E11, or, À la Recherche du Tims Perdu: An Introduction
I like baseball. One might even say that I love baseball, although it is a love, much like that of the love I bear for my imaginary spouse of twelve years Uma Thurman, that is almost entirely one-sided. The point is, even when my beloved White Sox are not playing, I will watch pretty much any old ball game that FOX allows to slip through their maddening blackout schedule, even ones that involve the San Diego Padres, a minor league team that ended up in the MLB when George Steinbrenner reneged on a promise to break the Yankees into two separate clubs.
The cost of loving baseball can be high — not only in monetary terms, such as paying for MLB.tv and still not getting to see half the games you want because of Rupert Murdoch’s evil machinations, but in emotional terms as well. One has to tolerate, for example, the insipidness of National League fans, whose devotion to the history and traditions of baseball is so deep that they blame the designated hitter rule for the murder of millions of Jews during the Holocaust, but not so deep that they need to actually pay attention to the game*. One has to put up with endless vaporing from the likes of George Will and Roger Angell about the poetic glories of the sport, and the raging stathead-vs.-intangibles debate, which is as interesting as FRAR and as worthwhile as Rabbit Maranville. But most of all, one has to tolerate some of the shittiest announcers in all of sports.
Baseball, you see, is a game of pauses. This is obvious to anyone who’s watched a game, whether they love or hate the sport. It lacks the constant movement of goalkeeping sports like hockey, soccer and basketball, or the violent punctuations of football; its essential struggle is the endless showdown between pitcher and catcher. It has moments of tremendous action, but they must of necessity come between long moments of contemplative strategizing. In our culture, which values movement and noise and constant dynamic action, this is an unacceptable state of affairs, and now that baseball isn’t the only game in town, its announcers try to ape the constant chatter of other sports’ play-by-play and color men. This can take a number of forms; one of the worst of them comes from the bizarrely respected egomaniac Bob Costas, whose idea of PBP is to provide an ongoing narrative of what he imagines individual players must be thinking. ESPN stalwart Chris Berman covers up a painfully obvious disinterest in baseball with a nonstop stream of empty chatter, reduced from mere idiocy to pure imbecility by his 5th-grade-level nicknames for everyone on the field. Dan McLaughlin, in between drunk driving arrests, keeps up such a steady stream of bafflegab during St. Louis Cardinals broadcasts that you can go get a hot dog, go to the bathroom, and check the rest of the scores in the league and when you come back, he’ll still be calling the same play.
Of course, being an empty-headed loudmouth isn’t the only way to be a crappy baseball announcer. “Psycho” Steve Lyons and “Slumpbuster” Mark Grace, date-rapists of the human soul both, have learned all too painfully the difference between being a ‘funny guy’ who can crack up a locker room full of drunken, pill-popping jocks and being a ‘funny guy’ who can embarrass hundreds of thousands of television viewers. Buck Martinez can be entertaining as long as he is not called upon to accurately describe or interpret anything that is happening on the field at any given time. And Chip Caray and Joe Buck share the mutual burden of being genetically fated to do something they both hate and have no special aptitude for. And then there’s Tim.
Tim McCarver may not be just the worst baseball announcer in the history of the game; he may be the worst person in the history of human language ever charged with the task of communicating something another person is doing to a third party. Fortunes are won on betting on the opposite of whatever Tim McCarver has predicted will happen. He holds a special place in my heart as a White Sox fan**, having made a call in Game 2 of the 2005 World Series so monumentally inept that its only positive benefit was that it shamed him into shutting up for several seconds. The first (and still the best) website to stake its reputation on smart takedowns of sports announcers was called Fire Joe Morgan, one suspects, only because Seal Tim McCarver In An Airtight Metal Canister And Fire Him Into The Heart Of The Sun made for too long a URL.
It is to the doltish mannequin they call Tim that I dedicate this occasional feature, “E11”, in which I watch the broadcasts of a team other than my own and recap not the game, but the announcing of the game — not as a sports broadcast, but as a discrete unit of entertainment. Can the tandem of announcers hold my attention when the game can’t? Are they primarily going for funny? Boring? Toadying? Ignorant? What’s any given announcer’s CSPI (Clichés Spouted Per Inning) rating? Are they good enough to generate a mere nanoCarver of incompetence, or bad enough to brew up a monstrous 0.9 deciCarvers? How long will Len Kasper go without actually talking about what’s happening during the game? How much does Dick Enberg seem to be praying for death instead of having to slog his way through another meaningless Padres loss? Is Ryan Lefebvre off his medication? What in God’s name is the deal with Rod Allen? Would, in short, these games be entertaining if you (like any other sane person) didn’t care about the outcome?
This and other questions will fail to be answered in future editions of “E11”. Please join me starting next week, baseball fans and incomprehensible reference enthusiasts, and remember: baseball is a boy’s game, except for the cursing and drugs and money and whoring and race hatred and the fact that it’s always been played by grown men.
*: Evidence of this can be found everywhere, from Dodger fans leaving the game in the middle of the 3rd inning to beat the traffic to Cubs fans thinking the longest losing streak in the history of organized sport is adorable to the existence of the Wave.
**: I will, of course, recuse myself from writing about White Sox games. I recognize the irony of engaging in a project where I critique the performance of baseball announcers when my own home club employs Ken “Hawk” Harrelson, believed by many to be the most atrocious game-caller in captivity. I disagree with this assessment, but I understand it is quite widespread; the specifics of it are what confuse me. Hawk is a homer, to be sure, but so are a dozen other announcers (the Yankees’ John Sterling is at least as big a homer, and incompetent at describing play to boot; and the Orioles’ Jim Palmer practically works himself into an embolism when things aren’t going their way); and while he certainly over-relies on his catchphrases, he was at least clever enough to come up with them — when was the last time someone quoted something that Thom Brennaman said? Hawk is also passionate about his club, something that cannot be said about the innumerable radio guys who yack about their golf games when they lose interest in the matter at hand. And the accusation of homerism is especially rich when it comes, as it often does, from Cubs fans, who actually erected a statue honoring their drunken, incompetent homer of an announcer (and had another, in Ron Santo, who seemed to sleep through half the games). I’d rather listen to a thousand more games with Hawk at the helm than look at Bob Costas’ stupid hairpiece for five seconds.