Last summer, the bosses at NESN decided not to renew Don Orsillo's contract as the team's play-by-play man. NESN bungled that decision, as well as its very public aftermath, about as badly as it was possible to bungle anything. Orsillo's ousting was tremendously unpopular with most Red Sox fans. He had been the TV play-by-play man since 2001 and for many fans, he was the only Red Sox TV announcer they had ever known. Even now, it's still a bit of a mystery why Orsillo, who is now broadcasting for the San Diego Padres, was dumped. NESN filled his empty chair with Dave O'Brien, who moved over from the WEEI radio booth. Jerry Remy, working in his 29th season, remained in the booth as O'Brien's partner.
My complaints about NESN's baseball coverage are myriad and well-known. Two disappointing Red Sox campaigns in 2014 and 2015 meant that I stopped watching the team midway through the season. But even early in both seasons, when I was tuning in every night, I did not listen to Orsillo/Remy. I always chose the "ballpark sound" option, available with the home team's feed. Sometimes, I listened to the radio broadcast with the TV on mute.
Opening Day 2016 was the first time I had listened to a NESN baseball broadcast since 2013. I did not watch any spring training games, so the games in Cleveland were my first opportunity to hear O'Brien/Remy. I am familiar with O'Brien, because of his work in the Red Sox radio booth and his national work with ESPN. I had also read at SoSH that Remy was much more engaged last season than in previous years, offering actual analysis as opposed to simply echoing Orsillo's play-by-play. I was very curious how the two men would work together.
Game 1 - Tuesday
O'Brien is a welcome improvement over Orsillo (which, having heard O'Brien on the radio, I knew would be the case). After Monday's game was postponed, he opened Tuesday's broadcast by introducing himself and addressing Red Sox fans directly and personally (a move made necessary by the poorly-received decision to replace Orsillo):
Hi everybody, welcome here to Cleveland for Opening Day. I'm Dave O'Brien, brand new to the NESN TV booth this year, not brand new to Red Sox baseball. I have been next door on radio for the last nine years, certainly not new to Red Sox Nation. As a Quincy boy, I was born into that. I've had a long career in major league announcing. This is my 26th year at the microphone and I've had a chance to do some incredible things. I've called the World Series nine times, called eight no-hitters and called the last three Red Sox World Championships.
But the greatest honor of my career is to be able to sit in this booth as the voice of the Red Sox for the days, weeks, months and hopefully years to come. I hope you will invite me in as a friend and I hope I can earn your trust as well, just as you gave to Don Orsillo. And before Don, Sean McDonough. And before Sean, Ned Martin and all the way back to the days of Curt Gowdy, an amazing list of all the talented Red Sox broadcasters. I'm going to come to the booth every day and work hard. I'm certainly not going to be perfect, but I'm going to be candid and honest and I'm going to call them like I see them.
And I love to laugh. I think baseball can be a very, very funny game. I'm very passionate about it. I love to have a good time in the booth. So, by way of introduction, that's me.
I found it interesting that O'Brien noted that he likes to have fun in the booth and that baseball can be a funny game. It was the off-topic banter and gigglefests between Orsillo and Remy that many fans loved.
O'Brien is a solid play-by-play man, and he has not changed his descriptive approach even though he is on TV. Where Orsillo recited (often irrelevant) statistical factoids about each player, reciting them more or less verbatim from the daily press notes, O'Brien offers more informative background on the players. Where Orsillo was regimented - with his catchphrases and set-in-stone ways of describing events - O'Brien's style is far more casual, more conversational.
In the fourth inning, O'Brien recounted a story about Travis Shaw, who started at third base over Pablo Sandoval. Shaw's father, Jeff, played major league baseball and Joe Bick was his agent. In April 1990, the day after Travis was born, Bick told Jeff that his newborn son would be his client in 2008. And guess what - that's exactly what happened! (In verifying this improbable story, I found that Alex Speier recounted the tale for Baseball America in 2012.)
Remy was more animated and engaged than I recall him being in years past. He expressed surprise that the Cleveland infield did not employ an extreme shift on Shaw in the second inning. Most teams do, and Shaw exploited that non-shift for a hit.
Remy was impressed with how hard Hanley Ramirez worked at learning how to play first base during the spring. Remy also broke down Ramirez's swing in the third inning, calling attention to how pull-happy Hanley had become in 2015, trying to hit the ball 900 feet in batting practice. This year, Ramirez has eliminated the "violent" legkick from last season, in which he lifted his front leg high as he strode into the pitch. Remy said a more subtle stride had calmed his swing down and would likely result in more solid contact.
