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January 22, 2013

Baseball ProGUESTus

The Future of Baseball Broadcasting

by Dave Raymond

Most of our writers didn't enter the world sporting an @baseballprospectus.com address; with a few exceptions, they started out somewhere else. In an effort to up your reading pleasure while tipping our caps to some of the most illuminating work being done elsewhere on the internet, we'll be yielding the stage once a week to the best and brightest baseball writers, researchers and thinkers from outside of the BP umbrella. If you'd like to nominate a guest contributor (including yourself), please drop us a line.

Dave Raymond has been broadcasting professional baseball since 1995, including the last seven years with the Houston Astros. He started a blog, Everybody Reads Raymond, last season. He also likes elderberry jelly on his grilled cheese sandwiches.  Catch up with him @daveraymond4.
 

“The thermos.”

Of course. I should have seen it coming.

As far as brilliant responses go, I’d put it right there with Cliff Clavin’s “Who are three people who’ve never been in my kitchen?”

It’s amazing, the topics that come up on the radio during a 107-loss season. In the “thermos” exchange last summer, I asked my partner, Milo Hamilton, to name the greatest invention of his lifetime.

We’re talking about a guy who was born the same year “talkies” arrived in theaters. The man literally predated sliced bread and penicillin.

He explained: “Well, when I put something cold in it and go to drink it five hours later, it’s still cold. Or if I put soup in it in the morning, the soup is still hot at lunchtime.”

Yeah. So?

“But how does it know?”

An old joke, but I’m not convinced he was kidding. And when you think about it, the thermos hasn’t had to change much. It is just as durable, effective, and versatile as ever.

Just like baseball on the radio. One minute I was discussing soup on the air with Milo, and an hour later I was leaning back on the bus listening to “Milo” by Bowling for Soup.

Graduated Art School
I was recently asked what baseball on the radio might look like in five years. Great question. Let’s start with “I’m not sure.”

Technically speaking, it will probably look a lot like it did when Harold Arlin came up with the idea in 1921. He bought a seat on August 5th at Forbes Field, rested a phone on his lap, and described what he saw into the receiver. Outside of anyone working for radio station KDKA—or the poor chap sitting next to Arlin—I doubt anyone heard a word of it.

It would be years before even 10 percent of the population owned radios.

Plenty of things have changed, but the art form itself is fundamentally the same: just a man, his mind, and a microphone. (Or a woman. You can’t predict baseball, Suzyn.)

Sterling Observation
That’s the beauty of baseball on the radio: it is intensely personal and intimate. Red Barber liked to point out that every sport did play-by-play, but “only baseball shows your soul.”

Fans in San Diego loved hearing Jerry Coleman talk about “sun-blown pop ups” or exclaim that a player “slides into second with a stand-up double!”

Dave Niehaus thrilled Mariners fans with his energy. Chicagoans found Harry Caray’s personality intoxicating. Vin Scully is pretty good too.

Common thread: each so genuine, each so unique.

Jerry Reuss told me that he used to listen to Scully’s broadcast—while he was playing—as it leaked out from thousands of transistors at Dodger Stadium. He said one time he even stepped off the mound to let Vinny finish a story before his next pitch.

Those were the days.

Meathead
Not that there is anything wrong with it, but fans listen differently to today’s broadcasts.

I came nose-to-nose with technology’s influence in my first job in the minor leagues. It was the mid-1990s, and I voiced a daily post-game recap on a mysterious—no, virtual—recorder at the phone company. It was like They Might Be Giants’ Dial-A-Song, only not as cool.

Sonoma County Crushers fans learned to love this “instant access” to game results. I learned to respect the dangers of a technology with such a quick turnaround.

After a loss to the Grays Harbor Gulls, I called up and pounded out the 25-key sequence of tones to record the update. I stumbled on a minor detail and decided to start over, but not before I let a few fly. Like Ralphie’s father in A Christmas Story, I wove a tapestry of obscenities that as far as we know is still hanging in space over the Nordic Inn in Aberdeen, Washington.

Assuming the tirade had been erased, I blissfully went on my way recording a second version and enjoying my $12 per diem. Until the next afternoon at the ballpark.

About an hour before the game, the Crushers’ owner phoned the press box and told the PA guy to find me. (Gulp.) The instant I heard his voice, I knew why he’d called. Then I could hear him rustling papers. He read the full list of vulgarities as I sat in shame. Remarkably, he said he wouldn’t fire me—nor mention the episode again—if I just fixed the recording and promised to never let it happen again.

Maybe my faux pas destroyed that particular technology. But there we were—toward the front end of a 20-year broadcasting evolution (revolution, even) that has been stunning and swift.

So is radio changing...or is this a conversation about technology? Maybe it’s both.

Fewer people bring transistors to the ballpark. Radio broadcasts are available on SiriusXM or the Internet or any mobile device. Television has sucked in generations of fans with significantly increased coverage. Networks appear to add more cameras, mics, and features to the broadcast each week. Color. High-def. 3D. Blimps. Super-Duper-Incredible-X-Mo. Sideline reporters. Pitch trackers. Etc.

Harold Arlin did nothing more than pay admission for the rights to baseball’s first broadcast. Ten years ago, media-rights fees passed ticket receipts as the primary revenue source for MLB teams. Those rights sell for billions, meaning the stakes are higher than ever.

