March 25, 2018

Bill James (1983): The Art Of Announcing Baseball Games On The Radio

What follows is from Bill James's This Time Let's Not Eat The Bones: Bill James Without The Numbers*. James's tribute to Kansas City Royals radio announcer Denny Matthews was first published in The 1983 Baseball Abstract. James's complaints, although they are 35 years old, may sound extremely familiar to some of you.

*: A copy of this book is the prize in this year's W-L contest. (This is your reminder about the contest.)

My theory: Modern radio announcers - because they have a TV monitor next to them - have been conditioned (whether they realize it or not) to assume their listeners are watching TV while listening to the radio. Some fans do this, of course, but certainly not all fans. (Blind fans don't do it, for example.) I have heard, many times, radio announcers actually direct listeners ("See, right there ...") to something being shown in a televised replay.

I wonder how soon after radio booths got access to the TV feed that announcers began altering their descriptions of the on-field action. While I doubt any radio announcer ever thought because they could look out their window and see the game that everyone at home or in a car or at the beach could do the same thing, the fact that it's on a screen, and everyone (of course) has access to a screen, creates a different mindset. (my emphasis, below)

Denny Matthews

Among the pleasures of being a Royals fan, few rank any higher than turning on the radio each evening to receive the seven o'clock greeting of Mr. Denny Matthews. My goal about each team [in the annual Abstracts] is to try to bring to light something about the team which is not generally known. After years of post-season play with basically the same team, not much about the Royals has slipped through the network of the country's information services. But behind their microphone, all but unknown to the nation, sits one of the most skilled and gifted men that the craft has ever produced.

His gifts, I suppose, are moderate, if well adapted to the task. His voice has a pleasant timbre which suggests a cheerful occasion. Its natural inflection rises and falls constantly, so that over the course of countless hours it acquires neither the grating quality of forced enthusiasm nor the drone of forced interest. He has a dry, understated humor that drifts through much of his audience undetected. One cannot learn these things at a microphone; they are given. But heck, I talk to people with pleasant voices every day, and Denny isn't Bob Uecker, by any means. These are not the things that lift him out of the class of the competent announcers, and into the class of the great ones.

Fred White, the Royals' other announcer, is good too. But what are the acquired skills, I got to wondering, that make an announcer? If Denny and Fred are not quite paragons of the things a baseball announcer should be, they are an acceptable substitute. So what do they have, exactly?

1. (And by far the most important) An intense focus on the game that is being played in front of them. I score games sometimes, even over the radio, and when I do I try to record a variety of information other than the stuff you can get out of the records. Sometimes I try to do this with other announcers, and I am amazed at the information they leave out. "Base hit!" says the announcer. Base hit? Where? Scooting by the shortstop into center? Drilled to left? I'll be listening to another game, and there will be runners on first and third in the fifth, and I will wonder if the manager is going to bring the infield in – and be astounded that the announcer doesn't tell me. There will be a single to center and I will be sitting there trying to visualize the play, and when I look for the throw . . . no throw. The voice has not told me where the throw went. I find out two pitches into the next batter that the other runner is now on third, and I wonder if the announcer didn't see him go over there, or what? The color man breaks in and tells you that the runner was able to get to third base because he was off with the pitch. Well, if he was off with the pitch, why didn't you tell me? This leaves me wondering if he was off with the pitch the previous two times, when the ball was fouled off.

And you know why so many announcers don't tell you these things? Because they don't see them. Because they haven't ever learned, really, to become the eyes of the listener. I was just amazed, in the World Series, when an announcer told us that Darrell Porter's batting stance "looks a lot like Rod Carew's." Darrell Porter's tense, pigeon-toed, cocked-arm, locked-wrist stance like Rod Carew's pointed lead foot, loose wrist, relaxed batting style? They have open stances and they crouch a little and they point the bat in the air. That's the end of the similarities. I saw an American League rookie do an absolutely perfect impression of Rickey Henderson at the plate last summer and the announcer's comment was "Hmm. Funny-looking batting stance."

Denny Matthews tells you, batter after batter

1. What the pitch was.

2. Where the pitch was.

3. What kind of a swing the batter had at it (fought it off, flicked at it, tried to hold up, had a good rip but swung over it).

