Radio broadcasters Bill Kulik, left, and Angel Castillo do a Spanish radio broadcast of the Phillies games for Spanish Béisbol Productions. They are shown on the field before the game against the Braves on Sept. 28, 2018. CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
The Time is Now for Latin America’s Game in Philadelphia
Béisbol is back in Philadelphia.
For the true diehards, maybe it never left. Maybe they still tuned into 162 games a year for each of the past five years. But like their English-speaking counterparts, most Spanish-speaking Phillies fans were likely waiting for something.
For many, that something arrived February 28 when the Phillies decided to go for it by signing a hirsute twenty-six-year-old from Las Vegas for a record-breaking $330 million. After 117 days as a free agent, Bryce Harper followed players like J.T. Realmuto, Andrew McCutchen and Jean Segura in joining the Phillies this offseason. Fans and analysts alike praised every Phillies trade and signing this offseason, but it was Harper’s addition that prompted many to suggest the time to return to the World Series could be now.
Bill Kulik knows something about going to the World Series. The man whom Hispanic baseball fans call “El Gringo Malo” (more on that later), was part of the Spanish broadcast teams for the Phillies’ World Series victory in 2008 and return trip in 2009 after having called the Red Sox’s 2004 and 2007 Series victories. Kulik “didn’t think anything could top” the 2004 Sox championship, which broke an eighty-six-year World Series drought for Boston. Then he came to Philadelphia the summer that one hundred futile Philly sports seasons in a row were finally interrupted when Brad Lidge delivered 2008’s final strike to Carlos Ruiz’s mitt.
“They were starving, starving for a winner,” says Kulik of last decade’s Philadelphia sports fans. “And that park, Citizen’s Bank ballpark—everyone said, ‘Oh there’s electricity in Fenway Park’—there was electricity in Citizen’s Bank Park.
“You did not want to be a visiting fan or player and come into Citizen’s Bank Park in those times. That place was rocking, and it was full of energy. So when we won in ‘08, it was just as electric as Boston. I’m on the parade route in Philadelphia saying, ‘I can’t believe this is happening to me again!’”
But happen to him it did, though it wasn’t exactly by accident that a white man from New Jersey found himself narrating the reversal of both the Bambino and William Penn’s curses en Español. He seems to have had an almost preternatural ability to know exactly when to jump at an opportunity.
Baseball captured Kulik’s heart and mind when he was seven years old and spent his summers playing everything from Wiffle ball to hardball with his cousins. The sport was “almost like a drug” to him, and he became “addicted really, really fast.” Unfortunately, he had even less access to the game outside of summer than most Northeast ballplayers. As a child, his family moved out of the country and spent nine years living in Columbia, Brazil and Argentina. There, soccer (or fútbol) ruled. Baseball (or béisbol) didn’t.
By the time he was old enough for high school, however, Kulik was back stateside. He played ball through his college years before breaking into sports broadcasting in early 1980s New England for a company that’s now part of Comcast.
Flash forward to 1998 after then-Red Sox General Manager Dan Duquette acquired Pedro Martinez following the Dominican pitcher’s Cy Young-winning 1997 season. During a Yankees-Sox series at Fenway, Kulik overheard Duquette ripping into his staff for not maximizing Martinez’s marketability among Hispanic baseball fans.
“I literally kind of took a deep breath, broke away from the group, and I walked right into his office,” recalls Kulik. “I said, ‘Mr. Duquette, I can solve your problem.’ And he said ‘How’s that?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m fluent in Spanish, that goes back to my living overseas; I’m an ex-player, that goes back to my college days; and I’m in the communications business, working for Comcast.’
“And, I swear to God he said, ‘Son, sit right down.’
And we watched the Red Sox-Yankees game, and we cut a deal—basically on the back of an envelope—to get things going for a radio broadcast for the Red Sox in Spanish.”
From that, the Spanish Beisbol Network was born. It grew from there, including several transitions for Kulik himself. In the beginning, Kulik only produced, but that unexpectedly changed in June 2003 thanks to Sammy Sosa’s bat. Sosa earned an eight-game suspension for using a corked bat meant only for batting practice in an actual game.
