Published April 28, 2018
Baseball by its nature is a slow, lazy, languid game. There’s no clock—well, most of the time—and as someone once said, you can’t go into a stall and drain the time away. There’s no taking a knee. The 27th out must be gotten, no matter what, in order to ensure victory. You can’t ignore it, hoping it will go away.
Because of the game’s pace, it’s been a perfect fit for broadcasting, particularly on radio. Who doesn’t remember Saturday afternoons as a kid, with dad messing around in the garage or doing some lawn work, while the Georgian lilt of Ernie Harwell or the “voice of God,” Paul Carey, provided the background sounds from the transistor radio?
TV isn’t quite as romantic for baseball broadcasts but the pace of the game is the same so there ought to be the same amount of effort put forth by the announcing team to let the game breathe. Baseball on radio and TV is about the only form of electronic media where dead air is not only acceptable, it’s sometimes desired.
Yet there’s a difference between dead air and being dead on the air.
If Gibby can’t do this, don’t make him do it
Kirk Gibson knows a lot about baseball, obviously. He played the game, he coached the game, he managed the game. But when he talks about the game, as he does on Fox Sports Detroit (FSD), it’s all you can do to keep yourself from wanting to reach into the booth and nudge Gibby awake.
I’m about to tread on delicate ground here, I know. I’ve already been forewarned by a friend on Facebook: be kind to Gibby; he’s not doing well physically.
To which I promptly retorted: then he shouldn’t be on the air. Otherwise, you’re fair game.
The health reference, of course, is to Gibby’s battle with Parkinson’s disease, which has been well-documented.
I’m not lacking sympathy, but if Gibson is well enough to slog through three-hour-plus baseball broadcasts, then the powers that be at FSD must be fair in assessing what he’s bringing—or more accurately, isn’t bringing, to the show.
I have honestly thought on more than one occasion that Gibson was drugged up. He has sounded that out of it to me. He’s not slurring his speech, per se, but the energy level is somewhere between that of a candle and a burnt out candle.
The wit is there, and so is the knowledge of the game. But Gibson is putting me to sleep, mainly because he sounds like he’s dozing off as well.
Gibson shares booth duties with Rod Allen, whose challenge isn’t staying awake—it’s staying fresh.
‘Who the bleep is Rod Allen?’
Actually, it’s too late for that, because Allen, who played briefly—very briefly—for the 1984 Tigers, hasn’t uttered a word of analysis that isn’t half-baked in years. He’s a cliche machine. Every hard hit ball is one that was “absolutely crushed.”
How little known was Allen as far as his Tigers playing career goes?
Jack Morris, I’m told, once asked a retired broadcasting friend of mine, “Who the bleep is Rod Allen?”
My friend said, “Jack! He played with you on the 1984 Tigers! In fact, he was the starting center fielder the day you threw your no-hitter in Chicago!”
Morris was incredulous. “He was?!”
But this isn’t about Allen’s lack of big league playing time, which I don’t believe is a requirement when providing analysis. But because of the lack thereof, Allen doesn’t have any stories to tell about his days in the big leagues, because how much can you wring out of a cup of coffee?
The New York Mets have one of the best broadcasting analysis teams in the country—Ron Darling and Keith Hernandez. I don’t get a chance to listen to them very often, but when I do, it’s a joy. You have one pitcher and one non-pitcher, for starters. Then you have two guys who were key cogs on a World Series champion. And you have two men who aren’t afraid to call out the hometown guys for transgressions on the field.
Usually I’m not a big proponent of the three-man booth for baseball but Darling-Hernandez is a team to be treasured. Check them out whenever you can.
Allen is stale, Gibson is half asleep and play-by-play man Mario Impemba? Well, the next anecdote he relates will be his first, and Mario’s been broadcasting for eons.
Impemba isn’t bad; he’s just not good. That’s the best way I can describe him. I’m sure his tape would score well in a Specs Howard Broadcasting class project, but as far as engaging the baseball fan—the true baseball fans? Not so much.
Old school is the best school
Now for full disclosure. I am, as you probably know by now, not a spring chicken. I’m old school and crotchety. But mostly I’ve been spoiled by having listened to the likes of Harwell, Carey and George Kell for decades. And even Al Kaline, who could barely string two sentences together in his early days of broadcasting, grew on me.
I often wonder how the announcers of yesteryear would do with all the fancy-shmancy gizmos of today’s broadcasts. All the camera angles, the telestrators, and the analytics stuff now like exit velocity, etc. Because the yesteryear announcer relied on funny stories, corn pone anecdotes and even their own, made up words. I’m reminded of how Dizzy Dean used “slud” for the past tense of slide.
The FSD broadcasts also have this cute thing called “Pick the Stick,” which is nothing more than an inside craps game between the announcers in the booth and in the studio. No one—no one—cares about who wins this thing except the announcers themselves, who have may have thousands of dollars wagered for all we know.
And whenever the Pick the Stick is mentioned, we’re also reminded of how many announcers there are—which are too many.
Where did Johnny Kane come from, for instance? In the words of Jack Morris, “Who the bleep is Johnny Kane?”
Gibson, on the air, sounds to me like the heart and mind are there, but the body isn’t matching the intensity. Ironic, because Kirk Gibson played baseball as if he was still playing football for the Spartans—no holds barred and full bore, with a high motor.
Parkinson’s, of course, bites into that motor, and I can’t help but think that it’s affecting Gibson’s performance on the air. Because I remember Gibby when he first did Tigers games in the late-1990s, early-2000s and he was far more exciting to listen to back then than he is today.
Tigers broadcasts: a lost cause
Allen is better in the studio than he is in the booth. The shorter, more condensed nature of the studio bits don’t allow for much spewing of cliches, unlike a three-hour tour in the booth, which can be fertile soil for such crutches over a 162-game season. FSD would be wise to keep Rod in the studio and get someone with a pulse to join the plastic Impemba in the booth.
Come to think of it, this may be a lost cause.
I guess what I enjoyed about the old school broadcasts was their “less is more” approach to the coverage. It’s fine to have all the cool camera angles et al, but the announcers of my day (see? old crotchety guy alert) didn’t try to fill every second of airtime with babbling. Kell and Kaline together would sometimes go 30 seconds without saying anything between pitches. They were on TV, after all—and we could see what was happening, which in baseball is often not much.
Ernie Harwell once told me that he learned a trick from Red Barber: use a three-minute egg timer to remind you when to give the score, the lack of which can be a frustrating exercise for listeners tuning in.
“WHAT’S THE SCORE??!!!”
But with the egg timer method, Ernie was sure to give the score at least once every three minutes. And Ernie didn’t really need the timer, after all; he was one of the best at blurting out the score frequently. The Red Wings’ Ken Kal is another who gives the score often.
“Zetterberg dumps the puck into the Chicago zone…2-1 Blackhawks…and it’s picked up there….”
The Tigers’ radio team of Dan Dickerson and Jim Price is only tolerable because of Dickerson, who is competent. Price is a disaster. He reminds me of your neighbor who kinda, sorta knows baseball and who won a prize at a silent auction that enabled him to be a color guy for a day. But Price has been living that scenario for decades.
Hall of Fame player Bill Terry once said that baseball must be a great game, for it to be able to survive the fools who run it.
In Detroit, it also must be a great game for it to be able to survive the dunderheads who broadcast it.