Jason Beem's Thursday Column for Jan. 12, 2023

January 12th, 2023

“You got big shoes to fill.” We’ve all heard that phrase used whenever somebody takes over from their predecessor who was either an extreme talent or simply beloved in their role. I’ve had that phrase told to me probably about a hundred times over the last 18 months, and I feel like my relationship and viewpoint of that phrase has changed a bit over that time.

In my work life, I’ve never really had to step into the “big shoes to fill” role before coming to Tampa Bay Downs.

My first announcing job was at River Downs, and I was the third announcer in three years there. The announcer I replaced at Portland Meadows had been there for a few years but not a crazy amount of time. When I called at Monmouth, it was just a fill-in role so I wasn’t even really putting shoes on, even though it was far and away the highest-pressure job I'd ever had. Colonial had been closed for six years so there was over a half-decade of buffer time between the great Dave Rodman and me. So Tampa was obviously different.

But it’s a common thing for announcers to have to replace people who were longtime, beloved race callers on their circuit, so mine isn’t a unique experience. When the Tom Durkins, Keith Joneses, and Trevor Denmans of the world leave their post, someone has to replace them.

Richard Grunder had been the voice of Tampa Bay Downs since 1984 and had an absolutely incredible run calling races at Tampa Bay Downs. I remember when I heard he was retiring, a colleague asked me if I was going to apply, and I said, "Of course." But until that day, I’d never even considered Tampa Bay Downs an option because you just assumed Richard would always be there. But after applying and interviewing, I was so excited to be offered and accept the job. When the news was announced, I was floored with all the nice words people sent me. And as part of those nice words were a few messages with “you’ve got big shoes to fill.”

Those messages were true. I did have big shoes to fill. But I truly never felt the pressure to fill them. Given my age of 41 at the time of my hiring (I was actually offered the job on my 41st birthday), I knew I was never going to announce at Tampa Bay Downs for 37 years. I also knew that I was never going to sound like Richard, call like Richard, or be like Richard. We’re two totally different people. My outlook was and still is that I just have to do the best job I can with my abilities and try to be a good coworker and ambassador for the track. But I can’t try to be someone I’m not. So I never felt the pressure of the “big shoes to fill,” even though I was hearing the comment from many people.

Another thing I knew going into the job was whenever you have big shoes to fill, some people just aren’t going to like you. Tastes in race callers are very subjective and for one reason or another, especially as you get to bigger tracks with bigger audiences, some people just aren’t going to care for your work. That used to bug me, but it really doesn’t anymore. I trust in my abilities and my calls and if someone doesn’t enjoy them, I can’t really do much to change their mind. If I do the best that I’m capable of and keep working to improve, then I’ll deal with where the chips fall in terms of what others think of my work. I’ve gotten lots and lots of positive feedback that has far outweighed the negative, but I think it’s foolish to not realize there’s always going to be some people who just don’t like you or your work.

I remember being surprised that even after my first year was over, I’d still get the occasional “you got big shoes to fill” comments. It did change a bit and morphed more into, “You’ve done a good job, you had big shoes to fill.” In fact I had two different people say it to me just this past week, which is what spurred wanting to write this column. After the initial hiring, I expected the comments. After a bit of time, I think I started to resent them a little bit. It almost felt like people were trying to challenge me by reminding me that I had big shoes to fill. Did I need that reminder? Did they think I didn’t know that already? I was genuinely curious why people felt the need to say that.

But I had a realization about it all last week, and it actually made me kind of happy to hear the comments this week again. People are saying that because they love Richard. His calls and his personality were a big part of the experience at Tampa Bay Downs, and they mean something to people — which as a race caller, is probably about as good as it gets.

The more I thought about it the more I love that they treasure his work and his personality and his career. First of all, he deserves that because he’s one of the sweetest guys ever and had an amazing career. But secondly, it’s rare for people to do work that stands the test of time and that should be celebrated. So if you tell me I have big shoes to fill, just know that I appreciate the opportunity and I’m smiling inside, because just like you, I love and want to celebrate Richard and his work too.