Let’s Listen to Some Sad Announcers

Jake Burger
Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

The regular season ends this week, which means we’ve only got a few games left with our local broadcast crews. In the playoffs, every game is a nationally televised game. Regardless of how you feel about Joe Davis and John Smoltz, it’s a bummer that you don’t get to hear your local broadcast team in the game’s biggest moments. Not just because they know the club better than whichever national crew is parachuting in to cover the series, but because their voices shape your baseball experience all year long.

The other reason national crews aren’t the same is that they’re neutral arbiters. Baseball is a zero-sum game. Somebody has to win and somebody has to lose, and one team’s joy is another team’s sadness. For six months, our local broadcasters feel that joy and sadness along with us, and then, when the games matter the most, they’re replaced by people who don’t. A national broadcaster’s job is to call the game right down the middle; the words And there’s a long fly ball just don’t have the same heft when they’re spoken by someone whose emotional wellbeing isn’t dependent on where that long fly ball lands. No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.

So before we say goodbye to our regional sports networks for the season (or forever), let’s take a moment to appreciate the apotheosis of the hometown call: the walk-off home run. A walk-off homer can make you feel many things. It can take you from an anxious mess to being of pure ecstatic light in a matter of seconds.

A GIF of White Sox fans behind the plate. In the first frame their sitting nervously. In the second they're on their feet celebrating.

When your team hits one, a walk-off homer can make you want to stand up and dance, or at least to make bodily movements that are in the general vicinity of dancing. Whatever the hell this guy is doing, a walk-off homer can make you want to do that.

But that’s when your team hits the walk-off homer. When the other team hits the walk-off homer, you might all of sudden feel uncomfortable in your own skin. You notice every drop of sweat, every little itch. You decide that your hat doesn’t fit right anymore, your pants need adjusting. Your nose might get very twitchy.

You might even forget which team you’re rooting for entirely, like this guy in the Jose Canseco jersey, going full Arsenio Hall as the Orioles walk off the A’s. Watch him in the background. He’s glowing. He’s radiant. I hope just once in my life to know the kind of pure, unadulterated joy this man exudes as he celebrates a devastating loss suffered by the team whose officially licensed merchandise he’s wearing.

As you can tell from the GIF parade above, I pulled an Epstein and watched every walk-off homer from this season. More specifically, I watched the losing team’s broadcast of every walk-off homer from this season. When it comes to walk-off home runs, there is an enormous difference between the calls of the winning team and the losing team. Here’s Jake Burger walking off the Tigers back on June 4, by way of NBC Sports Chicago’s hometown broadcast:

And here’s that exact same grand slam as called by the visiting broadcast crew. Among a few other extremely subtle differences, you just might notice that during this clip nobody screams, “CHEESEBURGERS FOR EVERYBODY!”

In the first clip, the announcer’s voice cracks. In the second clip, it’s his heart.

I watched all of these videos because I wanted to answer an important question: Which announcers take it the hardest when their teams get walked off? Whose heart can you hear breaking on air? Who gets righteously pissed? Who abandons the conceit of the robust announcer baritone entirely and recites the facts in a bland monotone? Who sulks silently? We’re looking for real, audible hurt, but we’ll award extra points for petulance and pettiness.

Before we start, we should acknowledge the teams that act like grownups. The Phillies, Dodgers, and Mets have all made great home run calls when their teams gave up walk-off homers. That’s not particularly surprising, as those are some of the best booths in the game. When Will Benson walked the Dodgers off on June 7, the visiting crew didn’t even cut to the obligatory reaction shot of the pitcher walking off the field. Instead, they chose tell the story of the exuberant young Reds. It was beautiful.

Lastly, we need to acknowledge the Yankees. Michael Kay may not be your cup of tea, but he really gives it his all when the Yankees get walked off. He sounds so excited that if you were listening from another room, you’d absolutely assume that the Yankees were the ones waiting at home plate to toss a bucket full of Dubble Bubble on a teammate. Sometimes even he gives it the full, “There it gooooooees… See ya!” treatment.

With that out of the way, let’s get to the sad sacks. The calls that drew me to write about this topic in the first place were the ones where the play-by-play announcers just fall into a morose monotone. They say the words they’re contractually obligated to say, but they’re past the point of really trying. Here’s Drew Goodman of the Rockies calling their sole walk-off homer of the season on September 19. I can’t decide whether he’s making this call as he packs up his scorebook or if he’s just sitting there with his elbow on the table and his chin in his hand, but it’s definitely one or the other. It’s a classic case of you can’t hurt me because I don’t even care anymore.

Goodman’s voice is just plain flat. You can hear the life drain out of it over the course of one sentence. “High fly ball, deep left field by Bogaerts; it is…” Then there’s a pause for the moment of truth — the moment when the ball could fall foul, when the ball could fall short, when life still has meaning. And then the moment is over, and Goodman’s voice has dropped five steps from an E to a B. “Gone,” he says, and the tone of that one word tells you that he has nothing left to give. As he recites the facts of the play in a rote monotone, you can practically hear him pulling up the Uber app to see how much the ride back to the hotel is going to cost.

Ryan Lefebvre and Rex Hudler of the Royals have a different approach. They just don’t say anything at all. The other team hit a home run. The game is over. What’s left to say? Life is a cruel prank played on the living. Why dignify it with words?

