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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Best in the Booth (2009 Edition)

Obviously, I watch a fair amount of baseball. What sets me apart from many of my equally baseball-obsessed brethren is that I not only watch games pretty much every day for the entire season, but I watch pretty much all the teams. Sure, every year there are a few teams that I get especially interested in (this season it was the Cardinals, Blue Jays, Brewers, Giants, Rays, and Rangers), but I can confidently say that I see a broadcast for every team at least once or twice during the year. In addition to becoming intimately familiar with the league itself (fortunate, in my opinion), I also become familiar with the temperaments and tendencies of each franchise's dedicated broadcast teams (unfortunate).

The sports broadcasting industry is, in general, shamefully replete with incompetence. Those of us for whom watching and discussing sports is merely a hobby have a very hard time forgiving the ineptitude and apparent lack of preparation and dedication consistently demonstrated by men whose job it is to know at least as much as we do ("This is your job!" I scream at the television at least once a week when a supposed expert reveals his gross ignorance by completely misrepresenting baseball history, players, teams, or even the rules of the game). Worse yet, it seems that the commentators who have the least to say (of consequence) are most inclined to fill the airwaves with constant streams of inanity (the soundtrack in hell may be Rex Hudler's description of the "hit and run"). Some days it gets so bad that I have to watch on mute. Sadly, by the end of the season, my evaluation of the broadcast teams is largely a matter of recognizing who angered me the least. And so, the award goes to...

3. WGN/CSN Chicago - Hawk Harrelson & Steve Stone

They aren't perfect, far from it, but I occasionally found myself watching meaningless blowouts and following a rather disappointing Sox team largely because of the pleasant interaction between Stone and Harrelson. It was a dramatic change from the days of Harrelson and Darrin Jackson, who quite palpably disliked each other. Whereas Jackson brought out Hawk's worst tendencies - blatant homerism, constant complaining about umpiring, managing, and player salaries, etc. - Stone does a great job of distracting him from his own judgment by reminding him that he was once himself a ballplayer, and a fairly good one (a well-paid one, too, for the era). Harrelson and Stone are at their best when they analyze pitching sequences from the perspective of both hitter and pitcher simultaneously. Stone tells you what pitch(s) he would expect the pitcher to throw and why, then queries Harrelson about what the hitter would be expecting and what kind of approach would be appropriate. On good days, the outcome of any at-bat seems like the denouement of a Platonic dialogue between The Pitcher and The Hitter. On bad days, Hawk still screams quasi-profane hillbilly euphemisms at everybody on the field...which is, in its own right, rather entertaining in small doses.

2. MLB Network - Matt Vasgersian, Bob Costas, Victor Rojas, Joe Magrane, Jim Katt, Al Leiter, Mitch Williams, Harold Reynolds, Sean Casey, Dan Plesac, Clint Hurdle, etc.

The MLB Network hit the ground running in many ways. While it is still clearly struggling to attract sponsors as a fledgling network in a floundering economy, the programming has been relatively strong. The live broadcast games on Thursday and Saturday nights were no exception. MLB combined experienced play-by-play analysts with inexperienced, but thoughtful (and often funny) former players. The teams varied from week to week, so the relationships were fresh and sometimes even provocative. It was a simple, unpretentious formula which was watchable even on weeks that the pairs (or trios) weren't necessarily clicking. They were able to train the rookie color commentators on the fly, with the knowledge that they wouldn't have to rely on any one of them every week, and nobody had to continue suffering through a bad relationship (i.e. Joe Morgan and Steve Phillips at ESPN). Also, unlike the other national broadcasters - ESPN, FOX, and TBS - MLB showed games from all thirty franchises and their commentators usually evidenced a strong knowledge of the whole league. I expect even more from the MLB Network next season, as the replace some of the dead weight (I'm looking at you, Bill Ripken) and refine their expectations. Nonetheless, it was an impressive inaugural season.

1. KCAL/FSN Prime Ticket - Vin Scully, Eric Collins, and Steve Lyons

Yes, he's still the best. Scully understands baseball broadcasting to an extent none of his colleagues can hope to equal. Somehow he has never shown reluctance towards evolutions in broadcasting technology or the game itself, constantly adapting his own style to the changing world around him. Scully's broadcasts are elegantly sprinkled with anecdotes from his own treasure trove: about players and coaches, current and historical, and from both teams on the field. Despite his decades long association with the Dodgers, Scully still never displays blatant nepotism. A great deal of credit also goes to the research staff, because Scully effortlessly integrates the most fashionable trivia and statistics. The Dodgers road broadcast team, Collins and Lyons, doesn't hold a candle to Scully, but is still better than the vast majority of the league.

Honorable Mentions: Orel Hershiser (ESPN), Ralph Kiner (SportsNet NY/WPIX), Frank Viola (NESN), Bob Carpenter & Rob Dibble (MASN)


Cecilia Tan said...

Great post, Hip. I've been using and MLB Gameday audio for years to check in on the various broadcasters around the league(s). It's mostly radio for me because most of the TV broadcasters I can't stand to listen to. For some reason the radio announcers have a tendency to be better informed.

One of the exceptions is certain of the YES network TV groups on Yankees broadcasts have really developed a nice back and forth. Like you, I've enjoyed it best when they have one pitcher and one hitter in the booth going at things from their differing perspectives. There are times when I think Al Leiter and Paul O'Neill are put on with Michael Kay so that Kay can act as referee, but it's always entertaining. Another interesting pair is pitcher David Cone with catcher John Flaherty, although it would be better if they didn't both have such dull voices. But they don't hesitate to argue or break down the minutiae of the game.

Hippeaux said...

Thanks, Cecilia. Obviously, I have a hard time saying anything nice about the Yankees, but I must admit I've been pretty impressed with Leiter, Cone, and Flaherty. YES, like NESN and MLB, is experimenting with a rotating cast of color analysts. From what I can tell, it's a good idea. Maybe the "talent" is less likely to get burnt-out or sick of each other, maybe they prepare better because they feel like they're competing with the other tandem. Whatever the reason, I applaud any sports producer who shows the slightest flicker of creativity.