On broadcasting expectationsby Chris Lund
September 19, 2012
Online baseball consumption has taken our ability to watch broadcasts from different markets and driven it to new heights. What was once just a luck of the draw depending on what was being televised on a given night has now become a conscious choice. Researching which broadcast teams are good and which are not so good has become a common practice, and a useful one at that.
As the playoffs near and the number of teams playing baseball begins to dwindle, our decisions over who we want to watch or listen to will be made for us, and there will be many teams that are still playing games with relatively unsavory broadcast teams in the booth.
The question that has piqued my interest is: What can we reasonably expect from a team’s broadcast?
The classic example of an eye-roll inducing broadcaster is former major leaguer Hawk Harrelson, who does television play-by-play for the Chicago White Sox. Harrelson is known for his "distinct" calls:— “He gone”—every time a White Sox pitchers gets a strikeout -- and “Yeeeeeaaaassss”—every time something goes right for the Sox—stick out.
Most see Hawk’s antics as over the top silliness. I find it to be an annoying type of hilarious because I’m easygoing and am inclined to laugh at these things. But this divergence in opinion also led me to consider what we ought to expect from a broadcaster.
Many people are quite adamant about not listening to Harrelson, or any other number of like-minded play-by-play men. It’s simply too hard for them.
At Fangraphs, Carson Cistulli "polled the audience" in February and had readers rank each television and radio broadcast team in baseball on a scale that factored analysis, charisma and overall ability into what makes a broadcast team good.
Which team finished dead last on the TV side? Hawk Harrelson’s Chicago White Sox broadcast, of course. By contrast, it was Vin Scully’s Dodgers home broadcasts that took the honor of top television broadcast. (Note: If someone reading this sentence hasn’t heard Vin Scully call a game, you aren’t living life. Rectify this.)
Now, I may diverge from the opinion of the masses here and argue that these two men are not categorically unlike one another. In terms of execution they couldn’t be further apart. Scully’s approach is steeped in nuance and simplicity while Harrelson is about as subtle as a foghorn in your bedroom.
Categorically speaking however, they each have elements which make them quintessentially them. Scully’s storytelling is absolutely brilliant, tying together Dodgers history with anecdotes on current players and the goings-on of a game. Harrelson’s unique delivery and over the top style make him completely distinct from anyone else. And on the issue of "homerism," whether we choose to admit it or not, every home broadcaster is a homer for his team, Scully included.
When we put it all together, the primary difference here is Scully's style is more widely enjoyed than Harrelson's. However, both men have their own flair.
Broadcasters are there not only to relay what’s going on in a game, but to provide insightand do so in an entertaining way. They can’t be faulted for being homers, even if it is often utterly over the top, as Mr. Harrelson is prone to being.
The demands of a national broadcast are clearly much different. Objectivity is at a much higher premium than in a local broadcast because you are meant to transcend regional audiences. Blatant favoritism in this instance is much harder to stomach. You’re not supposed to pander to a fan base the way some local broadcasters feel feel compelled to.
I raised the question at the top: What can we reasonably demand from a particular team’s broadcast?
We should expect an accurate portrayal of what’s happening, reasonable insight as to why things are happening the way they are, and to be entertained in a way that makes us want to stay there. If you were looking for a gold standard, Vin Scully is a classic case and baseball rightfully cherishes him for it.
You can say what you will about the Hawk Harrelsons of the world—broadcasters who polarize an audience—but they’re entertaining, and I’ll gladly take that over the broadcasters who bring plenty of substance and no style. Harrelson may drive you insane, but he delivers on all rightful expectations you ought to have from a broadcast.
As we near the postseason with the White Sox appearing more and more poised to make the playoffs, perhaps you’ll consider giving Hawk a try. You may grind your teeth, you may laugh with tears at times, but you’ll be hard-pressed to say there’s something else like it. Perhaps that makes it as good as it gets.
And because of that, you can put it on the board. Yes!
References and Resources
Carson Cistulli's full broadcaster ranking list can be found here.
Chris is a writer-at-large and encourages you to talk baseball.
For further baseball discussion, you can follow him on twitter under @thechrislund or send him an e-mail at chris (dot) lund89 AT gmail (dot) com