August 15, 2012
What Your Team's Choice of Radio Broadcaster Says About You
I’m driving in Georgia with my new wife, way, way down south. We’re here on family business, but we’ve taken an afternoon to indulge the notion that we are still on our honeymoon, although it officially ended weeks ago. We are passing through the rural exotica: tiny, ruined towns, no signs of life. Stunted, desiccated crops. Vultures are everywhere: in the air, in the trees, devouring carcasses on the side of the road. Rain blatters on the windshield. History has ended here.
We need a signal, some reassurance of life against this deathless decrepitude. Put on the radio, there’s a Braves game—that will more than do. Those live pauses between pitches, the ambient life piping through the speakers. Baseball on the radio is as potent as the smell of bread in the oven. What sound could possibly be better in southwest Georgia, on a road where the speed limit is 45 mph, where you can drive five, 10 miles at a stretch without seeing a single other vehicle?
So, 106.3 FM, mid-afternoon on a Sunday. Jim Powell, I presume, and Don Sutton. The news in Braves country these days revolves around Chipper. He doesn’t need a last name in these parts. He is the last surviving royal of the Braves’ guttering dynasty. Everyone knows he has announced his forthcoming retirement at the end of the season; 2012 has been a league-wide farewell tour for him. The kicker, the shitkicker, in fact, is that he’s having a very good year, his best since 2008.
Powell and Sutton make some small talk about Chipper; I don’t remember exactly what it is—what can you say about a living legend that doesn’t sound tiny and inconsequential? He is larger than commentary. The small talk gets circumstantially big late in the game when Jones starts a game-winning rally with a single; then, in the following inning, the seventh, he delivers a two-out double to add a salutary insurance run. The Braves are going to go on to win this one, 6-1. No surprise—the opponent is the Astros.
What is a surprise is some of the extracurricular dialogue between Powell and Sutton. When Jose Altuve steps up to hit for Houston, it isn’t long before the two broadcasters are discussing Altuve’s diminutive size. There is talk of 5-foot-4, and it isn’t long before Sutton is doing an impersonation of Tattoo from Fantasy Island. “De plane!” etc.
After that, Powell starts talking about Eddie Gaedel. Gaedel, you probably know, was a little person (how is that term, the accepted one, not considered offensive?), a dwarf performer hired in 1951 by St. Louis Browns stuntman-owner Bill Veeck as a gimmick pinch hitter. Gaedel walked on four pitches in his lone big-league plate appearance.
(Some ancillary notes:
Powell makes sure to pronounce it GAY-dell. He does this multiple times, clucking out some Gae-details with amused geniality. You get the impression that an intern is feeding these items to him: GAY-dell was 3-foot-7, GAY-dell wore number 1/8, etc. Between Powell’s GAY-dell routine and Sutton’s Tattoo impersonation, the broadcasters’ breezy disdain for both Altuve and the Astros is almost palpable over the airwaves. Powell is at least decent enough to settle on Mike Gallego as a height comp for Altuve, instead of Gaedel or Hervé Villechaize.
It’s the top of the seventh, and Altuve, firing the disdain right back, singles to center and then steals second base. It’s not going to matter—he’s stranded there—but he exacts at least a measure of imaginary revenge against a slight he hasn’t heard.
Some time after this, Powell and Sutton engage in some banter about the internet. It isn’t long before Sutton professes, jocularly, to believe everything he reads on Wikipedia—a sort of deeply unreconstructed joke, I think, mainly because I doubt Sutton ever looks at Wikipedia. He does seem to be indicating, somehow, that he’s aware of Wikipedia’s unreliability, while at the same time aw-shucksing his credulous ways. The underlying message is that there’s nothing on the internet worth knowing, I think; or that Sutton doesn’t really need to know anything, anyway, so why not believe what Wikipedia tells him?
Sutton adds futher web-based bewilderment, this time about Twitter. He has to verify with Powell that the associated verb is “tweet.” Sutton’s technophobic folksiness is doubly folksy because it’s at least three years behind the time when jokes about Wikipedia and Twitter would still have had any currency. In 2012, to cop (even in jest) to naïve trust in the former and total ignorance about the latter is cant. Is it really possible for a top professional anything—in this case a baseball broadcaster whose voice reaches millions of people per year—to live without the remotest ability to use the internet, and brag about it, to boot? It boggles the mind, driving in an air-conditioned car, in peanut-proud southwest Georgia. Famous athletes, it seems, live in a state of arrested development, in bubbles, shuttled from broadcast booth to golf course to Ruth’s Chris without passing wifi.
