As Sacramento native Jeff Levering recounted how he managed to become a major-league play-by-play sportscaster by age 31, he did it just as he commentates on a game – with stories that provide just the right context and color for his listeners.
The former Jesuit High School standout got his call up to the Bigs last January, while visiting his parents at their Arden Oaks home, he and his mom, Cathy Levering, told me. His cellphone rang during halftime of the Rose Bowl, and Jeff Levering excused himself from the family festivities and went to another room.
When he returned to watch the game, his infant son Brock was the only one who didn’t pepper him with questions.
“We’re all going, ‘So what? So what? So what?’ ” said Cathy Levering. “He bends over and gets a chip and dips it and slowly brings it to his mouth, and we’re going, ‘C’mon!’ And he goes, ‘You’re talking to the newest broadcaster for the Milwaukee Brewers.’”
Levering’s first job as a play-by-play announcer will be subbing for the man whom talk-show host Johnny Carson christened “Mr. Baseball,” 81-year-old Bob Uecker. Not only a legend as a sportscaster, Uecker also starred in television’s “Mr. Belvedere” and the “Major League” film trilogy, among other projects in Hollywood.
“I’ll probably do 60 or 70 games this year in the regular season,” Levering said. “I’ll also be doing some media relations. I’m now working with social media – on-camera stuff for the website and hosting podcasts.”
You might think that Levering, 50 years Uecker’s junior, is still wet behind the ears, but Kansas City Royals sportscaster Steve Physioc said Levering has been working double-time for this moment since he left college.
Physioc met Levering when he brought his daughter on a visit to Chapman University. Levering was a baseball player and a junior broadcast journalism student. Physioc gave a talk in one of Levering’s classes, and he was the only student to stay behind and offer the father and daughter a tour.
“We stayed in touch, and he would show me a couple of tapes of his work,” Physioc said. “I thought, ‘Man, he’s getting better,’ and he’d want criticism of it, so I’d give him a little critique of his work.”
When Levering graduated from Chapman, Physioc helped him and three other students get jobs at Fox Sports.
“His internship not only was at Fox, but it was at the Angels’ games where I was then a broadcaster,” Physioc said. “When we asked him to get a bottled water or a media guide for us, he would race down to get it. He didn’t take any of the menial jobs for granted … The word got around that, if you wanted somebody who would get things done, Jeff Levering was your man.”
His internship never quite ended, Physioc said. Rather, it evolved into freelance work.
Levering recalled working six days a week back then, occasionally sleeping under the editing table after late-night shifts ended and before early morning ones began. Physioc was so impressed by Levering that, when the Single-A Rancho Cucamonga Quakes were looking for a play-by-play guy, he called the management to recommend him.
He did the same when Levering was being considered by Double-A’s Springfield Cardinals and AAA’s Pawtucket Red Sox. Levering described his Single-A and Double-A experience as getting his master’s degree and his time in Pawtucket as where he got his doctorate.
The minor-league baseball schedule is daunting, he said, 140 games in 149 days for Single A, 140 games in 145 days for Double A, and 144 games in 149 days for Triple A. Virtually all travel is done by bus.
“We had a 16-hour bus ride from Springfield, Mo., to Corpus Christi, Texas,” Levering recalled. “My folks left Sacramento on a flight to Spain and landed before I got from Springfield to Corpus Christi. You work crazy hours. You don’t have a lot of off days.”
Levering did play-by-play solo for years, so there was no one to laugh at his jokes or to suggest banter. But he also got to intimately know the players, their struggles, their accomplishments and their sacrifices.
After interviews with Brewers management, the final hurdle for Levering was dinner with Uecker. Levering told his parents: “Whatever way this turns out, whether I get the job or I don’t, I can at least say that I had dinner with Bob Uecker.”
Levering said he and Uecker were only a few minutes into the meal when Allan “Bud” Selig strolled into view. Selig, the commissioner emeritus of baseball and a former Brewers owner, had hired Uecker as a sports commentator and still lives in Milwaukee.
Uecker called his longtime friend over to the table and told him: “Hey, Al … I want you to meet Jeff Levering. He’s going to be working with us next year.”
The words caught Levering off-guard, and they ricocheted through his head: Did Uecker – and now Selig – know something he didn’t? Sure enough, on New Year’s Day, he got the call from the Brewers’ front office.