MODESTO — In nearly every way, Mike Smith's job requires him to be the world's most versatile game show host.
As the on-field emcee for the Modesto Nuts for the past four seasons, "Mike on the Mic" conducts all the between-innings entertainment that is as much a part of the minor league baseball experience as cheap beer.
At times, he'll be guiding a fan through an interactive game from "The Price is Right," or "Jeopardy," and the next inning he'll be introducing a person in the crowd with a back story that would have been at home on "Queen for a Day."
And while the baseball game is being played, he bounces around John Thurman Field with the caffeinated bounce of the Energizer Bunny, leading cheers and chants while doing his best to keep the crowd focused on the action.
A graduate of Sacramento State University, Smith is continuing to develop his skills as a radio and television broadcaster by calling high school games in various sports for the PlayON! Sports Network. He was the play-by-play voice for the PlayON! Internet coverage of May's Sac-Joaquin Section baseball championship game victories for Central Catholic and Oakdale.
During his tenure with the Nuts, he's been the official host to nearly 650,000 fans and routinely greets a large number of them by name, making the 28-year-old Brentwood resident almost as much a part of the team's live brand as mascots Al and Wally.
Q: How did you get this job?
A: When I was attending Sacramento State, I was broadcasting some football with a fraternity brother of mine, and when I moved home to Brentwood after graduating in 2009, he sent me a text with a Craigslist posting of this job with a note that he thought I'd be great at it. I didn't even know how far Modesto was from Brentwood. I showed up for the tryouts with about six other people. There was a questionnaire with some basic baseball stuff. I got called back for a second interview, but I thought I blew it because I asked about getting paid for gas. I still got the job.
Q: People who want to be play-by-play announcers have no shortage of role models or people to emulate. But there are no role models for this job. How did you grow into this job?
A: I've always wanted to be an entertainer. I started acting when I was 4 or 5, when we were living in South San Francisco, and went to acting classes in The City. I always loved sports, but my focus was on being an actor. My dad was very much into sports. I remember when the Chicago Bulls were big in the early '90s with Michael Jordan, and I remember hearing their announcer say, "From North Carolina, Number 23, Michael Jordaaaaaaan," with the music blaring in the background, and I knew I wanted to be an announcer in some form. I was in a local TV ad for a computer store in Brentwood and in a lot of plays.
Q: True or false, and expand on your answer: Players always claim to be inspired to great things when a home crowd has great energy. As the on-field host, one of your primary jobs is to foster that energy. As such, do you believe you have an impact on the outcome of the game?
A: Definitely true. Even when I'm doing play-by-play, I always have the feeling that I have something to do with the success of the team. I guess I've always carried that mantra since I played high school football. I wasn't a starter. I wasn't out on the field. I was the motivational guy, kind of the team cheerleader in pads. I made every practice, every weight-training session, and was the guy constantly slapping guys on the shoulder pads to get them going. Liberty High made it to the playoffs my senior year in high school, and it was for the first time since the 1980s. I felt I had a lot to do with that success. In our rivalry game, I got picked as a co-player of the game by our local TV station because of my enthusiasm on the sidelines. At Sac State, I broadcast the first Causeway Classic game the Hornets won in nine years. I've always felt that if I do my job well, it has a role in winning. On big nights, when this place is full and the crowd is going, it's a very hard task for the other team to win. I'd love to have a full crowd every night. Sometimes when it's a small crowd and it's hot, the fans just don't want to respond. There are times when I don't know if they're not yelling because they're annoyed at me. But I'm always looking out for the fans to make sure they can have a great experience.
Q: What's been the high point for you in these four years?
A: There have been so many, like being involved in Miracle League games and seeing those kids smile as they get to play baseball, or being involved in the Wounded Warriors softball game and being around those guys. The high point had to be last year when we won game five of the North Division series to make it to the Cal League championship series. Interviewing players right after the game was cool. The day we clinched the playoffs was very cool, and when I went down to see the players, they saw me and dumped the ice bucket on me and told me how much they appreciated when I get the crowd going. I don't know that I can pick one moment. People tell me that it always looks like I'm having fun doing my job. I tell them that what I do is too much fun to be considered a job. I wouldn't drive here every day from Brentwood if it wasn't a joy.
Q: Have there been low points or embarrassing moments?
A: I've had a few. I had to be told that I couldn't say anything as simple as "C'mon blue" to the umpires, even off the microphone. When the fans boo, I sit back and let them do their thing. Some of them try to get me going against the umps, but I can't do that. There was a moment this year when I called the son of our general manager by the wrong name, which was pretty bad. I make mistakes. I had to miss games last year when I lost a couple family members. When I came back, I had fans tell me that the place wasn't the same without me. I'm sure they thought that was a nice thing to say, but it made me feel even worse for missing those games. That was a heartbreaker.
Q: Where, in your dreams, are you 10 years from now?
A: I've always said that I was going to do play-by-play for the San Francisco Giants, but Dave Flemming isn't going anywhere. Jon Miller is getting up there, so there's hope. Really, I don't know where I'm going to be, and that does haunt me. I do have a great supportive family and no college debt. I'd like to continue doing a little bit of everything, to become independent, to have a career in sports or music as some kind of entertainer. There are so many things I think I can do, so maybe I need a little more focus. I ask God every day if he can help me with that, and that's all I can do. I have a big and honest heart, and I'm very outgoing, and I believe those are things that can carry me a long way.
Bee staff writer Brian VanderBeek can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2150. Follow him on Twitter, @ModestoBeek.