I’m not going to pick this bone much more. Don Sutton is a Hall of Famer (although his credentials have occasioned some impassioned debate, especially when Rob Neyer has taken up for Bert Blyleven). He has probably pitched his way past any sort of reproof, and he has been doing color commentary for Braves games for most of the last 23 years. His track record will best my best argument any day of the week, including Sunday.
I will wonder, though, about Powell and Sutton vis-à-vis the Braves, a team long renowned for lacking a passionate following. They don’t sell out playoff games. They’re currently 16th in MLB attendance, barely ahead of Cincinnati, a metro area less than half Atlanta’s size. Turner Field is down a million fans per annum since its inaugural-season high-water mark (from 3,464,488 in 1997 to 2,372,940 in 2011). This is despite one of the greatest divisional runs in history. It seems to me that Powell and Sutton, in presiding complacently, predictably, giving bland offense, over the Braves’ lackluster fan base, actually fit the community quite well. They, and their listeners, sit at the opposite pole of the one that the great rock music critic Robert Christgau envisioned for Randy Newman in Greil Marcus’ Mystery Train:
“Every great artist must create for a great audience,” Bob Christgau pronounced one night when we were delving into The Great Randy Newman Mystery (Why isn’t this genius as big as he deserves to be?). Christgau meant an aggressive, critical audience, with a conscious sense of itself as an audience, but he also meant a big, broad audience, one whose complexity and diverse needs can push an artist beyond comfortable limits.
What was of interest to me, most of all, listening to Powell and Sutton, was how they made me want to root for the Astros instead of the Braves.
Teams, especially good teams like the Atlanta Braves, have personalities. Those personalities are inflected on the radio by broadcasters. But which is it? Does a given team wind up with, even seek out, the precise voice that matches its collective character (or the character that it aims to develop)? Does a broadcaster’s persona eventually change to suit his team? Or, contrariwise, do broadcasters change the pitch of their teams, somehow, to the texture and tone of their voices? It must surely be true, in any case, that broadcasters do not merely speak to their audiences, but in fact create them—or in any case, give them enough time in the booth, and they create the ideal listener for their team.
For example, Vin Scully’s ardent, mellifluous intellect has made Los Angeles into Dodger-bluebloods, a regal franchise despite its proletarian Brooklyn origins. On the other end of it, I have always thought that the Yankees know full well that John Sterling is a self-regarding purveyor of bombast, and that a) they enjoy the controversy he generates and b) they have pretty much figured out that most Yankee fans, his vociferous detractors notwithstanding, like him. The “true” Yankee fan, they have determined—or in any case the one the Yankees want to cultivate—is basically some version of John Sterling: deeply prejudiced, a know-it-all who is often wrong, highly opinionated, and often critical but ultimately an unrepentant homer; impassioned, noisy, cheesy, sincere. Take Sterling away from the Bronx, as time will eventually do, and you will no longer have the same Yankees.
(This occasions an aside about the end of the Bob Sheppard era. It seems to me exactly right that the legendary PA announcer retired just as the old Yankee Stadium gave way to the new. Sheppard, the old Yankee, could not fit himself into a simulacrum of the old stadium.)
Down here in Durham this season, we had our own changing of the voice. For eight seasons, from 2004-2011, Neil Solondz was the Bulls’ radio broadcaster. During that time, the Bulls went to the playoffs six times, including the last five years in a row, winning an International League championship and a Triple-A title as well. The ballclub boomed, and Solondz was its voice. When the Bulls went on the road, I probably heard Solondz talk more than anyone except my wife. One develops a peculiar, almost vulnerable sort of intimacy with one’s hometown broadcaster—he holds (or withholds) your hope in his words, like a priest. He is in your home with you, in the unguarded hours of the night. There are any number of longstanding Bulls from the short but golden age during which Solondz and I overlapped—Jeremy Hellickson, Elliot Johnson, and others—who live, for me, partly in Solondz’s account of them.
