PITTSBURGH -- It's the time of the baseball season when, for 18 years, Greg Brown had been the falling tree in a deserted forest. If an announcer calls a game and there's nobody around to hear it, does he still make a sound? "We've had to go to other places to keep the broadcast interesting," Brown, the Pirates' lead play-by-play announcer, said in recalling the trivial games of his first 18 Augusts behind the microphone, stepping stones down another losing path. "The worst thing you can do is beat up on your team. So to avoid that, we'd go to other places, talk about other teams, other races."
For the first time in a long career -- the third longest for a franchise with a rich broadcasting history -- Brown can talk about the Pirates and a race in the same sentence. The most recent lap was won by the tortoise -- the plodding Padres swept the Bucs in San Diego -- but Pittsburgh's hares return to the Wild Card track with Friday night's opener of a six-game homestand, starting off with the Brewers. Even in the worst of times, Brown has had the best times of his life. For a Pittsburgh-area native whose association with the hometown team began 33 years ago as a stand-in Pirate Parrot, being the team's voice fulfilled a fantasy. But the chance to now chronicle that team's most meaningful late-season stretch in 20 years ... "It's a lot different," Brown said "Growing up as a Pirates fan, this was my dream job and I reached my dream. It's a great job, win or lose. But it's so much more enjoyable when we win. It's a lot different." It's the difference between just being there and mattering. As Steve Blass, the former Pirates pitching great and one of Brown's three rotating analysts, put it, you no longer have to be incognito to go out in public. "Blass joked that we no longer have to go into [the supermarket] Giant Eagle and hide. We can walk around with our heads held high," Brown said. "You see people wearing Pirates paraphernalia. They stop you and want to talk Pirates baseball again. The Pirates are prominent once again. This is a proud franchise that has been ill for a long time, and it's getting healthy again." This picture of health came into compelling focus on Sunday night. For 19 years, this was the time of year when the Pirates would suffer a Steelers eclipse. The beloved NFL team would be in the preseason, and the city's baseball club would be passé. But when the result of the Bucs' 19-inning win in St. Louis was announced at Heinz Field, the crowd watching the Steelers-Colts exhibition roared. When Brown heard about that, "I got chills. For years, at Pirates games on Sundays in September, they'd announce Steelers scores and the fans would react. Same thing during April games with the Penguins. So how neat is it that the same thing is happening now when a Pirates score is announced at a Steelers game?" Despite the team's considerable recent slump, with 67 wins, Brown has already been able to end more broadcasts than in eight previous seasons with the "Raise the Jolly Roger!" punctuation. Like the only two Pirates announcers who've had longer runs, Brown has become synonymous with his signature call. For Lanny Frattare (1976-2008), "There was no doubt about it," which was a spin on Bob Prince's "We had 'em all the way!" from 1948-75. Some announcers notoriously plot coming up with a pet phrase, killing the romantic notion of accidental and spontaneous brilliance, but Brown had to be talked into his -- even though it had an uncommonly long incubation period. Hopscotching from one Pirates front-office role to another as a Point Park College grad, one day in the early 1980s Brown paid a visit to the Three Rivers Stadium office of a club executive vice president, anxious to share a brilliant idea. Brown to VP: "You know how the Cubs always raise a white flag with a blue 'W' at Wrigley Field after every win? Why don't we ever take advantage of one of the great nicknames in all sports? After a win, let's fly the skull-and-crossbones, like pirates do after defeating another ship in battle." VP to Brown: "Get out of my office, kid." And that was it. Until about 2003, when Bob Walk, Brown's longest-running analyst sidekick, wondered why he did not have a signature call. "I hate to be tied to one thing. I might lose my concentration if I'm thinking about something that might not be consistent with what's happening on the field," explained Brown, who nonetheless related his long-ago experience with the club vice president. "That's it," Walk said. "Why don't you say, 'Let's hoist the colors.'" "Hoist" didn't sound right to Brown. But soon thereafter, he started to "Raise the Jolly Roger!" After too many years of having to fly the Jolly Roger at half-mast, Brown this season has been able to come up with another cry. This was spontaneous, a product of his enthusiasm: "How do you like your Buccos now?!" he has shrilled after particularly dramatic blows. Pittsburgh fans seem to like them just fine. "The best thing for me has been to watch people all over the town and the region return to PNC Park and identify with the team through their garb," Brown said. "They've returned the team to prominence, where it belongs. I'm sensitive about this club's history. After two decades of losing, younger fans didn't realize what a great franchise this is. "Pittsburgh is as good a baseball town as there is. I've been having this argument with people for years: Put a winner in PNC Park, and watch what happens. This'll be the Wrigley Field of the East. It'll be the place to go. And that's exactly what has happened." Brown hopes to remain the voice of the happening through September. Maybe beyond?
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.