Jazz, Baseball, Politics and the Beltway Blues: Our American Dialogue, Part II
Of the Hall of Fame broadcasters in the booth that day, it was Russ Hodges (accompanied by partner Harry Caray) who actually did go wild, making his now-famous call for the Giants on WMCA-AM. Hodges' over-the-top partisanship was in direct contrast to the standards of the day, set largely by people who considered themselves bound by pre-radio-journalism ethics (to such an extent that Red Barber was openly critical of Hodges' shouted call), i.e., people who were more naturally comfortable writing a story than talking into a microphone.
Announcing a baseball game changed after 1951. Television was in its infancy then and not yet taken too seriously in sports broadcasting, a field dominated by local AM radiowhich in 2012 has been entirely replaced by local cable stations who actively encourage their team-sponsored announcers to develop a unique brand or style that is equal parts bullshit and bravadoand national cable television interests, whose corporate approach enriches MLB coffers to the tune of over $800 million annually while branding their product with Madison Avenue graphics and soft rock, and encouraging their announcers to have nothing to say whatsoever. Describing and analyzing the action on the field have disappeared with AM radio. Cozy chatter and entertainment seem to have taken priority over cogent analysis.
A good number of baseball writers still consider the details and nuances of the game to be highly relevant. And to this day, oddly enough, stadium security will eject local print journalists who cheer a particular organization, while giving free rein to radio and television broadcasters, who are often employees of individual teams.
But there's also been a growing trend in some corners of the television industry that began anew with ESPN's hiring of Harold Reynolds in 1996. It is catching on. Slowly, of coursethe idea that a well-spoken, opinionated ex-major leaguer would be a more valuable analyst than a golden-throated communications major is apparently a difficult concept for network execs, who struggle to find a way to introduce journalistic quality time into their bigamous marriages to Ms. Lowest Common Denominator and Ms. Bottom Line. So for every Dennis Eckersley over the years, there has always been a Steve Lyons; for every John Kruk, a Tim McCarver.
Intelligent Analysis Comes of Age
This year, lightning struck at TBS.
By the end of the first broadcast in New York, these two had raised the bar for baseball announcing. Instead of fatuous deliberations pointing out the obvious, uttered with studied gravitas and practiced diction by the usual collection of microphone milquetoasts (second-division ex-major-leaguers who can't really analyze the game, side by side with play-by-play scions, or recently-fired-but-available managers) viewers were treated to a quantum leap in insightful baseball analysis. Not resting on their considerable Hall of Fame bona fides, Ripken (a 98% first-round inductee) and Smoltz (likely, when he becomes eligible) chose to exercise their extensive knowledge and expertise in detailed, highly intelligible discussions of pitching strategy, hitting psychology, base running skill and talent vs. mistakes, the limitations of athletic prowess, expectations for specific pitchers and hitters on different ball-strike counts (not the generic pablum of accepted wisdom), how good infielders will adjust their field position and footwork, etc. These two professionals were like two retired surgeons who'd kept entirely current on their medical journals.
More accurately, Smoltz and Ripken were effective thinkers and communicators, reminiscent of an old-school broadcast team like Bob Wolff and Joe Garagiola, or even Chet Huntley and David Brinkley. They were as engaged and aware of the nuances of the game as they had been as active players. There were no corny stories, no distracting asides, no gauzy remembrances or comparisons of the current state of baseball to the way it was played back in the day, no cheap or insincere praise. Each offered unapologetically frank viewpoints based on high-level observations of the game. There were opinions offered occasionally, but not peevishly. They were almost clinical in their examination of mistakes or poor play, which of course made their positive comments far more valuable. Hopefully, Joe Garagiola the Elder got a chance to see them in action. He would have been proud.