KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Pregame in the home radio booth at Kauffman Stadium on Thursday was much like any other.
Don Free, the network’s producer/engineer since 1986, was busy checking circuits to facilitate the feed for yet another baseball game as the Kansas City Royals play out the string.
Suddenly, a technical fire erupted.
Hall of Fame announcer Denny Matthews entered the booth in possession of an iPhone. It was as if Ben Franklin tapped his kite into an electrical current.
“Denny’s got an iPhone,’’ exclaimed Free, punctuating every word.
“It was born three hours ago,’’ Matthews responded.
With that, technical assistance was needed so the mobile device could be programmed and Denny could work it. Free, the man who solves such difficulties for a living, ever since he joined WIBW-TV in 1967, was naturally handed the phone.
“What’s interesting,’’ said Matthews, “is there’s nobody else here, or close to here, who can come even close to doing what Don does.
“It’s such an unusual setup. We’ve got four or five announcers, we’ve got 25 players, if Ned Yost goes down there’s seven coaches. So everybody’s covered. But if he goes down, everything goes down with him. Not only Royals employees, but other producers and engineers, if something goes wrong, they’ll come right in here. Don will jump up, go down and he’ll fix it.’’
Not for much longer, however.
Free, who has lived in Topeka since he was stationed in the Air Force in 1964, will work his final Royals game on Sunday, completing a 50-year career in broadcasting.
Oh, he’s not signing off entirely. Just call it less frequency.
Free, 71, will still assist with the radio production of Kansas State football games and engage in some random assignments. Mostly, however, he will spend more time with his wife, Sandy, as they visit their two daughters and their husbands, along with four grandkids, who make their homes in Wichita and Georgetown, Texas.
Even Don was out of his customary position Friday when the family viewed the game from a suite and got to see him, after all these years, take the field.
Free delivered the ceremonial first pitch as part of a tribute the Royals extended to just the second producer/engineer in the history of their radio network.
Several organizations gave Free nice sendoffs when the Royals were on the road this season.
“People were like, ‘Who the heck is this guy?’’’ Free said. “Texas gave me a standing ovation, which I couldn’t believe what they did that for. It was really neat. I wasn’t expecting anything.’’
Just like he did not expect his broadcasting buddies to pick up the tab when they treated Free to dinner in Toronto on the Royals’ last road trip.
“We met a Royals party at the same restaurant,’’ said announcer Steve Physioc. “One of the executives called (general manager) Dayton Moore and he paid for the whole dinner. So we were expecting to take Don out, and it was Dayton who took Don out. We feel like we still owe him.’’
In a sense, maybe they always will.
For Royals games to be broadcast over such a wide swath of the Midlands, without a hitch, takes, uhh, skills.
Including the ability to keep pace with technology, which outgrew the one case Free first packed equipment into for road trips. That crate is resting in peace at the WIBW transmitter tower and, Free said, “should be in a hall of fame somewhere.’’
If you want, Free can describe in detail the advancements in baseball broadcasts during his time traveling throughout the big leagues.
He can talk a little about the game, too.
“He doesn’t let on, but he knows a heckuva lot about baseball,’’ Matthews said. “He’ll make a comment here and there. Not many, but when he does, it makes a lot of sense. He’s kind of holding back on us.’’
Once a manager for his high school baseball team in Arkansas, Free leaves a 32-year big-league career with a World Series ring. Along with memories of many great moments and great players.
During the last plane appearance of his Royals career, Free wished everyone well as the team flight landed Monday in Kansas City following the club’s last road game.
“Before we took off, the team did a cheer for me, which I wasn’t expecting. It was really cool,’’ said Free, who then arranged his personal goodbyes with Jeff Davenport, the team’s senior director of team travel.
“I asked if I could stay on the plane,’’ Free said, “and be the last off, because I wanted to thank everybody.’’
After doing so, Davenport made Free pause. The moment remains emotional for the Royals producer/engineer to share.
“He took my picture as I was walking off,’’ Free said. “Then Davvy goes, ‘Congrats, Don. Now you’re home Free.’’’
Contact Kevin Haskin at firstname.lastname@example.org or @KevinHaskin on Twitter.