Thursday, February 23, 2023

Local Rules in Baseball Broadcasting

Baseball is at its best when brought to you by local broadcasters — a fact that always seems to elude MLB's "brain trust."

My parents separated when I was very young. I had few memories of my father until I went and found him in my early twenties. I was not close to my grandfather, either. In fact, I had no male role model in my life at all. It was left to me to decide which sports teams I would root for, although the limitations of broadcast television played a significant role. In those days, entertainment still came into houses over an antenna.

The Mets won my heart in baseball, mainly due to the relative strength of Channel 9's reception. Where I grew up, a suburb of New Haven, Connecticut, WOR's signal was the strongest of all New York stations. (Even so, tuning in a watchable picture was often challenging.) When the Mets won the World Series in 1969, my first year rooting for them, I thought it would go like that forever. Little did I understand what I was getting myself into.

Still, I was spoiled in one respect. The Mets' broadcasting crew of Ralph Kiner, Lindsey Nelson, and Bob Murphy were all outstanding. I grew up in baseball, learning the fine points of the game from this legendary group and taking it all for granted. It took me many years to realize that most teams' crews were far less talented. For a boy who grew up without anyone capable of explaining the game to him, the excellence of the Mets broadcasters was formative and essential.

Things began to change in a big way in 1979. I had turned 20 the previous October, starting the first decade of adulthood. Lindsey Nelson left the Mets to head out west to San Francisco, breaking up the band after 17 years with Ralph Kiner and Bob Murphy. The Mets were amid one of the worst stretches in their history, and the cable tv network SportsChannel New York began to carry some of the games. My neighborhood was not yet wired for cable, so, for the first time in my life, some Mets games broadcast on television were unavailable. As for the ones that still were, Lindsey's replacement Steve Albert just didn't click for me. When Albert left after 3 seasons, I didn't mourn the loss.

It was a period of dramatic upheaval in Mets broadcasting, at least in contrast to the stability of those first 17 years. I barely remember Lorn Brown, who spent a single season in the booth in 1982. In fairness, I watched less baseball in 1982 than in any season up to that point. This was despite the arrival of cable tv in my life, affording a previously undreamed-of picture quality with that iconic box remote connected by a wire to the other box that sat on top of the tv. The Mets were a terrible club in those years, and I was more interested in chasing girls than in watching them lose. 

But I still watched my share of games when I could find the time, despite the churn in the broadcast booth and the poor product on the field. Being a Mets fan was in my blood, like an incurable disease. But things were slowly beginning to look up, hinting at better days to come as some of the pieces started to fall into place.

In 1983, Mookie Wilson was already beginning his fourth MLB season, but the ballclub around him was still pretty terrible. 38-year-old Tom Seaver had returned to the Mets to lead their pitching staff. Tom was still pretty good, if no longer the invincible pitcher of the previous decade. George Foster was beginning his second season with the Mets. Although he came to New York with great expectations, it was already clear that Foster was just a shell of the great player he had been with the Reds. John Stearns and Craig Swan were highly talented players who just couldn't avoid injuries. All in all, the 1983 Mets were destined for one last 90+ loss season that would see manager George Bamberger resign that June, stating that he had "probably suffered enough."

The month before Bamberger left, top prospect Darryl Strawberry had been promoted to the big leagues. Darryl's start only contributed to his manager's suffering. He slashed .164/.218/.315 in May, with a whopping 29 Ks in 78 PA. But Daryl also hit 3 HRs that month and was slowly figuring out NL pitching. He would go on to be named Rookie of the Year. A couple of weeks after Bamberger departed, the Mets swung a trade with the Cardinals for Keith Hernandez. At the end of the season, pitching prospect Ron Darling got a callup. Things were decidedly looking up, and 1983 was the final season of that awful stretch of Mets' baseball.

1983 also featured the debut of broadcaster Tim McCarver. It's hard to explain to fans too young to experience that era what a seismic change McCarver's style brought to Mets baseball. Even in the heyday of Kiner, Nelson, and Murphy, the style of calling games was more focused on straight reporting on the action. McCarver was fine when describing the action, but he also brought an added dimension by offering his opinion on what was happening on the field — voicing informed and intelligent observations spiced with his unique, entertaining sense of humor. McCarver would even question the manager's decisions, which had been taboo in baseball broadcasting.

