City Paper is not for tourists
When the going gets good, the good get a catchphrase. Enter “Bang! Zoom!” into the local lexicon.
That’s the slogan that seemed to climax every Nationals radio broadcast of early summer, back when the team won over its new hometown by winning. And winning. And winning. Lead play-by-play man Charlie Slowes concocted the phrase during the May 15 tilt against the Chicago Cubs at RFK Stadium.
A homer by first baseman Nick Johnson instigated the first call.
“I had called the home run, and fireworks were going off in the stadium while the fans were cheering,” says Slowes. “When I heard ‘Bang!’ I said ‘Bang!’ And I heard ‘Zoom!’ so I said, ‘Zoom!’ I’m not the kind of announcer that waits around looking for a catchphrase, but that one just happened.”
Serendipitous or not, the 44-year-old Slowes got a good immediate reaction to “Bang! Zoom!” and soon found himself using some version of that call immediately after every Nats home run and win at RFK—occasions when real fireworks are shot off inside the stadium.
And the reaction to Slowes’ call kept getting bigger. Radio announcers are meant to be heard and not seen, but during the Nats’ incredible June run—the team went 20-6 during the month—Slowes found himself asked by fans to sign not only his autograph but also his catchphrase.
Right out of the gate, Washington baseball fans had a slogan of their own, just as their counterparts in the Midwest had Harry Caray’s slurred “Cubs win!” for so many years and New Yorkers long to hear stuttering John Sterling’s “Thuuuhuhuhuhuhuh Yankees win!” again. It’s got a chance to supplant longtime Redskins broadcaster Frank Herzog’s “Touchdown, Washington Redskins!” as the fave cliché of the local sporting populace.
“I realized that [‘Bang! Zoom!’ is] also a line from Ralph Kramden and The Honeymooners, but people around here have a whole different meaning for it now,” says Slowes. “I had no idea that it would take off, but when you’re the bearer of good news, people are happy. And it seems to have stuck with people.” (Slowes’ other game-ending call, “A curly W goes into the books!” often complements “Bang! Zoom!”)
Unlike his phrases, Slowes isn’t new to D.C. Along with his stint as the first Nationals broadcaster, his résumé includes another milestone in local sports announcing: He was the last play-by-play man for the Washington Bullets, calling games at the Capital Centre from 1986 to 1997.
Through no fault of Slowes’, those were among the leanest years in the NBA franchise’s history, back when the team loaded the roster with players with circus-type statures—midget Muggsy Bogues, skyscraper Manute Bol, lardists Kevin Duckworth and John Williams—and traded young for old and good for bad whenever the opportunities presented themselves.
In all his years with the Bullets, Slowes never came up with a celebratory game-ending slogan.
“I didn’t need one,” he says. “We didn’t win much.”
He hoped greener pastures awaited in 1997, when he became part of the expansion Tampa Bay Devil Rays’ first broadcasting team. As things turned out, however, Slowes had merely latched on to the summer version of the Bullets.
The team’s continuing woes meant ever fewer fans in the seats and a dwindling radio audience. At the end of the 2004 season, while in the midst of a salary purge that resulted in the lowest player payroll in the major leagues, the Rays told Slowes he should look elsewhere for a job.
He sent feelers around to several MLB franchises and got as far as being a finalist to fill an opening in the San Diego Padres booth. But Slowes was still unattached until mid-February, when the Nationals finally got around to putting together a radio team by hiring him and former Boston Bruins announcer Dave Shea.
Less than two weeks after their hiring, Slowes and Shea were broadcasting games from spring training.
Slowes opens and closes games as the lead announcer; Shea provides middle relief and adds color commentary when on the second mike. Much like the Nationals in uniform, the fledgling broadcasters performed fabulously from the first pitch. And unlike the boys on the field, they’re still at the top of their game.
“How do you like that, Washington?” Slowes screamed over the home fans’ roar after Brad Wilkerson’s grand slam at RFK against the Dodgers last week. It added goosebumps to the first such slam in Nats history.
Alas, the partnership might not have legs. Shea wouldn’t have taken the Nats job had the NHL been in business last season. He was selling cars at a New England dealership before getting the baseball offer. But with the NHL’s new collective-bargaining agreement in place, the Bruins are scheduled to be back on the ice this fall; Shea has told Slowes he’s hoping to resume his former duties even while the Nats’ season is going on.
“He’d like to keep both jobs, but I don’t know how that will work out,” says Slowes.
And, Slowes admits, there are other kinks with the Nats broadcast that he can’t control. The signal of the flagship station, the super-obscure WFED-AM, is weaker than a ’roids-free Rafael Palmeiro. And though WFED’s sister station, WWZZ/WWVZ-FM (Z104), has plenty of power, the station has thus far refused to broadcast any Nationals day games.
Then there’s the delay between the real-world action and the play-by-play going out over the airwaves. During the 25-year reign of the Redskins broadcasting team of Herzog, Sonny Jurgensen, and Sam Huff, area sports fans got quite used to watching Skins games with their TVs muted, so they could tune into the simulcast of the local radio team.
But Nats fans enjoy no such opportunity. The digital signal being broadcast by Z104 since earlier this year results in a warmer, fuller sound. But the technology required to get that sound also results in a long lapse between the time Slowes makes a call and the time the listeners actually hear it. During Friday night’s home game between the Nationals and the San Diego Padres, there was an eight-second lapse between what was seen on the home team’s television network and Slowes’ description on the radio. Herzog’s “Touchdown, Washington Redskins!” likely never would have taken root had Skins broadcasts been similarly hampered. (As it was, the slogan got so big that in 1997 Herzog actually registered for trademark protection with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.)
The new Z104 delay also makes it impossible for fans at the home game to listen to games through earphones, a tradition that has been a part of baseball since the invention of the transistor. So when the Nationals win, the fans at RFK have to settle for getting their “Bang! Zoom!” from the actual fireworks blasting overhead. Slowes provides the thrill of victory only for those listening at home or in their cars.
“Fans are complaining that it’s too frustrating to be at the game and listen because of that delay,” says Slowes. “I tell them there’s nothing I can do about it. That’s progress.”—Dave McKenna
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Charles Steck.