The Pirates’ broadcast team has not had the best year. In May, Bob Walk complained about Marcell Ozuna tagging up to advance to third base on a Yairo Muñoz fly ball to deep center field when the Cardinals led 16-4. Walk said, “Can you answer why he was tagging up there?” He continued, “There is no answer. None.” Later, Joe Block said, “Gotta play the game, I guess.” Walk snarked, “Is that what that’s called? I have a problem with that.”
In late May, John Wehner said Derek Dietrich‘s dead grandfather would be ashamed of him because he flipped his bat and watched some of the many home runs he hit against the Pirates early in the season. Specifically, Wehner said on Pittsburgh’s 93.7 The Fan Morning Show, “I heard of him because of his grandfather (Steve Demeter) who used to be a minor league coach for the Pirates. He was the nicest, sweetest guy in the world. He’s rolling in his grave every time this guy hits a home run. He’s embarrassed of his grandson.”
In early June, Steve Blass offered some ill-advised commentary on Braves outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr.’s “jewelry” or “stuff.” After Acuña was hit by a pitch, Blass said, “I was getting ready to say, you know… With a young player doing all that stuff and all the jewelry and all the stuff, back in the day — I’m not saying it’s right or wrong…” Blass made similar comments about Cubs infielder Javier Báez two years ago, saying, “Anybody but Javier Baez. He’s a difficult player for me to root for. I’ll put it that way.” Block asked, “Is it because of his flashiness?” Blass responded, “That’s a nice way of putting it.
That leads us to Wednesday evening, when the Pirates hosted the Cardinals for the second game of a three-game series. The game got out of hand quickly as the Cardinals put up a nine-spot in the second inning and tacked on four more runs in the fourth to make it a 13-4 game. During that fourth inning, when the Cardinals led 11-4, Muñoz was on first base after grounding into a fielder’s choice. He easily stole second base on a 1-0 pitch from Luis Escobar. Play-by-play guy Greg Brown says with surprise in his voice, “The runner steals, ahead 11 to four. Wow.” He continued, “Always wonder about those unwritten rules.” As Walk was explaining how the unwritten rules have changed in recent years, Muñoz stole third base with just as much ease. The Pirates’ infield was playing back, so there was no chance to get Muñoz. The fans at PNC Park began to boo, which Brown used as evidence that what Muñoz did was wrong. Walk said, “I know exactly what would happen now — in a different era.” Brown said, “I’ve never heard the fans boo [over unwritten rules]. Basically, this is — again, these old, unwritten rules, but the fans don’t like it. I guess it’s possible [the fans are] just not happy with Escobar giving them this running lead.”
The camera panned to Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright on the on-deck circle, wearing a helmet with the flap to protect one’s jaw. Walk said, “He’s wearing the right helmet.” Brown said, “I know he wouldn’t like it. He’s still old school. I guarantee you, you get him off to the side and ask him what he thinks, stealing second and third ahead 11 to four.” After Andrew Knizner drew a four-pitch walk to bring up Wainwright to the plate with runners on the corner and one out, Walk snarked, “Gotta watch for the squeeze [bunt], here, huh?” Brown retorted, “Yeah, that’s right. Why not?”
Here is a video of the exchange from Twitter user @VanHicklestein:
The game ended 14-8, with the Pirates rallying for four runs in the final three innings. Though it still wasn’t close, it shows that the game is never really over until the final out is recorded. A seven-run lead in the fourth inning is sizable but not insurmountable, especially not on a hot July night in the era of juiced baseballs. On Tuesday, we saw the Twins take an 8-2 lead after four innings, but the Yankees fought back and eventually on 14-12 in 10 innings. Why Brown and Walk felt that the Cardinals should have given up at that point in the game is anyone’s guess, but given the broadcast booth’s recent history, I have one hypothesis.
For a generation (Walk’s) that looks back on itself with rose-colored glasses, believing themselves to have been rough and tough, they sure want the game to get switched to easy mode at the first sign of adversity. In their brief conversation, Brown and Walk elucidate that teams shouldn’t steal bases nor should they squeeze bunt with a seven-run lead. Anything else? No hard swings? Maybe no swings at all? Just stare at pitch after pitch until the Pirates mount a comeback and reduce the deficit to some sacred threshold.
Baseball is having trouble gaining traction among younger fans for myriad reasons. Among those reasons is that few broadcasters seem to actually like the game they cover on a daily basis. There is no shortage of people in the baseball community, particularly those who are younger and cut their teeth online, who could do as good or a better job while showing unyielding enthusiasm for the game. Take the Statcast-centric broadcast booth ESPN sometimes uses, which features Jason Benetti, Mike Petriello, and Eduardo Pérez. They elaborate on how cool something was by adding data into the conversation. Which is not to say that these broadcast booths should necessarily focus on Statcast data — it is far from perfect — nor should they be relentlessly positive. But so many broadcasters working in the game today are grumpy, ostensibly because the game has changed and passed them by. It’s not good for the sport to have them reaching millions of households on a yearly basis, giving fans every reason to flip the channel and watch something else.