Lots of Exposure, Not Enough Underwear
The extra money and increased visibility have been great for the game. I wonder, however, if they’ve improved the broadcasts.

What would executives make of Lindsay Nelson’s wild jackets and big personality today? Would any front office consider a wacky dude with huge glasses who spent most of his time in neighborhood taverns? Holy Cow! Don’t even think about sneaking Niehaus’ or Barber’s unique voices past today’s focus-groups.

Oh yeah, and imagine this guy handing his resume to a receptionist.

The late, great Bill King. King applied his genius to 25 years of Oakland A’s broadcasts and lived on a house boat.

I really hope I’m wrong. At the same time, I can’t help but wonder if our voices of summer are becoming more homogenized. It would only be natural for teams and broadcasters to play things a little safer, considering the economics. But my hope is that passion, depth, and character aren’t squeezed out in favor of a smooth delivery and good vocal quality.

It’s a complicated calculus for executives. Broadcasters struggle with how much soul to bare, as well. It’s never as straightforward as it appears.

Consider an episode involving no. 6 for the Milwaukee Brewers, who forgot his underwear on the back of the bathroom door in his Chicago hotel room. I happened to be the next lucky guest. What do you do?

I checked my media guide, smiled, and put the skivvies in a ziplock bag. Like you wouldn’t have done the same thing?

Several weeks later, the Astros flew to Milwaukee for a mid-week series. I embellished the condition of the garments and returned them to Brewers third base coach Ed Sedar during batting practice. We all needed to share a laugh, “You’re a sick [something or other].”

Or the time I interviewed a manager for the pre-game show just moments after the team’s closed-door meeting. Nothing like questioning a man who’s sitting on the edge of his chair—his eyes wide, knees bouncing, and blood running out his nose.

Back when Phil Garner managed the Astros, I’d often lounge on the couch in his office. It’s probably why he got fired. One day, (brilliant) writer Richard Justice stopped by. Richie apparently didn’t notice me, and within seconds the door was closed and the two men were screaming at one another. I learned some fascinating stuff (along with a few new words) as they verbally slugged it out. Clearly, Garner wanted to be a writer and Richard wanted to manage.

Lord knows I’ve always been willing to put myself out there, but I’ve also left plenty of color and personality on the editing floor. Applying a little discretion on the air is not that complicated. It’s just part of today’s business.

Like most announcers, I sometimes struggle with that balance.

My love of baseball came from my fascination with the characters of the game, from Yogi Berra to Charlie Kerfeld to Andy Van Slyke. I was spellbound by the raconteurs. I wanted more stories from Joe Garagiola and howled at Bob Uecker’s one-liners.

But I’ve since learned that even they have boundaries.

Amateur Analysis
If you’re still reading, you’re probably asking yourself: “I thought this was Baseball Prospectus. Where the hell is the data? Can I at least get a chart?”

Fine. I set out to quantify my answer to the interview question, but ended up with a steaming pile of...umm...bits. It’s much less scientific than it is anecdotal.

Here’s the poop (click to expand):

See anything? Yeah, me either. It’s not an obvious visual, but I do feel better having a chart in my story. Here’s what the numbers do tell us:

Attendance grew nearly 50 percent from 1933 (when the Cincinnati Reds became the first team to challenge convention and “give away” both home and road games on radio) to 1938 (when the Brooklyn Dodgers broke the NYC “ban” on broadcasting home games).

Attendance swelled more than 53 percent from 1945 (the year before the Yankees signed the first local TV deal) to 1955 (the first year every team had local TV agreements).

Again, attendance shot up nearly 29 percent from 1965 (the year before the first league network TV deal) to 1971 (the year before pro sport’s first strike).

The creation of Regional Sports Networks in the 1980s accompanied further growth. Attendance growth appears to have been bolstered—or at least not slowed—by the addition of the Internet (at least as we think of it today) around 1994, MLB Gameday Audio in 2001, and baseball’s partnership with XM Satellite in 2005.

None of this adjusts for the expansion of teams (1961, ’62, ’69, ’77, ’93 & ’98) nor factors in schedule fluctuations. Population growth? Two World Wars? The Great Depression? Better transportation? Work stoppages?

I told you it wasn’t scientific.

Furthermore, I am not suggesting a causal relationship between broadcast penetration and attendance. That would be way too complicated, and I’m not that smart. Rather, what I am suggesting is that the closer any fan gets to the game, the more he/she loves it. My youth consisted of box scores, baseball cards, and the Saturday Game of the Week. I didn’t know to ask for more.

Then my dad took me to Wrigley. Game over.

How baseball continues to bring people closer is its ongoing challenge. It just happens to be the same one it’s pioneered over and over again. Every time a player, broadcaster, or front office employee connects with a fan, baseball grows. A twitter reply today is yesterday’s autographed ticket stub. A twitpic from the dugout is yesterday’s ballpark tour. Who knows what tomorrow will bring?

Bud Selig likes to tell people they won’t even recognize MLB Advanced Media in five years. I believe him. Bring it on!

I also hear people complain that technology makes the world less personal. I disagree. It’s making it easier to sidle up next to the Harold Arlin or Mel Allen.

So what will radio look like in five years? I hope it’s still just a person, a mind, and a mic. It will be every bit as intimate and magical on whatever device you’re using.

Better yet, my thermos will still know what I brought for lunch.

Related Content:  Radio,  Broadcasting,  Technology

7 comments have been left for this article.

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