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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:

  1. Know someone else who walked in his only major-league PA? Kevin Melillo, 2007. You ain’t so special, Eddie.
  2. Gaedel died at age 36. He was apparently mugged and beaten to death after being followed home from a Chicago bowling alley.
  3. Gaedel’s great-nephew, Kyle Gaedele, is in the San Diego Padres’ farm system. He measures 6-foot-3, 220 pounds.
  4. According to both Baseball-Reference and the official MLB web site, Eddie Gaedel bats right—which is evident enough from the famous photo of him at bat—and “throws left.” Gaedel never played in the field, so how can we be sure he threw left?)

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?

Thank you for reading

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Tom Hamilton for the Indians, like Jim Donovan for the Browns, fit the city rather than the teams they work for. These two men see so little reason on the field for hope, but when something good happens, they get more excited than any other announcers in sports. Every Cleveland fan gets chills just thinking about their home run/touchdown calls. Cleveland is city that needs to believe, against all evidence, and the passion of the announcers helps sustain that irrational belief.
You might not think the mellifluous tones of Ernie Harwell would fit a hard-bitten (and hard hit) northern city, but they did. For several generations of Detroiters Ernie represented the team and the game.

I've heard the great Scully and others and they're all outstanding, but I've never heard anyone to match Ernie.
That was a nice read.

I think the Giants broadcasters, TV and radio, are an absolute perfect match for the city of San Francisco. They're fun, funny, progressive yet very in touch with history, and they don't take things too seriously. If you listened to them and they never said the name of the team out loud, you'd know it has to be San Francisco.

They're as beloved by the fanbase as any player on the field, and when Giants games are nationally broadcast by outsiders, they scarcely feel like Giants games at all.
Evancon puts it nicely. The Giants work very hard at creating a "Giants Family" ... other clubs may do this as well, but it's clearly intention in the Giants case, something you notice particularly in the TV broadcasts (lots of shots of fans enjoying the action, lots of references to former SF players being "good Giants") and commercials (which play on the notion of fans being integral to the Team).

I'd add that the TV team (usually Kuiper and Krukow) is perhaps most identified with this whole Giants Family thing. Both played for the team, of course, and more than that, with virtually every game telecast, home town fans end up watching at least as much as they listen. The radio guys (a Hall of Famer and a talented up-and-comer) are excellent; I don't mean to disparage them, or pretend they are unimportant. But most Giants fans think of the announcers as "Kruk and Kuip", with even Jon Miller secondary to them.
Kruk and Kuip are the best local team I've ever seen or heard.
In Baltimore, when both the Orioles and the Colts were great, the lead radio announcer was Chuck Thompson, who was also a great announcer. The decline and departure of the Colts and the decline of the Orioles took place roughly as Chuck Thompson left.

The Orioles had a rebound to quality in the mid-1990's when Jon Miller was the lead Orioles announcer. He was pushed out by Angelos after the 1997 season. The Orioles have not had a winning season since then (hopefully to change this year).

Very nice article. My team is the Rangers and the amount of turnover they have had in the TV and radio booth the past few years has been a story within itself here in DFW. The one consistent, Eric Nadel, was just placed into the teams Hall of Fame. But other than him, I could care less for the other pieces they have right now. In the past three seasons, the greatest three seasons in Rangers history, they have had four TV play by play announcers. The first, Josh Lewin, was dismissed because, supposedly, he wouldn't committ to solely doing Rangers games (he was also the radio voice of the San Diego Chargers) and because his style didn't set well with new owner Nolan Ryan or longtime Rangers employee and current Color Analyst Tom Greive. The decision to part ways with Lewin came The day before Game 5 of the 2010 ALDS game with Tampa. Next in line was long time DFW voice John Rhadigan, who had never done sports play by play of any kind. He was dismissed midway through the 2011 season due to what we'll just say is ineffectiveness. He was replaced with Radio play by play man Dave Barnett, who was with the team through the middle of this year but has been on leave ever since dealing with the effects of migranes. If you want to see what led to this, go to YouTube and search Dave Barnett. Currently calling Rangers games is Steve Busby. He moved over from the radio just as Barnett had a year earlier. Hopefully, he is just holding the position for the remainder of the year until Barnett is deemed ok or a replacement can be found. Busby brings something to the game as his understanding of what a pitcher is thinking is excellent. But his nasalily delivery is like nails to a chalkboard to me.
I really liked this article, Adam, and I definitely think there's something to it.