The afternoon was cold, the temperature never rising above 35 degrees, and Remy told viewers that many players, such as Dustin Pedroia, often will wear two pairs of batting gloves to keep their hands warm. Remy said that Mookie Betts will sometimes wear three pairs: "small, medium, and large".
O'Brien and Remy did make some errors, however. Because of the cold weather, which they said would favour the pitchers, and because both starters (David Price and Corey Kluber) were former Cy Young Award winners, they believed both teams might try bunting and playing small ball, hoping to eke out a run here or there, which might be the difference in the game. They noted that even someone like Betts might be called upon to lay down a bunt. When Jackie Bradley singled to start the Red Sox third, and Betts came up, they again pointed out that Betts might sacrifice. Betts did not show bunt on either of the first two pitches. On Kluber's 1-1 offering, Betts crushed a home run to left field, giving Boston its first runs of the season. So much for bunting.
The two broadcasters' comments on home plate umpire John Hirschbeck's expanded strike zone were inadequate. In the fifth inning, O'Brien described the veteran Hirschbeck as "a pitcher's umpire" and someone who "wants to move the game along". He meant that Hirschbeck is prone to call strikes on pitches that are out of the strike zone. O'Brien should have pointed out that in doing so, Hirschbeck was altering the rules to make the game move at his preferred pace. Hirschbeck's blown calls annoyed players on both teams and late in the game, Remy made it clear that some of the strikes being called were in no way strikes. That was good to hear, but it would have been nice to hear either man explain how important it is that balls and strikes are called correctly, that it is far more important than allowing managers to challenge calls and tags on the bases. As a former player, Remy should know how a batter's options and team strategy change as the count changes - and for an umpire to base his ball and strike calls on his personal whims is a travesty.
Game 2 - Wednesday
O'Brien and Remy turned in another solid broadcast and there were no noticeable screw-ups the production. As far as I could tell, NESN did not miss broadcasting any pitches.
However, Remy botched his analysis on two replays, insisting both times that something had happened that was not supported by the video replay.
With one out in the top of the fifth, Mookie Betts grounded a 2-2 pitch to second baseman Jason Kipnis, who ranged to his right, fielded the ball behind the bag, and threw Betts out. It was a very good play by - and Remy (a former second baseman) pointed out that Kipnis had been able to see the catcher's sign to the pitcher, saw that it was a breaking ball, and thus was able to cheat a couple of steps to his right, towards the bag, before the ball was hit. Remy said this twice before NESN showed the replay from the high home camera. It was clear that Kipnis actually did not move at all until after Betts hit the ball. Despite this clear visual evidence to the contrary, Remy again repeated how Kipnis had been able to move while the pitch was being thrown, before Betts put the ball into play.
A second instance occurred in the following inning, when Hanley Ramirez batted in the top of the sixth. In this at-bat, Ramirez followed David Ortiz's solo home run with one of his own, going to the opposite field, hitting the ball over the right-center field fence. Remy repeated his point from the previous game, that Ramirez had altered his batting stance from last season and was no longer using "a violent leg kick", raising his left leg high as he strode into the pitch. NESN showed a split screen with the extreme leg kick of 2015 and the much more subtle step into the pitch of 2016. Again, Remy repeated himself, saying that sometimes Ramirez's leg kick in spring training and the first two games - and especially this at-bat - was so small as to be barely noticeable.
Then NESN showed the HR swing again - and fans saw that Ramirez had actually used the big leg kick he supposedly had abandoned. (He also used it on the pitch before the HR.)
You might think that after Remy saw this, he would change his analysis, explaining that, at least in this case, Ramirez was still using the big leg kick. Nope. Once again, despite video evidence showing he was wrong, Remy insisted that what we had seen was Ramirez's employing a small stride.
Remy is certainly not the only broadcaster who has refused to change his explanation in the face of contrary video evidence. Both Joe Morgan and Tim McCraver was infamous for insisting that viewers were seeing X when it was clear to everyone (including their broadcasting partners) that Y had happened. That stubbornness is odd in Remy's case, because viewers do not get the sense that he believes he's infallible. Remy freely admits when he is wrong on certain matters, and can certainly be self-deprecating. Why he refused to acknowledge what every NESN viewer could see on the two replays is a mystery.