On almost any given summer afternoon since 1996, Pat Hughes has taken his seat in the broadcast booth high above home plate at Wrigley Field, versed on the narratives on the visiting team and optimistic about the home club.
“I like to say ‘New day, new game,'" Hughes said in a phone interview with Chicago. "In fact, I say that around the clubhouse, I say that to the broadcast partners in our booth, I say that to the managers. New day, new game.” The new day brings Hughes through the radio and around the country with his almost 20-year-old hello: “Chicago Cubs baseball is on the air!”
Each new season doesn't always bring back the personnel of the one prior, but it brings back Hughes, who has witnessed employee turnover at a rate that has left him as the longest tenured passenger on the team flight. He's been with the Cubs long enough now that Hughes's just-announced new partner in the booth, Chicagoland native Ron Coomer, was once the subject of Hughes's announcing, having played 111 games with the 2001 Cubs.
Thirty-four years old and nearing the end of his career, Coomer hit just .261 with eight home runs on a third-place Chicago team, a longtime Twin whom only the diehards will recall as a Cub.
Hughes’ true Cubs stature, however, stands out, perhaps most in his recollection of the game. It's one thing to remember the momentous occasions, quite another to accurately remember the year (“2001”); setting (“a night game”); opponent (“the Rockies”); base runner (“Ricky Gutierrez got caught around third”); batter (“it might have been [Joe] Girardi”); and entire situation (“the whole play took about 45 seconds”) of a frantic finish to a Cubs win, which is exactly what he proved when I asked him about his decade-old call. He recalled the moment down to the style of slide the runner chose to score the winning run (“head first”). In fact, Girardi was pinch-hitting for Coomer that night.
At his best, Hughes’ professionalism complimented the passionate fandom of Ron Santo, whom he joined in the booth in 1996 after leaving his previous position with the Milwaukee Brewers. Where Pat would give fans the game, Ron would give the emotion.
In between, the two built a rapport. With good play on the field and good chemistry in the booth, the broadcast could feel like a pleasant conversation. Oftentimes, that's exactly what it was.
Ron: I happened to be watching ESPN and the Marlins game, which was a pretty good ballgame.
Ron: And they had a shot of [Marlins manager] Jeff Torborg…
Pat: Here’s the one-one pitch, outside corner, called strike. One–and-two.
Ron: …flossing. Flossing!
Pat: Jeff Torborg, flossing his teeth.
Ron: And then, just flipping it. Very rude. I believe everybody should floss, but in private. It’s like you. You notice I haven’t flossed anymore up here. Because it’s embarrassing.
Pat: Here’s the one-two to Brown, swung on and chopped foul. Cubs baseball brought to you by the American Dental Association.
Ron: You like to floss, and you do it up here in the booth, and you do it facing me. So whatever you’re flossing gets on my trousers.
Pat: Just little chunks of fish, no big deal.
When Ron Santo passed away in 2010, the Pat and Ron Show came to a sudden end. Hughes' eulogy stands as its final episode.
His favorite call of his own came late in the 1998 season, after legendary Cubs broadcasters Jack Brickhouse and Harry Caray both had died.
“I paid a tribute to both of them on one call,” Hughes said, describing the moment. According to his memory, Sammy Sosa continued his 1998 home-run romp with a long shot against the Milwaukee Brewers in September, prompting Hughes to make his call:
"Deep drive to center, all the way back, and gone! Number 65! Holy cow and Hey Hey for Harry and Jack."
"It was my way of connecting with them, even though I knew they were gone. A tip of the cap, saying, I loved you guys and I know you would have loved this, and here's a moment for you.”
The admiration of his comrades extends beyond Chicago. His offseason passion is Baseball Voices, an audio series Hughes created and now produces that pays tribute to the best baseball announcers in history—Santo and Caray, Caray's former St. Louis colleague Jack Buck, Brickhouse and Caray's former Cubs colleague Milo Hamilton, and others. Of course, Hughes narrates the audio series as well.
Unlike the legends he commemorates, Pat Hughes has yet to hit the 20-year mark with the Cubs. But tenure is all he lacks. If his voice—the voice of Kerry Wood’s 20 strikeouts, Sammy Sosa’s homerun chase, four playoffs, a no-hitter, and plenty of late inning warnings to “Fasten your seatbelts”—decided to leave the booth, perhaps the memories would leave along with it.
As it stands now, Hughes has a new partner and a rebuilding team to broadcast for, but Cubs fans have him. They have his bridge to the past. And for that, they'll silently, approvingly, turn on the radio.