However, I did want to say two things about John Sterling.

I think the Yankees long ago realized that it didn't matter who was on the radio - Yankees fans with no access to a game via TV (now the Internet) are going to listen to Yankees games on the radio, plain and simple. I really don't like Sterling, but I still tune in when I'm driving in the car and the game is on.

Sterling once was an awesome broadcaster: an eloquent speaker, measured, intelligent, with the occasional cliche or bad pun for humor. But over time, he's turned into a cliche-spewing character who so earnestly believes that "You just can't predict baseball, Suzyn". The character is what people expect, and he's so used to playing the part, he just sticks to it. He's also smart enough to know that a decent number of Yankees fans like that character. If you listen to Yankees games on the radio regularly, however, every once in a while the old Sterling (the real Sterling?) comes out and says hi.

When Steinbrenner died in 2010, WCBS in NYC brought Sterling on to talk about the Boss. It was the greatest 5 minutes I'd heard Sterling speak since sometime in the early 90s. He was intelligent, measured, and incredibly eloquent - his voice was almost musical. As soon as I got to a computer, I downloaded the podcast of it and have kept it to this day, as a reminder of what I could be listening to on a nightly basis, instead of being stuck with, "Robbie Cano, don't'cha'know?"

Sterling is a complex person with many characteristics, who shows them all off if you listen closely enough, and sometimes hides who he really is from the rest of us. That sounds like a perfect description of New York to me.
I really enjoyed this article. The Pirates' announcers (Tim Neveritt, John Wehner, Bob Walk, et al) do seem to fit the team and the city well. They're not perfect, but they're "ours" and so we love them. They don't have big aspirations and they aren't big names outside the city. They're folksy and engaging to the majority of Pirate fans. They're optimistic despite years of losing.
As a NYer, I listen to both Mets and Yanks radio broadcasts. Yankees (Sterling and Waldman) are total homers who stick to narratives, and (especially Sterling) loves goofy catchphrases- as you noted above).

The Mets (Lewin and Cohen) are willing to criticize the team and introduce new information, albeit with a few too many puns (Lewin).

In general, Yanks fans like their broadcasts to be pro-Yankee and triumphalistic, Mets fans want to full story, and even a negative story, so they can kvetch over it. Their broadcasts teams do a good job reflecting this.
Cohen is a great play-by-play guy. Lewin is still finding his footing but is oh-so-much-better than Wayne Hagin, who couldn't string together enough words at once to form a cogent sentence or narrate the play as it was happening, rather than after the fact. Yeah, he puns too much, but he and Cohen have a good rapport developing. The only faults I find with Cohen are his resistance to advanced statistics and his moralizing regarding players' off-field behavior.
This is Sutton's second time around with the Braves. The persona is pretty different.

In his first stint --- much of it on TV --- he was, I thought, pretty good. Insightful, analytic and objective. Really good with pitching. But that kind of thing doesn't go over real well in these parts. This was back when Georgia actually cared about the Braves. So he generated lots of talk-radio complaints --- "too L.A.", "cold", "talks too much" --- and was quietly not renewed.

This time around --- radio only --- he's dumbing it down. Folks-ing it up. But he's not dumb. Or folksy. Or funny. He is what he is: in the wrong market.
I agree. I enjoyed Sutton when he was on the Superstation, and he fit in well with the excellent and thoughtful Pete Van Wieren.

I hate to think what Hawk Harrelson says about the Chisox!
Adam, Eddie Gaedel was a midget, not a dwarf. Midgets are small people built proportionally, while dwarfs have normal-sized hands and heads but tiny bodies.