4. Where the defense is.

5. What the runner does.

6. Where the hit goes.

7. Where the throw goes.

If the wind is blowing in, he tells you; if it shifts, you hear about it. He describes the batting stance of each player, in very specific terms as well as the impression it gives, once each year. He describes the delivery of the pitcher in specific terms. If the throw to first was a low throw or a high throw or a wide throw or a good throw, he tells you. If the fielder fields the ball on the second hop or the third hop, on a high hop or a short hop, to his left or to his right, he tells you. If the batter breaks his bat, if he squirts the ball off the end of the bat, he tells you. In the batter's first at-bat, he tells you what the batter has done in the last few games; after that, he tells you what the hitter has done earlier in the game. After a while, you get used to knowing stuff like that.

There is one thing that happens about once a week that tips you off on how intense Mr. Matthews' concentration on the game is. What does your announcer say when the scoreboard count gets mixed up? Does he never notice it, and just read the count off the board? Does he say, "Now wait a minute . . . I thought the third pitch was called a strike." Does he debate the color man about what the count was? Denny dismisses it with a six-word phrase: The scoreboard has the count wrong.

2. The other main thing that I like about Denny is the things he doesn't say because he is too busy describing what he sees. Let's go back to the first-and-third situation where the announcer doesn't tell us what happened. What is he saying, while he is not telling us where the hit went and where the runner went and where the throw went? The worst announcers, and you know they do it, will launch into a sermonette about a) the character of the man who got the hit, or b) the bad run of luck we've been having lately, how we're in one of these stretches when balls like that that aren't really hit that well just fall in between the fielders. The competent announcers tell you what they see, and then break into generalities about the people involved in the play, and talk about "concentration" and "fundamentals" and stuff.

Some people actually criticize Matthews because he's not judgmental about what he sees. They want the announcer to tell them that Ron LeFlore has a bad arm, and Denny will tell them that the throw was offline and then move on. But what is an announcer doing, when he makes those sort of judgments? My view is, if the announcer sees the man make a poor throw, he should say so at the time; if he doesn't see it, he shouldn't be talking about it. I don't want an announcer passing on to me the stuff he heard in a bar last week. I don't want to know what some scout said about the guy's arm. I can make those judgments for myself; indeed, I prefer to. That's all right if the announcer knows what he's talking about, but two times in three he doesn't.

3. Denny works consciously against the pace of the game. If the game is dull, he starts giving you more and more information about the game, the players. When the game is on the line, he lets the situation speak for itself. If it's a blowout, he starts telling stories. ...

[H]e works hard at his craft; he truly loves the game. He gets his ego and his theories and his preconceptions out of the way, and becomes a tube through which the game splashes out into your room, pure and clean and complete. That's too easy for most announcers, and too hard.
Once you start listening for it, you will be surprised how often most announcers leave you in the dark about almost everything. A pitch is high. Was it inside or outside? A pitch is inside. Was it high or low? How much did the batter have to step back? What kind of pitch was it? (Yankees announcer John Sterling often refers to a pitch as "a fast strike", an utterly worthless description.)

The hitter fouls the pitch off. At the plate? Towards the on-deck circle? Down one of the foul lines? Which line? Did an opposing fielder's glove it? Was it hit in the air? On the ground? Was it chopped? To be told that the ball was "fouled into the crowd" is far more annoying than informative.

The batter smokes a line drive down the line for a hit. Which line? Into foul territory or along the line in fair territory? The ball is hit past the second baseman. To his left or to his right? Did he dive? The outfielder throws the ball back to the infield. To whom? Quickly or routinely? What is the runner (or runners) doing?

One of my (many) pet peeves is Joe Castiglione's habit of saying that on a pickoff throw to first, the runner gets "back with a hand-tag". Well, how else is he going to re-touch the base? With his nose?

Note: Denny Matthews is still calling Royals games. He has been in the radio booth since the team began play in 1969. Only Jaime Jarrin, the Dodgers' Spanish-language broadcaster since 1959, has a longer continuous tenure with a team.

1 comment:

laura k said...

I guess it is no surprise that you and Bill James complain about the same things.