I watched a baseball game last night. It was the American League wild card game, featuring the Houston Astros playing at the New York Yankees. The visiting Astros blanked the hometown nine by a 3-0 score. But that’s not why I’m writing this.
It occurred about the 5th or 6th inning. I was watching ESPN, getting nothing of value from the commentators. I texted a friend, the Mayor of Gladeville, because I figured he’d be watching. He was. I asked him what he thought of the commentators. Dreadful. It wasn’t just me, then.
This isn’t going to be one of those things-sure-were-a-lot-better-back-in-my-day posts. I’ve been a fan of baseball for 35 years. I have to say the game itself has never been better. The athletes of 2015 are remarkable. Back when I burst on the scene as a wide-eyed ten-year-old fan, nearly all baseball players were American-born. You’d have a few Latinos here and there, but they were the exception. Gradually, Major League Baseball began adding players from Japan and Korea, Central America, the Dominican Republic, and the occasional Cuban defector. The talent pool has expanded, and the game is simply better-played now.
Instead, I am lamenting that the art of announcing a baseball game seems to be diminishing. Last night’s ESPN crew was obviously an exercise in racial and gender diversity. There was even a guest pitcher on during an inning or two to lend some technical expertise. No apparent attempt was made to simply hire the best broadcasters. Instead, the viewer was treated to a constant bombardment of hyper-analytical commentary. It was like listening to someone give a PowerPoint presentation while trying to watch a baseball game. Don’t get me wrong. I love analytics, but I love them after the game when I’m reading the box score, not during.
I don’t pretend to speak for all fans, but I’m not personally interested in how a current pitcher sitting in the booth with a headset would pitch to this batter or that. I don’t care about his hypothetical pitch sequence. I don’t care that delaying your swing by 0.02 seconds results in an opposite-field hit. I don’t care about celebrities in the stands. And I honestly don’t care to listen to broadcasters who are obviously trying to impress the viewers with their deep knowledge of the game. I know how to watch a game.
A baseball game is sort of like watching a three-hour drama, except no one knows the outcome. There are characters. There is a setting. There is a plot. There are complications. There are twists. There is a climax. A baseball game has all the elements of a story. So what I am looking for in a broadcaster is a storyteller, not a strategist or a mathematician.
Growing up in West Tennessee in the 1980’s, my family had just been introduced to cable television, and one of the stations we had access to was WTBS out of Atlanta. They broadcast every single Braves game back then. Now, I am not a Braves fan. I am a Phillies fan, but the Braves were usually all I had to watch, so I watched them as often as I could.
The Braves announcers back then were Skip Caray and Pete Van Wieren. I loved listening to them. I don’t know if either of them ever played the game, but it didn’t matter. They could broadcast a baseball game. They did it without bombarding the viewer with an endless stream of statistics, without any analytics, without trying to impress viewers with their knowledge. They simply described the game as it unfolded. It’s not an easy thing to do. I know this because so few broadcasters can do it that well. The great ones can paint a verbal picture the way Picasso worked with canvas. There really is an art to it.
Anyway, one of their exchanges that used to crack me up would go something like this:
Announcer 1: “Mike Schmidt steps up to bat.”
Announcer 2: “He’s up to 375 career home runs now.”
Announcer 1: “They’ve all come against Atlanta.”
Announcer 2: “He hit pair against Chicago last week.”
Announcer 1: “But the other 373 have come against Atlanta.”
Alas, the great ones are getting hard to find. I know they still exist. But consummate professionals like Skip Caray and Pete Van Wieren, Mel Allen, Harry Kalas (pictured below) and Richie Ashburn, Joe Nuxhall, Jack Buck and Mike Shannon, and, quite possibly the greatest of them all, Vin Scully, are dying off. I know there are still a lot of very able commentators out there. Each team hires its own radio and television crew and that’s where the real talent is. But it’s playoff time now, and so we fans are stuck with watching the October games on network television, where the broadcasters are egomaniacal national figures not content with simply playing the role of storyteller. It has to be about them. They exist primarily to remind the viewer how smart he/she is while the game itself gets lost in the analytics and at times becomes an afterthought.