Mid-week can be pretty thin when it comes to MLB on the tube after work. Wednesdays and Thursdays are often either getaway days, with games beginning right after lunch, or one of Josh Beckett’s sacred off days. Last week, after dinner, the only live games available in the Bay Area were the San Francisco Giants going against the Miami Marlins in the Marlins’ brand new stadium, and the Philadelphia Phillies battling the Cardinals in St. Louis. I started with the Giants and Marlins. But I didn’t last for long.
When I tuned in the score was 1-1. For some reason, the Marlins decided to self-destruct at that point and the game quickly turned into a laugher. Lots of empty seats in the brand new park, and after watching the top of the 6th inning, it’s easy to see why. An error in left field that allowed the Giants’ Gregor Blanco to get to third on what should have been a double, a botched run-down that left Blanco safe back at third, a walk, a two-run double, a wild pitch, a bloop single, and suddenly it’s 5-1 Giants with the Marlins looking like they’re thinking about the after party more than anything else. Ozzie Guillen’s team is a mysterious disappointment after the off-season hype. Maybe it all goes back to his bizarre Castro gaffe. Whatever it is, judging by the attendance the fans aren’t pleased.
While the game wasn’t exciting, the play by play and commentary provided by Giants regulars Duane Kuiper and Mike Krukow was solid. These guys are good. They pull for the Giants without overdoing it. They’ll call plays the way they see them and even get down on the play of the Giants when warranted. And they don’t feel the need to talk constantly; they often allow the game to speak for itself. Kruk and Kuip understand that the broadcast is about the game, not them.
As good as the Giants’ local guys were, it was painful to watch the Marlins so I surfed over to the Phillies and Cardinals on the MLB Network. When I jumped in the score was already 6 – 4 Phils, and it was only the third inning. Philly’s starter Joe Blanton was hanging in there, but he was struggling. The World Champion Cardinals, currently half a game out of first in the Central Division, had their hands full at home against a last-place Philadelphia team without Chase Utley and Ryan Howard. It’s hard to watch these two clubs without the awful memory of Ryan Howard buckling on his way to 1st base as the Cardinals celebrated wrapping up the NLDS last October. Thursday’s game was at least close. And the announcers were pros: Bob Costas and Tom Verducci, two of the most baseball-knowledgeable men around. As usual, the stands were packed in St. Louis, adding to the game’s intensity.
While Costas and Verducci were in the booth last night, MLB Network often has the local guys doing the broadcast. I enjoy getting to listen to the local announcers whether it’s on MLB Network or some cable channel like WGN. They know their teams better than anyone else. Some of the local guys tend to cheerlead more than they should – Ken Harrelson, the play by play man for the Chicago White Sox comes to mind. But most of them are long-time baseball aficionados whose insight into their teams generally surpasses the national media’s expertise. But Costas and Verducci, right? How can you go wrong? What follows is said with all due respect to the vast accomplishments and deserved stature of both of those men.
Frankly, last night I turned the sound off as Costas and Verducci slipped into the all-too familiar pattern national broadcasters have developed in the last few years. They were treating the game as mere visual background for a discussion that was too often completely disconnected from the game unfolding in front of them. For instance, while Joe Blanton was either struggling to hold the Cardinals to 4 runs or failing to execute a sacrifice bunt, Verducci and Costas focused on the prospects for Josh Hamilton in his free agency year. They weren’t even talking about the same league as the game in front of them. The free agency discussion was wrapped into another lengthy discussion about the July trading deadline and which teams would be buyers or sellers.
Verducci opined that there would be far more buyers than sellers because, as of Thursday, there were 22 teams within 4 games of a playoff spot. What? How is any team within 4 games of a playoff spot on May 25th? Ever? Oh, and how about some insight into the game right in front of you, the game your audience is watching? This sort of thing happens constantly on ESPN broadcasts too. The game is treated as a slightly relevant visual for broad-ranging discussions that sound more like talk radio than play by play. I’ve tried muting the TV and listening to a radio broadcast of the same game, but the delay difference between the two media makes that near impossible. Maybe the less technically challenged among us can work it out. I can’t.
A friend of mine, a coach, likes to say “Look to the legends.” What he means is if you want to know how to be good at anything, look to those people who have gone before you whom we all admire, the legends. Of course the biggest legend in baseball broadcasting is Vin Scully. I can’t imagine Vin Scully talking about the trading deadline, Josh Hamilton’s free agency, buyers and sellers more than two months from now, and playoff positions more than four months before the playoffs while ignoring the action on the field. It just wouldn’t happen. While Scully does tend to delve idiosyncratically into the minutia of a player’s life, he confines himself to the players we’re watching. He’s a living legend, a no doubter.
I realize when the game’s a blowout the announcers are going to find other things to talk about. The Oakland A’s long-time analyst Ray Fosse usually starts talking about local restaurants or some recently discovered dessert item under those circumstances. Not a problem. A blowout just isn’t that interesting. But when the last place Phillies are trying to hang on to a slight lead over the defending World Champions and doing it in the champs’ park, a little focus would be nice. Save the other stuff for the call-in shows or the TV roundtables. Those formats are perfect for broad ranging discussions and informed, interesting speculation. But if you’re doing a live game, how about looking to a legend? If you’re not going to look to a legend, at least look to the local guys.
Jonathan Dyer has been a baseball fanatic since playing Little League in the 1960s, and he’s been following the Oakland A’s since moving to the Bay Area in the late 1970s when he watched Rickey Henderson play for Billy Martin. Dyer, the author of three novels, now brings his long-term perspective to writing about baseball, connecting the modern game to its historic context. You may email Jonathan directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @dyer_jp. You can follow his progress on two new novels he’s writing at www.booksbyjonathandyer.webs.com