Also, the Atlanta radio crew bellyaches unusually often about the umpires. I leave the analysis to others; I don't know how that serves as an analog for Braves fans or the Atlanta metro.
My mistake! I trusted the wrong sources online. Thanks for the correction.
This is late, but I think important to note: "Midget" as proportional dwarf is something I think we all learned in elementary school, but it's not really true. And a "dwarf" isn't someone with a single medical condition, let alone one that particularly causes disproportionate body parts, but someone with one of hundreds of conditions that cause similar symptoms.

The Wikipedia page is, amusingly enough given some of the content of Adam's article, a good place to start on the issue.
I like relatively low-key announcers who show a deep knowledge of their team and can spice up their patter with interesting thoughts from other parts of life. Listening to Denny Matthews as a teenager is a big part of how I became a Royals fan, or even a baseball fan. He describes everything clearly, and also comes across as a smart, amiable fellow.

I dislike announcers who try to manipulate your emotions by shouting at you, instead of letting the emotion flow naturally from what happens in the game. I also really hate it when they're dishonest about calls. If the umpire missed a call in your team's favor, you should be able to acknowledge that.
As a long-time Phillies fan, I've wondered for years what Chris Wheeler has on team owner Bill Giles that keeps Chris in the booth. Can't stand that man.

Otherwise, the Phillies broadcasters are a pretty mediocre lot. I tolerate Gary Matthews because I liked him as a player, but he's awful. The rest, all vanilla and interchangeable to me.

I miss Harry Kalas, but having read his bio, I'd say he was a great guy as long as you weren't married/related to him, or have your fence or mail box destroyed by him during one of his many DUIs.

Funny stuff in that bio about Richie Ashburn (who stayed married, but lived essentially single from his wife and family for 20-some years) and Harry/Richie's feud with Wheeler (which apparently started because of pot stirring by Harry's 2nd wife, the same woman who had earlier hid her existence from Harry's wife by calling Wheeler to relay messages to Kalas).

Quite the broadcasting booth those '70-'90s Phils had...good group of guys.

This will give you a new appreciation for Sarge:
The Twins team of Blyleven and Bremer is perfect for this state and team. The Twins have always been known to not be very up on statistical analysis and things of that nature, and Blyleven has no clue whatsoever on these things. Minnesotants TEND (not all, i know many twins fans on here that aren't) to be huge homers for their sports, making Bremer the perfect play by play guy, going nuts for any sort of success no matter how unimportant.
Growing up listening to the radio is was always Herb Carneal and Jon Gordon, now that both of them are gone I can barely take myself to listen to the Twins on the radio. I can't say for sure if the new guys are bad or good I just don't like it being different
In this context Mike Shannon seems a man whose time has expired for the Cardinals. He was perfect for St. Louis and the brewery-owned Cardinals; besides playing for the Cardinals, he grew up in St. Louis, and the stories of his on- and off-air drinking are legendary.

I think that the current Cardinals ownership group would prefer the image put forth by Shannon’s substitute when he decides to stay home rather than go on a long road trip (and part-time TV announcer), the milquetoast Ricky Horton. Inoffensive and bland, most of his in-game analysis is as pedestrian and nondescript as his playing career was. Plus, Horton appears as conservative as the Republican party-supporting owners; he’s a longtime member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and decidedly pro-ownership (just last night he decried the influence of agents on the game). If hiring religious conservative Mike Matheny as manager is any indication, Horton is what the Cardinals want their image to be. Give me a lunatic like Shannon any day. He may not offer stats-oriented analysis, but he’s interesting and funny.
Sutton is a typically bland announcer who does overdo the "I don't know anything about modern society" routine. In his defense, however, despite a prevalent barrage of references to its unreliability I've only ever seen one false thing on Wikipedia (which was clearly placed there as a bad joke) and I don't know, want to know, or ever will know anything about the scourge of the world known as that is definitely a point of view that could be on the level.