As I mentioned in the recaps this morning, I watched the SportsNet L.A. feed of the Padres-Dodgers game yesterday afternoon. I wanted to hear what it was like to take in a home Dodgers game without Vin Scully.
The answer? Not bad. Vin was the greatest broadcaster going and, apart from Ernie Harwell, who I grew up listening to in the 70s and 80s, the greatest I’ve ever heard, but we’ve known baseball was going to move on without him for some time and there’s no use crying over his absence. I mean, he’s not dead. He was getting his car washed and buying bug repellent yesterday.
I watched a couple of Dodgers games with new lead play-by-play man Joe Davis last year (I tend to only watch west coast Dodgers games because they come on after Braves games) and I’ve watched many with Orel Hershiser, Charley Steiner and others over the past several years, so it’s not like this was unprecedented. I gave them a fair hearing yesterday and they did well enough.
Davis was particularly good. He has a pleasant voice and paces himself well. None of that “THIS thing that JUST HAPPENED is THE MOST AMAZING THING THAT HAS EVER HAPPENED IN THE WORLD” stuff. At one point Joc Pederson hit a grand slam to break the game wide open. Davis did not call it like it was the 7th game of the World Series. It was April 3 against a bad team and Davis gave it its appropriate due without laying it on too thick. He handled it and just about everything else very well, in fact. I think Dodgers fans will grow to like him quickly if they don’t already. It’ll just take some getting used to. He’s not our real dad, but he’s going to be fine.
Hershiser is far more familiar, of course. He has a pleasant voice and genuine demeanor. That’s way more important than people tend to acknowledge, by the way. Indeed, it’s like 65% of the battle. If he and Rick Sutcliffe said the exact same things Hershiser would be far, far better because he doesn’t have the tone of the guy at the next barstool trying to convince you that, yes, he was a child actor and was supposed get the role of Mikey in “The Goonies” but lost out to Sean Astin because of “politics.” Sutcliffe and a lot of other color guys have a tone that suggests they’re sorta full of crap in ways that don’t really matter but which is still annoying — they’re always two sentences away from trying to sell me on that optional undercoating — and Hershiser never comes off like that. He’s a genuine-sounding dude.
But there’s a still a problem with him. It’s not even his fault. It’s the fault of the very nature of the two-man broadcast booth in the 21st century.
One upon a time, two-man booths were like tag teams. One guy took the lead calling the action while the other one would remain silent for long stretches, chiming in only when something truly notable happened. His primary job was to step in and call a few innings himself, giving the primary play-by-play guy a breather. Bob Uecker is one of the few who still works this way now, but it was common in the past. Ernie Harwell had Paul Carey on WJR broadcasts and they used to trade off. Same with Ernie Johnson and Pete Van Wieren on Braves TV and radio. When the second banana wasn’t doing play-by-play he’d maybe say something a couple of times an inning. He was, by definition, the guy adding some color, not the guy painting the picture.
Somewhere along the line, however, someone decided that a color commentator is supposed to analyze the living hell out of everything. Every pitch. Every play. And in between pitches and plays he’s supposed to talk about pitches and hitting approaches ad nauseam. How Shlabotnik learned his cutter and holds his cutter and thinks about his cutter when he’s waiting in line at the bank. How Jingleheimerschmidt worked with some hitting guru in the Andes on load-shifting in the offseason. How this or that arm slot, attack angle, or random bit of pressure can affect this or that throw or swing or defensive positioning. Throw in a crack statistical intern and a graphics package that costs the same as some African nations’ GDP — all of which leads to new avenues of analysis — and you have a broadcast with sensory overload.
And this is coming from a guy who writes and talks about baseball for living. If I’m overwhelmed by it, how do you think casual fans feel? Maybe they don’t think about it too much because that’s the way it’s been for a good decade or two, but ask yourself: how many of the topics your average color commentator covers are things you talk about with your friends when you talk about baseball? Yes, I know the analyst knows more about these things, but I mean as far as general topic of conversation. Do you talk about how Shlabotnik learned his cutter? Do you care? Do you talk about what Jingleheimerschmidt was doing over the winter? I don’t know many fans who do. Some of it can be interesting, but it’s mostly trivia. It’s clutter in the form of overanalysis. It’s also sort of exhausting and increasingly leads to one losing one’s place in the game.
At least half of all broadcaster babble is filler like that as opposed to useful stuff relating to what just happened in the game or what might happen next. And to be honest, we don’t even need them talking that much about what happened in the game or what might happen next. If it’s on TV we just saw it and rarely is it confusing. When it is confusing, great, let’s hear from the color guy. But otherwise, it’s all too much. Let the game unfold. We manage to enjoy it just fine when we go to the ballpark. Indeed, when I’m at the ballpark, the only thing I tend to miss is someone reminding me of the count and who’s on base once in a while.
Older broadcasters, whether they were solo or whether they had a guy in the booth with them, used to understand this better. Rather than engaging in constant talk with their analyst partner — almost always an ex-player who cares a lot about ex-player things such as where someone learned a cutter and who’s a good guy in the clubhouse — they talked to us, the viewer. I want broadcasters to do that more. To talk to us. To give us the count and tell us who is on base once in a while. To, occasionally, tell us some backstory. Mostly I just want them to lay off the war room approach to analysis and the constant, constant chatter.
I think the best way to do this is to bring back the solo announcer. There isn’t going to be another Vin Scully any time soon, but Vin Scully will probably be the first person to tell you that he wasn’t always Vin Scully. He was once a green kid who learned his craft over time. I think a lot of us would be happy with someone half or two-thirds as good as Scully. They’d get there by making the game a more pleasant experience for their having called it. They’ll get there by not assaulting us with too much inside baseball jazz. Ask yourself: how often did Vin Scully talk about how Shlabotnik held his cutter?
Maybe SportsNet LA should give Joe Davis a shot at it. He’s young and he’s good. He had the best mentor on the planet and he still talks to him on the phone. Wouldn’t another 40 years of a great solo broadcaster in L.A. be a better tribute to Vin Scully than a plaque in the press box?
I bet Davis could pull it off. I’d love to see them let him try.