Published Feb. 17, 2018
Because of its long history dating back over 150 years, baseball is inherently a game of stories. And its lazy, languid pace is fertile ground for telling them.
I’m not much for today’s TV and radio announcers, quite frankly. They all sound the same. Gone are the lilting accents that gave away the native land of the men behind the microphones.
George Kell was all Arkansas. Ernie Harwell just had to be from Georgia. Just run down the list of the classic announcers: Mel Allen, Red Barber, Vin Scully. Their voices were flush with their heritage.
Today’s play-by-play men all sound like they’re graduates of Specs Howard School of Broadcast Arts. They’re like baseball stadiums of the 1970s: cookie cutter.
And they don’t have any stories. Zero. Zilch. Nada.
A lot of this is because few of them actually played the game beyond Little League. They have nothing to draw upon. It’s all about setting up their color analysts, who don’t have any stories either, even those who are former players.
Yarns between pitches
I remember Kell, the legendary Tigers TV announcer, regaling us at least once every broadcast with yarns from his playing days in the 1940s and ’50s. The stories were straight out of something you’d hear on NPR. And they were all true, though some may have been embellished. Artistic license, you know.
There was the time that a pitcher on Kell’s team (doesn’t matter for what team or in what year) was so angry at a hitter from the opposing team that he told Kell that he was going to throw at the poor guy the next time he stepped to the plate.
But with the targeted hitter in the on-deck circle, the manager came to the mound and made a pitching change. Frustrated but undaunted, the pitcher didn’t leave the game right away. Instead, he reared back and threw the baseball at the object of his venom—as the hitter stood in the circle!
The above story probably took a few pitches’ worth of time to tell on the air, and was only interrupted so Kell could call those pitches. Then, it was back to the story, in progress.
Gardy: around the block and back again
We may not have announcers with stories anymore, but at least in Detroit we have Ron Gardenhire.
The model that teams are using these days is to pair a young-ish GM with a young-ish field manager. Today’s skippers are often devoid of any managerial experience, at any level of baseball. The GMs look like recent graduates of an Ivy League university.
Together they take an analytics-centric approach to the game and at least project an air of being progressive in their thinking.
In Detroit, that model hasn’t taken hold. The GM, Al Avila, is 59 years old. Gardenhire turned 60 last fall. The Tigers are young on the field but old in the dugout and in the executive suite.
But the benefit of having an old-timer like Gardenhire running the team on the field is, you guessed it: the stories.
Take the 1987 Portland Beavers (45-96). Please.
“It was the worst team I ever played on; and it was the funnest team I ever played on,” Gardenhire told the media covering spring training on Thursday. “There were front office guys, GMs, part-owners. We may have sucked as players, but we were smart at sucking. I can’t believe we didn’t lose 100 games.”
Gardenhire talked about the third base coach on that team, future big league manager Charlie Manuel.
“Charlie waved runners home that were already out — I saw him do that more than once. He’d stand down there (in the third base coach’s box), and you’d walk to the plate, three balls-no strike count and he’d go like this (move his hands to form an imaginary telescope) and say, ‘Line ‘em up, Gardy. Line ‘em up.’ He was the best.”
Already since spring training began earlier this week, Gardenhire has held court with the writers on everything from fishing to the need for Motown music blaring from the PA system during workouts, to the 1987 Beavers. And we’re not even seven days into this new relationship.
This is what you get with guys north of 60 years in age. They have tread on the tire and they’ve seen some things. When they’re open to sharing those experiences in the form of vignettes and campfire stories, it’s golden.
It sure can be a diversion from all the losing that’s expected to happen on the field in 2018. For the media, and for the fans.
Gardenhire may be 60—which isn’t ancient, by the way; take it from this 54 year-old blogger—but he clearly is rejuvenated. Not being able to manage a team since the end of the 2014 season ate at him. Functioning as Torey Lovullo’s bench coach last season in Arizona was nice, but it was still one seat over from the manager’s. And that one seat for a manager lifer like Gardy is the epitome of “so close yet so far.”
This week, Gardenhire was into it. He was providing lots of on-field chatter. He took some grounders at first base. He openly (and loudly) campaigned for Motown music to workout by. He was happy to talk about what could be a bad team.
He will be fun to listen to this season and beyond.
Much more so than the broadcast grads in the booth.