Solondz earned a call-up to the majors after 2011 and now does the pre- and post-game shows for the Bulls’ parent club, the Tampa Bay Rays (he also recently called some innings). I suppose Solondz’s departure is good for me as a beat writer, because it means that, more than ever, I have to trust my own eyes and make my own assessments of the players. Not only did Solondz’s road-game reportage complete my understanding of the Bulls, I could always count him to correct me when I made the odd reporting mistake, or fill me in on news (on or off the record), or pop into the press box before a home game or between half-innings and make some brief, mid-inning comment about a player that would give me new understanding. And I admired his ability to be both a company man (he also did sales and marketing for the Bulls during the offseason) and a trustworthy, clear-eyed professional. Once, after he called an opposing pitcher walking the Bulls’ not-very-selective Leslie Anderson, Solondz took a pause and added, thoughtfully, with a sort of audible smirk: “Leslie’s hard to walk.”
Solondz’s seat in the Durham Bulls’ booth has been claimed this season by Patrick Kinas. It’s uncomfortable for me to listen to him, and I seldom do. It’s nothing against Kinas, whom I’m sure is a quality broadcaster. In fact, I stand in awe of broadcasters generally: what they do is so much harder than it sounds. It’s just that I don’t recognize the team, not yet anyway, without Solondz describing it. The Bulls ca. 2012, under this new Kinas-eye, feel like an unknown ballclub, an entirely different franchise from the one I knew for the past three years.
That just about makes sense, too. The Bulls, after half a decade of dominance—they won the International League South Division five straight times—are the fourth-worst team in the league this season, a dismal 14 games out of first place and headed straight home after Labor Day, the end date of the regular season. They have been a hard team to get a grip on this year. Five minor-league veterans, signed in the offseason to provide ballast for the always-unstable Triple-A ship, have been released mid-season, and not because of opt-out clauses in their contracts: they just didn’t play well, and the Rays jettisoned them. They’ve been replaced by a new set of vets.
Meanwhile, the ostensible anchor of the starting rotation, top-10 prospect Alex Torres, has been a total disaster. The lefty walked 61 batters in 61 1/3 innings, upchucking a ghastly 8.07 ERA, and lost his place in the rotation (humiliation: he was replaced by a 29-year-old indy-ball journeyman) before finally, mercifully heading to the disabled list. Righty prospect Chris Archer has only recently begun to live up to his billing as a potentially dominant starter. Alex Cobb, called up to Tampa Bay early in the season, isn’t coming back down—he’s throwing a gem against the Mariners as I write this. Shortstop Tim Beckham, the No. 1 pick in the 2008 draft, got off to a bad start this season and was hitting .204 when he was suspended 50 games for a second positive test for recreational drugs. He’s been hitting much better since his return in late June, but he has made a costly error during the game I’m listening to right now (I’m trying to get comfortable with Kinas), leading to an unearned run.
And so on. The Kinas-Bulls seem different because they are different. The familiar faces are fewer. The attitude is entirely different. The stakes are low. It isn’t Kinas’s fault, of course; he’s simply inherited a loser and has to try to drag them to respectable radio frequency on the heroic strength of his voice alone. The Bulls dropped 13 games in a row way back in April, a swan-dive that doomed their season before it really even started. I had never heard Kinas before this year, so I have nothing to go on, but I have noticed a sort of uh-oh-here-it-comes foreboding in his voice, the timbre of which has something of Joe Buck in it. There’s a kind of constant surge of pessimistic worry, as anyone might reasonably be expected to have if they were broadcasting a team that finds new ways to lose on a regular basis.
A week-plus after our Sunday drive in southwest Georgia, I’m listening to the Bulls on a Monday night in Toledo. In the bottom of the eighth inning, tied 5-5, Durham center fielder Rich Thompson guns down the go-ahead run at the plate, prompting an excited and exciting call from Kinas: “surgical!” is how he describes Thompson’s throw home. But two pitches later, Toledo’s Ben Davis punches a double past third base and into the left-field corner. Two runs score—6-5, 7-5—and Kinas’ voice sinks low again, his tone shot through with a pulpit fatalism. The Bulls lose, swept in four games by the International League’s worst team.
It is wrong to say that Kinas has the team that fits his voice, or that the Bulls have hired the right broadcaster to narrate their lowliness—that’s facile thinking. Put it like this, though: these two entities, roster and radioman, are trying to find themselves this season, after five years of our taking them for granted. In that, in their search for identity, they are well matched.
What about your team, major or minor? Do your broadcasters define, in some way, your experience of the games? Are there those you love, those you despise? Can you imagine your team under a different voice? And are there moments in baseball—other than Bobby Thompson’s shot heard ’round the world, of course—that live in your memory not as images, but as voices?