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C.J. Nitkowski discusses new role with Braves

The former big-league pitcher and new lead analyst for Bally Sports coverage of the Atlanta Braves discusses his career as a player and broadcaster and why covering the Braves is a dream come true in this exclusive interview.

Bally Sports

On December 18, 2023, Bally Sports announced that C.J. Nitkowski would be joining the Atlanta Braves television coverage for Bally Sports South/Southeast as the networks’ lead analyst in 2024. It was a surprising move for most; one that was brought about in-part due Jeff Francoeur’s decision to work a reduced schedule in order to spend more time with his family.

Nitkowski, who had been the analyst for Bally Sports Southwest’s television coverage of the 2023 World Series Champions Texas Rangers, is no stranger to Atlanta nor to the Atlanta Braves.

A resident of the Atlanta-area for almost two decades, Nitkowski spent part of the 2004 season with the Braves as a left-handed relief pitcher.

A native New Yorker, Nitkowski was a first round draft pick (9th overall) by the Cincinnati Reds in 1994 out of St. John’s University. He debuted for the Reds in 1995, pitching in nine games and making seven starts before being traded to the Detroit Tigers in a deal that returned starting pitcher David Wells to the Reds.

That deal set-in-motion a professional career that saw him pitch for eight different organizations in parts of 10 seasons at the MLB-level, last appearing in a big-league game for the Washington Nationals in 2005. That was not the end of his professional career, as he spent the 2007 and 2008 seasons pitching in Japan and following that with two seasons pitching in South Korea.

He returned to the States and pitched at Triple-A and Double-A as a 39-year-old in the New York Mets system in 2012 before retiring after pitching in the Dominican Winter League in its 2012-2013 season.

For his career, Nitkowski pitched in 336 MLB games, making 44 starts and picking up three saves. With the Braves, he appeared in 22 games - all in relief - and collecting one win in 20 innings of work.

While a player, Nitkowski began dabbling in broadcasting, and after his retirement as a player, he worked numerous radio shows and called games for both the Mets and the New York Yankees.

Nitkowski has been a host on MLB Network Radio for the weekday morning show with former MLB General Manager Steve Phillips and currently co-hosts the afternoon show Loud Outs with former MLB players Ryan Spilborghs and Brad Lidge.

In 2014, Nikowski was named a studio analyst for Fox Sport 1’s coverage of MLB, a role he held through the 2016 season. In 2017, Nitkowski was hired as a member of the Texas Rangers’ television broadcast team serving as both an analyst and play-by-play announcer. He won five regional Sports Emmy Awards for his coverage of the Rangers.

With the Braves, he is expected to work 110+ games in 2024 as the primary lead analyst along with his new play-by-play partner Brandon Gaudin.

Here is Battery Power’s exclusive interview with C.J. Nitkowski.

Questions and responses have been edited for clarity.

Congratulations on your new role as the primary analyst for the Bally Sports Atlanta Braves television coverage. With a few weeks having passed since the announcement, what has been the reaction and feedback from your industry peers, future colleagues and from the Atlanta fanbase?

C.J. Nitkowski: My family and I have been overwhelmed by the kindness and welcoming notes from Braves fans. Having experienced it once before when I joined the Rangers broadcast in 2017, I know bringing in a new guy can be jarring and unsettling for fans. That makes their kindness even more encouraging to me.

I had an overwhelming amount of texts from friends in the business, their support means everything.

Finally, notes from those around this broadcast is the icing on the cake. Frenchy (Jeff Francoeur) and Smoltzy (John Smoltz) had a lot to do with me getting this job, or at least encouraging the Braves and Bally to take a look at me. I am so grateful to them for thinking I’d be a fit in Atlanta.

Everyone has been incredible.

You had a brief stop in your MLB career with Atlanta in 2004 – making the big-league roster out of Spring Training and appearing in 22 games – and you’ve lived in the Atlanta-metro area for almost two decades. What was it about this area that made you decide to make this your home – especially given the well-travelled nature of your career?

C.J. Nitkowski: We fell in love with Atlanta when we played here. At the time we were living in the suburbs of Houston, TX. We knew Atlanta would be a place that we would give serious consideration to calling our long-term home and a place to raise our family. My time here as a player gave us an extended opportunity to try out Atlanta and we have never doubted our decision to be here full time since.

The things that really draw us to Atlanta are the climate, the landscape, the people, the way of life and the affordability. We have really loved it here.

You’ve mentioned in other interviews that the culmination of this job was a couple of years in the making – and a bittersweet change due to the enjoyment you had during your time covering the Texas Rangers. Given the migratory nature of you career in baseball career as a player – one where you saw time at the MLB-level with eight organizations plus two seasons each in Japan and South Korea – was there trepidation in giving up a job where you’d found career stability, despite the opportunity to work so close to your home?

