We don’t often write about broadcasters on this site. The men and women who put the action into words are the ones who provide the first storyline for a game, and at their best they blend observation with insight, allowing the best moments to tell themselves. Of course, they’re usually terrible, and it’s a long, long way down from Vin Scully to Chip Caray. It’s a hard job to try to tell the game as a story that’s equally meaningful to every listener, because the baseball audience is so split between fans who really only understand the game through the lens of back-of-the-card stats like wins and RBI, and fans who hear the word “run producer” like nails against a chalkboard. And playoff baseball frequently brings out the worst commentators, usually multisport announcers who don’t have any familiarity with the teams they’re calling, and so try to mask their ignorance with lame humor or a moral high hand. As John Collins writes at Neon Tommy, “This is the time of year when baseball broadcasts should be at their best, yet the national broadcasters who get dropped in the booth make sure the coverage is at its full-blown worst.”
Back in February, Jon Sciambi, one of the better broadcasters, wrote a great piece for Baseball Prospectus about how broadcasters can bridge the gap, but it’s clear that we’re not there yet. Last fall, TBS took a ton of flack for the miscues of the gaffe-prone Chip Caray (“Line drive base hit… CAUGHT!“), and so they fired him and replaced him this year, first with regular TNT basketball analyst Ernie Johnson, Jr., and then with the aggressively bland Dick Stockton. (Like Caray, Johnson is the son of a longtime Atlanta Braves announcer, and both have called Braves games this year. Newsday’s Neil Best correctly judged Johnson an upgrade over Caray.) Their ratings have dipped nonetheless, as my colleague Maury Brown predicted back in September.
Bill Simmons has written about the terrible state and haphazard selection of announcing teams in basketball and football; he’s been complaining for a decade, but the situation has hardly improved. The problem seems to be that networks few their broadcasting teams and studio analysts as a calling card, a sort of equivalent to “the best political team on television,” when, for the most part, they’re just furniture. The New York Daily News’ Bob Raissman tactfully refers to the TBS studio analysts as “The Valley of the Stupid Gasbags.” Especially during the playoffs, when TBS and Fox are the only show in town, and even mlb.tv is only available to viewers outside the US and Canada, there’s just no choice involved in the matter.
(I ponied up for mlb.tv’s $9.95 supplemental coverage, which allows you to view the play from different angles. But it isn’t an edited television feed, it’s just the raw feeds from the various cameras. So you can’t actually watch the action of the game and see where the ball is hit. It’s kind of cool, but also incredibly disappointing — especially if, hypothetically, you’re at work during a playoff afternoon game and trying to watch it from your computer, like the World Cup or March Madness. Hypothetically.)
TBS didn’t exactly learn the wrong lesson from the Chip Caray debacle: Caray is excitable and loud and frequently yelps before thinking, which lends itself to verbal snafus. He has never been able to enhance the moment. Stockton is boring, but at least not deleteriously so. His old-school tendencies were on full display during the Braves-Giants series, when he failed to make note of Paul Emmel’s blown call on Buster Posey, and repeatedly pronounced the word “error” as “erra,” as though he were a 19th-century Brooklynite. But he has called a decent game. As Matthew Coller wrote at The Biz of Baseball:
TBS’s baseball coverage hasn’t been terrible by any stretch, it’s been exactly what we expected. It’s been regular old vanilla baseball, and minus the yellow jackets (except Craig Sager) we could have seen similar coverage in 1981. That’s how baseball is, I suppose. But, when the YES network and almost every affiliate has super slow-motion cameras, when every team has professional baseball sideline reporters and when MLB Network features more exciting analysts, we are left to wonder: Is this all as MLB on TBS will ever be?
Since Major League Baseball is committed to selling postseason games as a block to a network, we won’t see an end any time soon to the problem of national broadcasters calling local playoff games. Until we at Fangraphs can identify more rigorous metrics to determine who the best and worst broadcasters are, we’ll have to trust our own ears. And plug them whenever Tim McCarver starts to speak.
Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times, and is an enterprise account executive for The Washington Post.