McCarver's partner in the booth, Ralph Kiner, was 61 in 1983. Although a beloved Mets icon, Ralph was widely seen as past his prime. When he had been teamed with Lorn Brown the previous season, the output of that duo was not great. I wondered if Kiner was going to be a Mets broadcaster much longer. 

But, besides his own unique talent for calling games, McCarver was a great collaborator in the booth and seemed to bring out the best in his partner. McCarver and Kiner were great together. They genuinely enjoyed each other's company, and Kiner's contributions were excellent. Even some of Ralph's famously overused anecdotes seemed quirky and fun when he was bantering with Tim. A second golden age of Mets broadcasting was about to begin, just as the team itself was awakening from the doldrums of those 7 terrible seasons.

The original team of Kiner, Nelson, and Murphy had begun my baseball education. I was 24 the season McCarver began calling Mets games, ready to go deeper in my understanding of the game and past the unabashed hero worship of youth. Tim arrived at a very opportune time for me. He was the primary tutor in the next stage of my baseball instruction. I already mentioned McCarver's gift for collaborating in the booth. Tim's style was collaborative with the viewer, also. He made you feel as if you were a part of the discussion. Even a bad game could become interesting when you shared it with Tim and Ralph.

Things really elevated in 1984, Tim's second season in the booth. Keith Hernandez had elected to return to the Mets. Frank Cashen had made a foolish mistake in not protecting Seaver in the free agent compensation pool that existed in those days, but he was replaced with 19-year-old phenom Dwight Gooden. The Mets' rotation became a strong point, with Gooden, Darling, Walt Terrell, and Bruce Berenyi. In July, Sid Fernandez, acquired in a trade with the Dodgers, came up to the big league club.

That club was also much stronger in position players. Joining Hernandez, Strawberry, and Mookie that year were youngsters Wally BackmanRafael Santana, and Kevin Mitchell. Billy Beane, a highly-touted first-round pick, made his MLB debut in the Mets' outfield that September, managing only a single hit in 10 ABs. Beane would only accumulate 300 ABs in his 6-year major league career, but would find more success later in Oakland's front office.

After 7 dreadful seasons of bad baseball, the 1984 Mets amassed 90 wins. At the time, it was the second-highest win total in their history, trailing only the 1969 World Champs. They battled the Cubs for the Eastern Division title all year, coming up just a little short. But the Mets had stopped being a bad joke and become relevant again. Along with the drastically improved product on the field, Tim McCarver's excellent work in the booth helped make New York Mets telecasts an event you didn't want to miss.

As I look back on it, McCarver's voice formed the soundtrack of that legendary era of Mets' baseball. That made Tim's passing last week even a bit sadder for me. I was filled with memories of McCarver making great calls. One I'll always remember is from August 27, 1986. It was a weeknight game against the Padres in San Diego. I stayed up late watching it, despite having to wake up very early for work the next day. The Mets carried a 5-1 lead into the bottom of the 8th behind 7 strong innings from Doc Gooden. But the normally dependable Roger McDowell allowed San Diego to tie it up.

A past-his-prime Goose Gossage was good enough to keep the Mets off the board in the 9th and 10th, but cracked in the top of the 11th. A Keith Hernandez sac fly scored Lenny Dykstra to put the Mets up by a run. Doug Sisk, in his second inning of work, allowed a leadoff double to Gary Templeton. But then Sisk knuckled down and struck out the next batter. Tim Flannery was next up. He was 0-5 up to that point, but of course, he ground a single up the middle that seemed certain to score Templeton. I remember thinking I had given up most of my sleep to stay up and watch the Mets blow two leads late. But CF Lenny Dykstra charged the ball and made a perfect throw home to nail Templeton. When Flannery inexplicably tried to go all the way to third on the play at the plate, catcher John Gibbons threw him out for a wild double play that was one of my favorite Mets games of that memorable season. Tim and Ralph's call on the play was as wonderful and memorable to me as the play itself.