C.J. Nitkowski: You have no idea. The conversations my wife and I had going back to as early as May of 2022 until this past off-season when we realized this could be a real option for us were fraught with indecision.

The idea of being home and in this Braves booth would be a dream, but we also had the bird-in-the-hand in Texas. That was a job that I really hoped I could do for another 10-to-15 years, and I could become synonymous with Rangers baseball. I think that was a reality for us. I had a great contract, worked with great people and had the exact chemistry you want in a TV partner in Dave Raymond. I literally had no complaints.

There is great risk in making this kind of change and my wife and I spent hours and hours weighing the pros and cons while assessing that risk. She was really nervous about it for exactly the reasons you said, we had a playing career full of instability, could we really walk away from such a sure thing?

How has this job – and knowing that your 2024 season will be anchored at your home rather than hotels – changed the way you have approached your offseason? Has it added more time planning for the season or is that something you’ll focus on closer to Spring Training?

C.J. Nitkowski: I’m not sure the location of my work has changed my approach. What am I doing certainly has changed.

I am very familiar with Braves baseball but not to the detail that I would like to be by Opening Day. So, I have Braves baseball on my TV or computer pretty much every day. Sometimes it is sitting down and watching a game in great detail and other times it may be in the background as I do other things around the house like laundry, chores or working out.

I am trying to get a feel for trends both on the field and within the broadcast.

I am taking notes of things that catch my eye in between the lines and also studying how Brandon works the best I can.

Speaking of Brandon Gaudin, have you had a chance to connect with him since your hiring was announced? Are you planning on doing any prep work with him before the season?

C.J. Nitkowski: Yes. Brandon and I have exchanged messages and I expect that he and I will get together sometime after the New Year. We’ll do approximately four games together in Spring Training and that will be our first work together.

When I did the Fox games for six seasons, I almost always worked with a different play-by-play person which was an amazing experience because I got to work with some of our game’s best announcers and it also brought me to a place where I think I can get comfortable working with anyone quickly.

You spoke with Battery Power’s Grant McAuley for his “From the Diamond” podcast not long after your hiring was announced. In that interview, you discussed your time with the Atlanta Braves organization and how it impacted you as a player and your post-playing career when you began looking into broadcasting. It seems like there is a special connection between the Braves organization and yourself. Do you feel like this opportunity to cover the Braves on a day-to-day basis was a bit of baseball destiny?

C.J. Nitkowski: I wish I could tell you that I believed this to be my destiny, but I never really thought this opportunity would ever be available to me. I almost never allowed myself to dream on the idea of becoming a Braves broadcaster.

I was grateful to put the uniform on and call Braves greats like Chipper (Chipper Jones) and Smoltzy teammates while playing for Bobby Cox.

My time here was brief but has impacted my life beyond 2004 greatly.

Braves v Giants
C.J. Nitkowski spent part of the 2004 season pitching out of the Atlanta Braves bullpen.
Photo by Don Smith/MLB Photos via Getty Images

You’ve spent almost a decade working with MLB Network Radio (MLBNR) – including regular gigs on both the weekday morning show and then an afternoon show. Will you continue to work with MLBNR now that you have shifted to covering the Braves?

C.J. Nitkowski: I will continue on MLBNR but probably doing a little less. My current show, Loud Outs, runs 2-to-5PM Eastern Time. That is a little close to game time for me. It was much easier to do when I was in Texas or further west because I had more time before games.

Braves TV is my priority, once I get comfortable and in a steady workflow, I will likely increase my MLBNR shifts, but it’s usually no more than three times per week.

I am a bit of a workaholic. It was also easier to be that way in Texas because I was always on the road, I had nothing but free time during the day so I always worked as much as I could to help pass the time.

What can Braves fans expect from your commentary style and perspective? How has your experience preparing and engaging with a national audience with MLB Network Radio – and with FS1 – impacted your broadcasting style geared toward a “home” audience?

C.J. Nitkowski: Luckily, I have had this experience once already. I stepped into 100+ games in Texas after only doing about 15 games per season nationally at Fox/FS1. Going to that volume of games along with the change from “neutral” to “home” was something that I was concerned about. Very quickly my concerns subsided.

I love being a local broadcaster, doing that many games, digging in on your team and finding ways to inform, enlighten and hopefully entertain your audience is what drives me.

The best broadcasts to me are the ones where you, as a fan, feel a part of the conversation. You never feel like you are being talked “at” but rather “with.” One of Frenchy’s greatest strengths is his relatability as a person that he brings to a broadcast while also having expert level knowledge and experience. That is position A in my opinion and what I aim for.

As a player, you’ve taken the field under the stewardship of managers like Joe Torre, Bobby Cox and Sadaharu Oh. You’ve played with Hall of Famers. You were a first-round draft pick. You spent 18 years playing the game as a pro and you’ve now spent a decade covering the sport in the media. With so many challenges and changes in both careers, was there a teammate, coach or broadcaster that you credit with helping you out the most?

