Chris Rongey ’99, M.S. ’01, isn’t easily ruffled. For the last eight seasons as the radio host of the Chicago White Sox pregame and postgame shows, he has answered the calls of impetuous fans whose hopes, complaints, and delusional trade demands originate from a fan base that has witnessed its 2005 World Series team fade to also-rans.
“I think I’m pretty level headed about stuff. I get criticized (by fans) for not being angry enough at players when they are not doing well,” Rongey said. “I’m not one of those people that freaks out and says, ‘This guy is terrible, and they need to ditch this bum.’ And a week later he is doing really well, and then we are talking about how good he is.”
Rongey understands that every baseball season is a novel with 162 games of unexpected twists and turns. That’s true even for the White Sox, the perennial second team in the Second City, who are expected to be bottom-feeders for a second consecutive year when the season opens in April.
“Even if they are not expected to do well this year, and I don’t think a lot of people are thinking they are going to win the division or anything, I love baseball. I love the start of it,” Rongey said. “And for this year, this is going be the first time since I have been doing this job for sure that we are going to watch a team with a ton of turnover. There has never been anything like this.”
Rongey has been a baseball fan since he was a child growing up in Granite City, a working-class town on St. Louis’ east side. He rooted for the St. Louis Cardinals of Ozzie Smith and Willie McGee, and listened to Hall of Fame radio broadcaster Jack Buck and his colorful partner Mike Shannon call games on KMOX.
“Baseball was the one sport that I really got into,” Rongey said.
That love of baseball did not turn into an immediate passion for broadcasting. He wanted to study cinematography in college and chose Illinois State for its television production program.
It wasn’t until his sophomore year that he applied at the University’s student radio station, WZND, where he was hired as a news and sports reporter, covering and announcing basketball and volleyball games. He was later promoted to news and sports director.
“When I was there, you had access to all kinds of equipment,” Rongey said. “They gave you a little bit of structure, but there was room to experiment too. That was the most valuable thing: I got that practice.”
School of Communication intern coordinator Tom Lamonica, M.S.E. ’88, worked in public relations with Redbird Athletics when Rongey attended Illinois State. He remembers Rongey having a confidence that was rare for students.
“He was extremely talented,” he said. “That was not difficult to see.”
Rongey built up his resume with an internship at KMOX and a part-time job at Bloomington’s WJBC. After graduation, he spent about a year and a half working in marketing for a sports agent in St. Louis. He soon realized that he would rather talk about professional athletes than rely on them to be places they said they would be.
Rongey made a quick trip back to Illinois State to “enhance” some demo tapes he had made in college so his resume samples sounded better when he applied for radio jobs.
“I faked some extra stuff, which is what a lot of people in radio sound like they do when they are trying to get jobs,” Rongey said. “Bob Costas tells a story all the time—he got hired at KMOX out of college. He tells a story how he thought his voice was too high pitch. He messed around with the effects and he made his voice sound deeper in the tape. And he got hired off of that.”
Rongey applied at Chicago’s two sports radio stations in 2002, and within a few weeks had an offer from The Score, who liked how he sounded. He replaced fellow Illinois State alum, Mark Grote ’95, who was moving to another station at the time.
Rongey started part time, doing sports updates and working as a fill-in host. He worked his way into more work and by the time The Score secured the rights to White Sox games during their World Series run he was in position to be hired for the White Sox gig.
Lamonica said the hardest thing about doing the postgame show is that Rongey must watch the game at the same time as the fans, but as soon as the game is over he has to be prepared and be the voice of reason among sometimes unreasonable, and inebriated, callers. Not to mention Rongey also was called on by fans to interpret the frequently outlandish actions and words of former manager Ozzie Guillen, Lamonica said.
“The best thing about Chris’ style: He is not quick on the trigger on anything,” Lamonica said. “He will let callers talk.”
But angry callers are better than no callers, which Rongey found out last year when calls dwindled as the White Sox fell out of contention before midseason.
“People were so fed up with how bad they were they tuned them out,” he said.
Rongey dreams of becoming a play-by-play announcer. He has filled in about 15 times in the White Sox booth over the last several years. He said it is exciting to be in the middle of the action and to react to what is unfolding.
For now, he is just happy to talk baseball every day.
“I feel lucky to get to do it,” he said.
Kevin Bersett can be reached at kdberse@IllinoisState.edu.