February 12, 2016
The Death of Nostalgia in Baseball Broadcasting
Last Friday, Rian Watt stirred up some controversy in these pages by wondering if sabermetrics, as we understand the term, is going to be replaced by intersectional analysis—the study of baseball as it fits into the world at large—as the bleeding edge of baseball writing. As someone who writes and thinks primarily in the style he described, I certainly hope that’s where the future takes us.
But even the idea of the end of sabermetrics as we know it brings up a separate point. The concepts of turn-of-the-century sabermetric analysis have pervaded all aspects of independent media, and empiricism of some form or other is the byword of all 30 front offices. Even among casual fans, there’s a curiosity about the science of the game that just didn’t exist 20 years ago, and the kind of cranks that used to be ridiculed by Fire Joe Morgan, and their disciples, are now consigned to relative irrelevance, the last holdouts defending antediluvian ideals as the state of the art has passed them by.
But one area lags behind: the broadcast booth. Almost everyone hates the local broadcasters, and the sound of playoff baseball is the sound of millions of baseball fans groaning, “WHY, HAROLD, WHY” from sea to shining sea.
The solution to this problem is not to shoehorn framing runs or DRA or whatever new statistic happens to fit in with the state of the art. We already have instances of broadcasters passing along scripted segments from researchers in which they read leaderboards of stats they don’t understand, and it doesn’t work.
Innumeracy isn’t the disease—it’s a symptom. The disease is nostalgia, which makes itself noticeable in numerous ways.
In the 1960s and 1970s, both baseball and television were expanding into something like the all-consuming corporate entities they are today, and dozens of now-iconic sportscasters started being beamed into homes across America. They were plucked not from broadcasting colleges but from minor-league gigs they’d stumbled into after working at a newspaper, or after leaving the military, and they honed their craft in a time when mass media was a one-way proposition, in a sports culture that was far less cynical and far more patient than it is now.
By the time the current generation of baseball writers came of age, Harry Kalas and Dave Niehaus and Dave Van Horne were already local institutions. Their voices and catchphrases were as intertwined with the identities of the teams they covered as the uniforms or the players themselves. They became like communal grandfathers to cities they represented.
But in the past 10 to 15 years, those beloved broadcasters have started retiring and/or dying, and in their place are the hated modern play-by-play guys. They’re interchangeable polo shirt-wearing science projects, like fleshy blanks milled into announcers who all have the same voice and the same haircut by communications departments at colleges across America.
But these play-by-play announcers aren’t hated because they’re bad—though some are—or even boring. They’re hated because they’re not the beloved grandfather we grew up with.
Could these overtrained play-by-play men stand to have some of Vin Scully’s literary quality? Probably. But they’re adequate and professional, for the most part. We just can’t recognize that because we’re overpowered by nostalgia.
That’s less true of the former players who share the booth with these interchangeable, but innocuous men.
Nostalgia is also the reason that color commentators must almost always be ex-players themselves. There’s a comfort to seeing a familiar name and face on the broadcast, and that comfort has turned into a sclerotic, Burkean loyalty to tradition, clinging to the cathartic but unproductive ad hominem: “You Never Played The Game.”
The difference between being a player and being an analyst is like the difference between being an astronaut and designing the Saturn V rocket. The primary qualifications for being a player are athletic, and while over the course of a career many players gain knowledge and insight that might interest a TV audience, the skills of a player are different from the skills of a broadcaster. Some ballplayers have the charisma and the knowledge—and more importantly, the ability to communicate that knowledge intelligibly to non-experts—just as some astronauts are also accomplished engineers.
But some ballplayers don’t, because broadcasting a sporting event is hard and that’s not the job they trained their whole lives for.
Great analysis is based in curiosity, creativity and the ability to be interesting and not monotonous, to say nothing of separating truth from truisms, and meaningful information from trivia.
Smarter baseball commentary doesn’t have to include numbers at all. You don’t need to talk about BABIP if you can explain batted ball luck. You don’t need to talk about catcher framing numbers if you can explain the mechanics. But it requires a curiosity that doesn’t need to be cultivated when you can fall back on “Back in my day, when I played the game…”
On-field experience is still such an overpowering crutch that not only do many ex-players refuse to develop other discursive tools, their co-commentators are often cowed into silence, as are many fans and a disturbing number of media members.
That kind of analysis, in addition to being boring and often not true, also isn’t very fun. It’s mirthless in its self-seriousness. A good broadcast is informative, but it also recognizes that baseball is a game. It’s no surprise that one of the few non-MLB players in a high-profile color commentary role, Jessica Mendoza, is also one of the few color commentators who still has a sense of wonder in her analysis.
To say nothing of the fact that using almost exclusively ex-players as color commentators effectively eliminates a huge percentage of the baseball community from becoming an announcer—not only non-players in general, but women, (so far) gay men and lots of Latin American and Asian players whose input is valuable but whose English might not be good enough.
So what kind of booth should we aspire to?
The best commentary booth I’ve ever seen in any sport, and I’m not joking even a little, is the NBC daytime figure skating team from the 2014 Olympics: Terry Gannon, Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski. It was informative, because Lipinski and Weir didn’t feel the need to talk down to the audience about the intricacies of the sport, and Gannon wasn’t too afraid of looking stupid to ask “Why?” or “What does that mean?” And of course their commitment to having a good time was as infectious as it is now notorious.
Of course, Weir and Lipinski are both former figure skaters, and even Gannon, a former NC State basketball player, is an ex-jock as well, though now he’s just another dark-haired, good-looking middle-aged white guy, like every other play-by-play person. So it can be done with the current tools, but it’s hard enough to find someone with curiosity, charisma and expertise who has natural chemistry with his or her partners without also making it a requirement that that person also be able to hit a major league curveball.
So while fixing baseball broadcasting isn’t really a sabermetric proposition, it does have its roots in similar attitudes: a desire for accuracy, a curiosity about the way things work and a healthy skepticism about tradition. Those attitudes will improve the state of broadcasting. Nostalgia
 The sportswriter’s version of playing experience is clubhouse access. Both have value in terms of experience and insight, but touting that as an argument-ender is a tacit admission that whoever’s got access doesn’t have anything else to add.