C.J. Nitkowski: There are a lot and I feel like I have taken a piece here and a piece there from so many of my experiences and people around me.

I knew I was interested in broadcasting, and I asked a lot of questions along the way of media, especially the TV and radio people. After my career ended and I exhaled I was able to look back and appreciate all those up and downs, stresses and joys and see the positive impact they ended up having on my next career as a broadcaster.

With 40 mangers and nearly 1,000 teammates you see and hear the game in so many different ways. That has broadened my horizons and is incorporated into what I do now, completely unintentionally.

Shifting to the upcoming 2024 season, you’re going from covering the 2023 World Series Champions to a team who will likely enter the 2024 season as the favorite to represent the National League in the 2024 World Series. What intrigues you most about this Braves team and/or coaching staff? Which players are you most looking forward to watching perform over the course of next season?

C.J. Nitkowski: Depth of lineup here in Atlanta is one of the more fascinating and impressive storylines of this team. It was a historic 2023, what could they possibly have in mind for an encore?

Acuña (Ronald Acuña, Jr.) is a real true star and I think it is fair to say on the Hall of Fame track, watching that every day is going to be amazing. I played with Sal Fasano, Matt Tuiasosopo, Eddie Perez and Erick Abreu. Walt Weiss is from my hometown of Suffern, NY so there are guys I know.

What I like about the way the Braves do things from a coaching perspective is that there appears to be an old school feel to their approach. It has obviously worked, and I’ll enjoy being around that.

What did you learn during your time as a Rangers broadcaster that you hope to bring with you to Braves telecasts? Other than how dapper throwback baby blue sports coats are.

C.J. Nitkowski: Man, I am going to miss those jackets and am already thinking of something fun Brandon and I could possibly wear for City Connect games.

You learn a lot doing this job. I think being authentic is critical. Fans want to know that you are just like them - that you care about this team and that you’re going to give them everything you have every game, no matter what’s going on with the team at the time.

Make it relatable, make it fun and don’t ever forget how hard the game was to play at this level.

Speaking of those sweet baby blues, how exactly did those sports coats come into being?

C.J. Nitkowski: When the Rangers announced the baby blue uniforms prior to the 2020 season I knew I wanted to do something fun to play along. I found closely matching blue sports coats on Steinmart’s Web site for $15. I then searched for the largest obnoxious Rangers “T” logo patch I could find on the internet and had them sewn on the front of the sports coat. Total, I may have been in for around $24 per.

A year later, Dave Raymond found us some matching super shiny baby blue shoes along with matching red ties that we’d wear over a white shirt and a brand was born. We’d dress up for every Sunday home game when the players wore their baby blue uniforms.

Let’s wrap up our time together with a few quick-pitch questions.

Is it true that you were the first professional baseball player to write and publish your own Web site back in the late ‘90s?

C.J. Nitkowski: It is. It was never my intention but CJBaseball.com was born in 1997 and I jokingly take credit for inventing the blog.

As a pitcher, were you ever awestruck by an opposing batter? Either at the time or in retrospect?

C.J. Nitkowski: Two always stick out to me. In 1994, my first half season in pro ball right after my draft, facing Michael Jordan in the Southern League - 0-for-2 with two strikeouts and embarrassingly, three walks - and in 1995 facing Frank Thomas. I was a 22-year-old skinny rookie and Frank was the biggest human being I ever saw stand in the box, a gentle giant who I would later call a colleague at Fox and a friend today.

Which stadium was your favorite as a pitcher? Which one had the best ambience and atmosphere?

C.J. Nitkowski: I always liked pitching in Seattle, good mound and ideal temperature in the summer. Plus, the radar gun ran hot, a real confidence booster. Fenway during my playing days had the best vibe, Wrigley was always fun, too.

As a player, you got two hits in the big leagues. Do you recall off whom you got those hits?

C.J. Nitkowski: Ramon Martinez and Scott Sanders. I had been a pitcher-only since I was a sophomore in high school; I was not a good hitter. When I got to the big leagues it wasn’t a fair fight.

Deion Sanders was teammate in Cincinatti; after a 0-for-6 start to my career with four strikeouts he came to me and gave me one his bats and told me to try hitting with it. I got an RBI single in my first at bat with it but also broke it.

I still have the broken bat to this day.

You got a game-winning hit in a Braves alumni softball game a few years after you retired. Who was the pitcher for the legendary at-bat?

C.J. Nitkowski: Oh man! I try to pride myself on remembering these kinds of things, but I am not confident. I’ll guess Steve Avery.

Favorite player growing up? Favorite meal? Favorite movie?

C.J. Nitkowski: Willie Randolph – he was the first player I ever met. Later my bench coach with the Yankees.

Can’t beat a good Chicken Parm.

The Godfather.

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