The on-air personality in a Kulik-produced Spanish talk show at the time was arguing against the suspension since Sosa claimed to have used the bat by mistake. To Kulik, it sounded like whining, so he played the sound drop of Tom Hanks’ famous “There’s no crying in baseball!” quote from A League of Their Own. The host brushed Kulik off as “El Gringo Malo,” which essentially translates to “bad white guy” (but which Kulik now tries to sell as meaning badass white guy). Subjective translations aside, callers demanded El Gringo Malo come on the air to argue with them over the Sosa suspension.
“The nickname stuck so much that if you go ask any of the Phillies Latino players who Bill Kulik is, they have no idea,” says the erstwhile corked crusader. “But you tell them El Gringo Malo, they go ‘Oh!’”
Speaking of the Phillies, the Spanish Beisbol Network expanded to cover the local nine when team brass witnessed what Kulik and his team were doing for the Sox firsthand during an interleague series. The Phillies wanted their own Spanish broadcast. Realizing Philadelphia was a bigger market with a much larger Hispanic community, Kulik decided the time was right to expand.
“The fans are so passionate,” says Kulik of Hispanic Phillies fans. That passion has only grown and become as locally focused as that of English-speaking Phillies fans. Where Delaware Valley Latinos once focused their fandom on the likes of David Ortiz, Albert Pujols and Pedro Martinez, these days they’re more concerned about the team in red pinstripes. What’s more, Kulik says callers to his Phillies talk show are now as likely to bring up Odubel Herrera or Maikel Franco as they are Zach Eflin or Scott Kingery.
That’s why listeners weren’t quite as heartbroken over the Phillies losing out on Manny Machado to the San Diego Padres this offseason as they might have been over the team whiffing on a marquee Latino free agent in years past. Like every other Phillies fan, they simply turned their attention to Bryce Harper.
Along with the team’s other new players this year, Kulik says Harper infuses the team not just with talent but also with character, attitude and leadership. With a leaner half decade now in the Phillies’ rearview mirror, even casual fans have multiple reasons to be excited again. But it’s on the shoulders of the left-handed slugger Harper that much of the fans’ hope now rests.
Kulik saw it coming ahead of time. On February 27, he suggests a second interview but not before late the following day. Did he know what would happen by then? He would later admit that he “kind of did.” Of course, it was that very day (February 28) when MLB Network’s Jon Heyman let fly his “Breaking: Bryce to Phillies” tweet. Non-Latino and Latino Phillies fans alike immediately went into a certifiable frenzy.
“I obviously love the fact that we got him, and I love the terms of the contract because the terms of the contract make it look to me like Harper wants to be here. And in Philadelphia, I think that carries a little extra weight, in particular with the fans. They can be tough at times, but when you show loyalty to them, they’ll show it back to you. And the fact that he signed for thirteen years with no out clauses shows he wants to be a Phillie for the remainder of his career, and I am certain that Phillies fans will embrace him for that.”
And if not for that, they will for Harper’s homers that are sure to come—homers that Kulik and his broadcast crew will excitedly call. And who knows? Maybe those homers will get Kulik to his fifth World Series. In fact, Kulik says the timing for that could come as soon as this October if the Phillies’ formidable lineup can outhit any mistakes its young pitching staff makes. If it does, Harper and the new-look Phils should win over even those fans who have questioned the logic of giving a thirteen-year, $330 million deal to someone who hit .249 and struggled in right field in 2018.
After all, says Kulik, “winning cures everything.”
Kulik has plans to continue growing and become essentially the Spanish equivalent of 97.5 The Fanatic and 94.1 WIP. Doing so year-round requires having more to talk about than just baseball. To that end, Kulik began Spanish broadcasts of Eagles games in 2012.
Viral snippets of some of those broadcasts have even bled over into the English-speaking world of Eagles fandom. Take announcer Rickie Ricardo’s near-hysterical “No señor!” call of Chicago Bears’ Codey Parkey’s infamous double-doink missed kick that won the Eagles a 2019 Wild Card game, for example. Kulik says Ricardo “was just being himself” in acting like “a fan in the moment.” That brand of mania is typical of Spanish broadcasts, Kulik says, including the Phillies broadcasts he and Angel Castillo (and formerly Ricardo) make.
“When Americans hear it, they’re like ‘Oh my god, isn’t that cool!?’ So, it’s translating to the American audience when you can let your hair down and you can be a “homer.” You can be excited and everything.”