Reading about Tim McCarver's passing this week brought a flood of memories of so many Mets games that Tim called from 1983 until the Mets stupidly fired him after the 1998 season. Ironically, McCarver's career calling Mets games, which had begun with the start of one great era, ended as another was just getting underway. Tim's famous outspokenness was finally his undoing. The second Golden Age of Mets broadcasting had come to an end. It wasn't until 2006, when Gary, Keith, and Ron became the broadcast team for SNY, that the Mets booth would become a must-listen again.

This piece, already much longer than I intended and a couple of days late in posting because of that, has evolved over several days of writing. It began as a tribute to McCarver's broadcasting prime calling Mets games. Again, I can't overstate to those of you too young to have experienced those times just how much of a game-changer Tim McCarver was in the booth. There have been many excellent game-callers over the years, but McCarver was more than that. He changed the way games are called with his brash, innovative style. But he did that while remaining eminently inclusive and likable in his style. The soundtrack for Mets games of that era was warm and welcoming, but it was also challenging in that Tim made you think a little deeper about the game of baseball. For that, I'll always be grateful.

But there's a more significant point here — one that I believe has great relevance for these times. I plan to write about baseball broadcasting in a larger context this season. The regional sports network phenomenon that has fueled baseball's growth for so long seems to be slowly running its course. RSNs owned by Sinclair Broadcasting's Diamond Sports Group are heading into bankruptcy, with the possibility of defaulting on their rights fees. MLB itself may take over the distribution of games for these clubs, including allowing more streaming options. This is a subject that we'll discuss further in future posts.

Where this pertains to what I've written today lies in the talk that MLB eventually will take all of the broadcast rights from individual teams and distribute games themselves. One thought behind all of this is taking the rights money from individual teams and pooling it like the NFL does, with the goal of lessening the revenue gap between small and large market teams. One of my bigger worries here relates to my final point about Tim McCarver.

Along with his partner Joe Buck, Tim McCarver was reviled for the cacophony of intrusive noise they produced during their run together calling baseball on FOX. It saddened me to listen to these games and contrast the performance with the Tim I remembered so fondly. What the hell happened? Did McCarver lose all of his abilities as he aged? All of us decline a bit as we grow older, but this was hardly the explanation.

I believe the answer is, at its core, quite simple. Baseball is the one sport that is played almost every day during its long season. It is best served by local broadcasters who call the vast majority of a team's game and know their club intimately. Moreover, the constant presence of these folks in our lives — especially fans like myself who consume a majority of their team's games — creates an intimacy that is an essential ingredient to the fan's enjoyment of a broadcast. When Tim McCarver was calling Mets games on FOX, he was no longer the guy who knew the club so well. He had no relationship with any fan base, either. He fell into the same traps that all national broadcasters seem to trip into when a national network rudely bogarts a game away from the folks you wish were calling it.

When national outlets such as FOX and ESPN take over a game, they can't provide that intimate knowledge of the teams on the field. They were somewhere else last week and will be in a new place next week. So they overcompensate for what they can't bring to the table by not allowing a game to breathe. They talk too much and rely on gimmicks like long interviews during actual game play. It's sort of like being invited to a party where you expect to see good friends and folks you know best, but instead, the room is filled with strangers trying way too hard to impress you and inevitably failing. 

If MLB eventually completely takes over broadcasting from local clubs, my biggest fear would be a bunch of folks making decisions about broadcasting games that have little or no accountability to the fans who consume them. I don't want Tom Ricketts, Dick Montfort, or Robert Nutting to have a substantial say in how Mets games are produced. I don't trust these guys to make the best choices. I can imagine a future where, as a cost-saving device, broadcasters don't travel with teams. You turn on the Mets game in Atlanta, and your only choice is the awful Braves announcers. Not good for fans, but more money in these jackasses' pockets.

I understand that we're years away from MLB controlling broadcast rights, but I do believe that's where baseball is eventually heading. I honestly do worry that they will inevitably fail miserably to understand the relationship that is essential to building a true relationship with fans. Sever that relationship, and you have the sad reality of Tim McCarver on FOX, instead of the greatness of his years in New York. But that's a subject for another day. For today, I'm going to fondly remember the Tim that I admired, an essential voice for those fine Mets teams of the mid-to-late-80s. Rest in peace, my friend who I never actually met.

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