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September 18, 2003

Breaking Balls

In Search of Better Announcers

by Derek Zumsteg

I'm late this week, I know. This season I've been taking notes on all the drugs I was supposed to ask my doctor about, and Monday I asked my doctor about them all. I only now got out of his office and let me tell you: If you're suffering from social anxiety disorder, taking a drug that causes vomiting, diarrhea, and acne among its other side effects seems kind of counter-productive. But I'm no doctor.

I've complained a lot about broadcasts, but what do I actually want? As I've sat around watching every game I can down the stretch, I've given this some thought.

I want insight, more than anything, and failing that, I'd like not to be insulted. I don't want to have the screen read to me: I can read. If I couldn't, wouldn't having the dude say "as you can see from the scouting report…" only rub in the pain of illiteracy?

There's so much to talk about in a baseball game--from pitch to pitch, what's the sequence? How does this fit into a batter's strength and weaknesses, or the pitcher's? What kind of strategic possibilities exist, and how does each manager handle that situation?

Instead, according to the announcers, every hitter is a first-pitch, fastball hitter who likes his pitches out and over the plate, and every pitcher needs to put the heat right in on their hands (an expression Jim Bouton used to ridicule). With runners on, it's always a good idea to put the game in motion, I'm told. Put pressure on the defense.

Nothing's this simple. I'd love to see some real debate in the booth. I've argued before that the best thing baseball could do would be to copy wrestling and have one announcer (the play-by-play man would be best) who's a bit of a homer, and the other announcer who's the critic, and rankles the home fans a little. With the right people, you might find that while fans didn't like the crew, they were much more involved in the broadcasts and tuned in to see what would happen next.

Or even depth of thought. Baseball's layers on layers (like an onion, say, or a parfait) and one decision influences the next. It's great to hear announcers who are on the ball comment on things like this--when the last time these two teams played, they both stole a lot of bases, and now we may see them both play catch-and-throw men behind the plate.

Good broadcast teams ask the insightful questions with their access. They want to know strategies, and thoughts on particular players, and that's all great stuff. Instead of softball questions that get responses like: "We just need to go out and execute, and get some key hits," I'd much rather hear a manager talk about how they like to use batter-pitcher matchups because it'll affect the way the game is played.

There are a lot of people who don't care, but I'm interested to hear (as I did Wednesday watching the A's vs. Angels) about the only organist to be ejected from a ballgame. I want to know if one player was originally drafted as free-agent compensation for the pitcher he's debuting against. Mine baseball's history, or history in general ("The last time a team ran through Arizona like this they were led by Cabeza de Vaca"). I like some of the weird franchise and league records they throw out. I don't really care if Julio Franco is 4-30 lifetime in coastal games where the high tide is within that half of the inning, but it's funny. And failing genuine insight, I'll take humor any day.

I'd like sincerity. There are broadcasters who really love baseball, and it shows. Their enthusiasm colors everything they do, from their appreciation for great plays, by either team, to their enjoyment of being at the park during a blowout. In watching, the audience shares their joy.

The flip side of this is the adopted sincerity. There are guys you listen to and it's all fake. Their excitement is affected, the same every time, and they dial up the emotion the same way every time, to the point where you might wonder if they're computer generated. Double, increase volume 5%, cue 'ball is roped to [LOCATION HERE] and [PLAYER NICKNAME] has himself a two-bagger.'

I would rather listen to a sincere announcer of modest talents than the best fake man working in baseball. More than anything else, the sincere man knows when to get excited and when to flip out. Someone who loves baseball is much more likely to let the game speak for itself. Dead air is not the broadcaster's mortal enemy. Baseball's a game that's got its own tension, and rhythm, and the deafening roar of a crowd can set the mood better than any announcer can.

Cut down on the rah-rah. Broadcast crews are employed by the team, and as a direct result it's a rare broadcast duo that will say much negative about even the worst player, much less dumb lineup or strategy decisions. It'd be too much to expect that, as long as the team's logo is on the crew's paychecks. Still, they could at least cut down on the over-the-top stuff. Every player is a great guy who contributes a lot to the team on and off the field. They're all gamers. It seems to come mostly from ex-players who've played with that team, afraid to say anything that's not glowing for fear the guy won't come to the next barbecue.

If the team's made some minor deadline move while others improved or rebuilt, it's not necessary to rave about the guy every time he's up, calling him a huge addition to the team and a crucial pickup. It's fine to tell me he's a useful part of the bench, or that the added depth has helped keep the starters fresh.

And if you can't criticize team management for bonehead moves, you can at least let your silence speak for you. Or you can be sort of neutral--'this signing hasn't worked out quite as people expected it would,' for instance.

Innovate. ESPN's done a great job trying to work technical and production innovation into their broadcasts. Their K-Zone stuff is outstanding, and it's stuck around. ESPN also admits failure, too--I liked ESPN's center-field cam, but many people didn't, and they stopped it.

I'd like to see a lot more of this. There's only so much any color man has to say before they're leaning on the same crutches every game. Teams should try other people, see who's got something new and interesting to say. If someone turns out to be a pom-pom waving clubhouse guy, that's bearable for a game, and time to adjust the color man rotation. For whatever reason, teams marry their broadcast crews, and in general are unable to figure out what's working and what doesn't.

For example, not only do the Mariners employ a color man who still has a locker in the clubhouse and has yet to say something interesting, they do a couple of broadcasts that are roving tours of the ballpark, where they do remotes from different seating locations, and the broadcast crew works without monitors from places like the camera pits. All this does is demonstrate how helpless they can be without their monitors--they'll get the pitch wrong, the count wrong, the number of outs wrong--it's just ugly. But because it's also a mash note to their stadium, they keep doing it, unable to let go.

Take that last point further: Admit failure in general. Nothing annoys me more than when an announcer gets a call wrong, and then tries to cover it up as they go:

"Fastball high and inside to Jose Vidro..." (replay shows it's a curve down) "… breaking fastball, and he took something off it there…" Pitch recognition is difficult without a behind-the-plate view, and it's OK to admit mistakes. It's certainly better than just piling on the lies until the game moves on.

Watching a well-produced telecast with good announcers, or listening to a well-done game on the radio makes me understand how baseball really offers the greatest opportunities for quality broadcast work of any professional sport. If baseball really wants to bring in new fans, one of the best ways to do it would be to introduce fans to a better product that does more to educate and hook them on the game.

Related Content:  Broadcast,  The Who,  Replay In Baseball

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