, Jim Leyland. The Perrysville, Ohio native retired as manager of the Detroit Tigers after the playoffs, but will stay on in some capacity with the club. Frattare predicts that Leyland may also work in Major League Baseball’s front offices—or on a committee—in some capacity in the future.
In July, Frattare hosted the 27th annual fundraising golf classic at St. Clair Country Club that bears his name.
The event benefits Familylinks, a local human services agency serving the most vulnerable members of the community. Around $2 million has been raised for the agency over the life of the event.
As for his future, Frattare looks forward to mentoring aspiring broadcasters in a way similar to the way his father encouraged him back in Rochester. And he will continue to provide Major League-level broadcasts to high schools all over Allegheny County and beyond.