DETROIT -- Chris Butzlaff knew he was in for a big job when the Tigers let him know he was their choice for the next public address announcer at Comerica Park. Little did he know the challenges ahead in his first season at his dream job.
While the buzz of fans has sadly been missing from Tigers games this season, temporarily replaced by prerecorded crowd noise on the sound system, the PA announcer is a constant. So each game, Butzlaff settles into his booth, reads the starting lineups and announces batters, pitchers and substitutions for a much smaller audience.
Just like for players, Butzlaff has to use some mental focus.
“I guess I’m just trying to envision that I’m here with a full park like I had felt it in the past,” he said. “These players, they’re still competing at the same level, the same type of concentration. So I kind of want to bring the energy with my voice when the Tigers are coming up, to maybe just give them a little shot of adrenaline, the Cabreras and the Candies and all the guys that have been having good years.”
In some ways, it’s a throwback to Butzlaff’s younger days announcing junior hockey games. He grew up listening to Ken Kal on Red Wings radio broadcasts and Ernie Harwell on the Tigers, and got involved with the student radio station at Salem High School in Canton reading sports updates. After attending Wayne State University, Butzlaff became the public address voice of the Plymouth Whalers in 1996 until they moved to Flint.
“But baseball was always my first love,” said Butzlaff, who said he has an Old English D tattoo on his leg to prove it.
Butzlaff was a fill-in announcer at Comerica Park over the years. He was a finalist for the full-time job last year, then filled in for Jay Allen on occasion. Allen passed away in January after a battle with cancer.
Butzlaff was one of a dozen finalists to audition just before Spring Training, reading scripts and lineups and introducing the national anthem, according to Tigers broadcasting and in-game entertainment director Stan Fracker.
“We knew we liked Chris a lot,” Fracker said, “but we also wanted to go in with an open mind. It’s an important position, and in this case, Chris’ voice continued to stand out, and we already knew the pro that he was, and it all worked out.”
The tougher part was keeping the news a secret until the Tigers made an announcement. Originally, Butzlaff only had to keep quiet until Opening Day near the end of March. Then the coronavirus pandemic put the season on hold.
When the decision came to start the season in July without fans, then came the question of whether announcers would be a part.
“That’s one of the first questions we started to ask,” Fracker said. “We decided as a team early on that, yes, a PA announcer is an integral part of the game. And then in Major League Baseball meetings, you find out other teams are thinking the same.
“Players expect to hear their name announced; it’s a way of keeping the game progressed and everybody on the same page. It’s a functional, vital role in baseball games. And as we learned, too, the tone of his voice can capture moments, a big home run, even just doing starting lineups. We understand there’s no fans in the park, but it does build a little bit of energy in the park.”
An intrasquad game near the end of Summer Camp became Butzlaff’s dress rehearsal. His first day on the job at the Tigers’ home opener began with a pregame tribute to the late Hall of Famer Al Kaline, with Kaline’s family watching and hearing the on-field ceremonies remotely.
“If you trip over a name or something and it’s a full crowd and it’s boisterous, they’re probably not going to really catch on,” Butzlaff said. “But when it’s dead silent and you’re doing a tribute to the all-time great, I just said, ‘Please, please let me get everything right.’”
He did, and he began to settle in. And while he couldn’t be the soundtrack of summer at the park, his voice became part of the background on Tigers broadcasts, as well as for downtown Detroiters who walk or jog by the ballpark, or have dinner nearby.
“I had family and friends, about a dozen, that were over at the Tin Roof [next door],” Butzlaff said. “They were on the roof and they said, ‘We can hear everything.’ So that was a neat experience to get texts saying you sound great.”
He also got a reaction from a player when Miguel Cabrera stepped out of the dugout and took a curtain call for his 2,000th hit as a Tiger last month after a between-innings announcement.
“I’d like to believe that was for me,” he joked. “It was probably to [the broadcast booth]. That was a really fun moment.”