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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. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

stevemillburg

What I hope for the future of baseball radio broadcasts is that they return to actually broadcasting the game. Whatever "personality" the announcers want to inject should wait until after they describe what is happening on the field. Every play. Every pitch. I'm sorry to say this, but Mr. Raymond's partner, Milo Hamilton, is the very worst at giving his self-indulgent stories and opinions primacy over the game itself. To be fair, however, almost no radio announcer today provides play-by-play, pitch-by-pitch coverage. It drives me nuts. But apparently the majority of listeners prefer it that way. Otherwise, it wouldn't have caught on so universally.

I love baseball. When I'm listening to a radio broadcast, I want to hear what's happening in the game. I don't really care about anybody's thermos.

Jan 22, 2013 11:02 AM
rating: 0
 
daveraymond

I agree about sticking to the game, Steve. You couldn't be more correct.

However, I disagree that "no radio announcer today provides play-by-play, pitch-by-pitch coverage." Tune into the Giants, Mariners or Brewers sometime. You'll definitely get the game. I'm sure there are plenty others.

The thermos story happened to occur during a pitching change during a 107-loss season, in Milo's defense.

To your point, though, the "story" that demands to be told each night is the story of that night's game. Period. Each person will describe it differently, based on what they see, what they perceive to be important and their vocabulary. They'll make inferences and draw parallels based on their life experiences.

To that end, a little context and a well-chosen word can make for a much more interesting listen. So long as the actual details and facts aren't subjugated.

That's my opinion, anyway. Thanks for reading! -Dave

Jan 22, 2013 14:31 PM
rating: 0
 
stevemillburg

Vin Scully also does play-by-play and pitch-by-pitch coverage, although fellow Dodgers announcer Charley Steiner does not. Denny Matthews of the Royals used to call every pitch, but I haven't listened to him enough lately to know whether he still does. I did say "almost" no announcer. However, I listen to a lot of baseball on Sirius XM, and there are not "plenty others" who call every pitch. I'm not sure there are any others. I agree that each announcer should describe the game differently, based on what he or she thinks is important. But most seem to think a pitch on which "nothing happens" isn't important. EVERY pitch is important. That's part of the tension and release of a baseball gameā€”the count building and then the at-bat being resolved one way or another. I'm afraid that Milo often ignored several pitches in a row, one or more outs, one or more hits, sometimes almost entire innings while bantering, interviewing somebody, mentioning groups who happened to be attending that day, talking about some upcoming event he was planning to attend, etc. I DON'T CARE ABOUT ANY OF THAT. I want to know about the game. I'm a St. Louis Cardinals fan, and Mike Shannon is a St. Louis icon and by all accounts a great guy, but trying to follow a game he's announcing can be maddening. I once listened to a Colorado Rockies announcer devote two full innings to an interview with some player's wife, only occasionally sparing a few words to catch up on the past few hits and outs. I strongly suspect it was not the quality of her insights that had him in thrall.

Jan 22, 2013 21:15 PM
rating: 0
 
gweedoh565

Great piece, Dave. Baseball on the radio is a wonderful thing. As Sam Miller pointed out in the podcast, it has barely changed over the past few decades despite the flurry of technological advancements surrounding it. It's like Big Boy restaurants in that way... but in a good way. ;)

Jan 22, 2013 13:06 PM
rating: 0
 
daveraymond

Thanks. Ninety-one years later and it still works. Pretty cool.

Jan 22, 2013 14:32 PM
rating: 0
 
Candy Cummings

I think I would rather listen to a game than watch it on TV because as Sam miller mentioned it is easier to get things done. The radio still adds something. You don't need a fancy tv package with the MLB network and other sports channels. you learn more from websites like these and radio .When I have job, that is one of the first things that I buy is the MLB audio package and have my vin skully bedtimes.

Also it seems to me that people who watch the game at TV are less fans than people who read, or listen to the game. Just a thought

Jan 22, 2013 16:15 PM
rating: 0
 
Ashitaka1110

Nice piece, Dave. As an Astros fan, I was rather shocked that they let you go. Speaking for myself, you were the best Astros radio man I ever heard (I'm only 26, so maybe that's not saying much, but there you go). Between the 100+ losses, you and then DeShaies, have mercy, baseball gods.

I think radio must be more immune to tumult than TV, if for no other reason than it's hard to innovate on such a relatively-simple technology. I suppose it's mostly been relegated to the "power outage backup" method for a lot of people, but I think it will always be relevant as long as the broadcasters are good. Not fawning over female booth guests and forgetting to mention the score or describe the action for 10-20 minutes at a time is a good place to start...

Jan 27, 2013 07:23 AM
rating: 0
 
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