I went back and watched this homer on the full game feed. Lefebvre stayed silent for more than 30 seconds. By the time he started speaking, the Rangers were done celebrating and Jonah Heim was back in the dugout. The Royals have been walked-off by a homer three times this season. All three times, Lefebvre finishes the call by the time the batter rounds first, then nobody speaks until well after he’s crossed the plate.

This actually isn’t specific to walk-off home runs. Clamming up whenever anyone hits a homer is Lefebvre’s general policy. Presumably, it’s his way of stepping back and letting the action speak for itself, and it works to some extent. You can hear the crowd, the fireworks, and, as Heim approaches third base, eight seconds of hysterical, extremely high-pitched screaming. (The screaming gets even louder after Heim crosses the plate. You’re very lucky that this clip ends when it does.)

But this plan only works when the other team hits a homer. When the Royals hit a homer, Hudler is way too excited to stay silent. Often, he starts gushing like an excited toddler before Lefebvre has even finished his home run call. You can practically hear the adrenaline getting dumped into his bloodstream the instant a Royal barrels up a ball. Here he is reacting to a titanic shot from Salvador Perez with an involuntary Krusty the Clown impression:

A Royals homer turns Hudler into an absolute chatterbox. But when the Royals get walked off? Crickets. I like to imagine that he’s not actually silent in these moments but that he’s mashing his cough button with both hands and cursing a blue streak. I’m sure it’s not true, but that just makes it more fun to imagine.

But we can do better than silence. It’s time for some sass. The Cardinals walked the Marlins off in 10 innings on July 18. As Nolan Arenado prepared for the 0–1 pitch, Miami play-by-play man Paul Severino recited his résumé: “Six walk-off hits. His last was against the Diamondbacks a few years ago.” Next, Arenado absolutely tattooed the ball, and a hint of peevishness crept into Severino’s voice as he updated that résumé.

If you listen carefully, you can hear him click his tongue against the roof of his mouth before he says, “His most recent is tonight.” I know what Severino is doing there. My friend Paul used to do the exact same thing when he was about to say something clever. Just a little click to draw your attention to his next words, a pause to create anticipation. There’s something very petty about this move, and I love it. I don’t know if the wordplay on the distinction between Arenado’s last walk-off hit and his most recent walk-off hit is quite as clever as Severino wants it to be, but he saw an opportunity and he went for it. His team just had its heart ripped out. Why not get cute with the call?

If you’ve been waiting for outright petulance, look no further than Adolis García’s walk-off of the Twins on September 3.

That’s Minnesota play-by-play man Dick Bremer bringing up the fact that García had struck out four times earlier in the game. “García finally makes contact,” is a hell of a way to narrate a 430-foot walk-off that lands in the second deck. I can’t say for sure whether Bremer is going for pettiness in that moment, but it definitely comes across that way. “You may have won the war,” he seems to be saying, “but we won some early battles that turned out not to matter.” It’s a bold argument.

We’re going to finish up with the true winners of this exercise: the sad baseball men. The Pirates have only surrendered one walk-off homer this season, but it gave them a chance to sulk very hard:

“Unfortunately, that’s not what you want to see,” is an appropriately morose reaction when someone beats you by way of a 420-foot homer. But “He’s done that so many times against the Pirates” is the part I love. I checked, and Eugenio Suárez had never done that before. That was his first career walk-off of any kind against the Pirates. On the other hand, Suárez is third among all active players with 25 homers against the Pirates, and he’s the only player who’s hit at least four homers off them in four of the last six seasons. Moreover, the truth of the statement wasn’t the point. The point was the feeling. After sharing a division for seven long years, the Pirates were finally done being terrorized by Suárez. How could he hurt them all the way out in Seattle? But it only took one swing for all that pain to come rushing back.

Our true champions are the Padres. That probably shouldn’t come as a shock, seeing as they’ve got baseball’s worst record in both one-run games and extra-inning games. The Padres have had lots of practice losing close games, including three walk-off home runs. Here’s their most recent walk-off homer, which came at the hands of Spencer Steer and the Reds on June 30:

Don Orsillo gives this call his all. He doesn’t sulk or clam up or let his voice betray anything other than professionalism. Instead he just tells the truth: This hurts. That one really got me.

Here’s the walk-off homer that preceded this one. It came just 11 days earlier, on June 19, courtesy of Mike Yastrzemski:

I have to tell you, when I heard Orsillo say “this hurts” again, I cackled. It’s too funny. Orsillo has a catchphrase, and that catchphrase sums up San Diego’s season perfectly.

So many of the clips in this article are entertaining because the announcer involved lets the mask slip for just a second. They say the words they’re required to say, but they drop the official broadcaster voice they’ve spent their whole lives cultivating and allow their tone to convey their emotions. Orsillo takes the complete opposite approach. He tells the honest truth, succinctly, powerfully, but he delivers this authentic emotion with the same intonation that he might use to tell you that this broadcast was brought to you by Jerome’s Furniture. This hurts.

Davy Andrews is a Brooklyn-based musician and a contributing writer for FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @davyandrewsdavy.

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Mac Quinnmember
5 months ago

There should be a special “there’s a reason these guys are the announcer C team they send on the Colorado trip” category for John Flaherty jinxing an Alan Trejo walkoff homer in July https://twitter.com/awfulannouncing/status/1680715578313457664?s=43&t=f7hEmU-QZ10wneaRX4-fXQ