That 10th-inning, go-ahead, two-run homer from Javy Baez didn’t just win the game for the Cubs last night, it also shut the Sunday Night Baseball booth right up. Before that swing – and throughout the entire game, really – the broadcast duo of Alex Rodriguez and Matt Vasgersian did what every national broadcast does: re-hash old, sometimes out of date, sometimes just tired takes about certain players. And for Javy it was the same-old “Swing and miss, swing and miss, swing and miss.”
They’re not wrong, mind you. Baez’s strikeout rate and out-of-zone swing rate are both the second highest of his career. It’s just that (if you’ll allow me to speak for all of us), we know that already. And just because it’s true doesn’t mean there aren’t other, more positive (but equally interesting) things to discuss, such as the fact that he’s been 14% better than the league average hitter all season (114 wRC+) and 33% better than the league average hitter over the last month (133 wRC+), despite the strikeouts. Isn’t that interesting fodder for conversation? Or that, with his defense, he’s still one of the top-10 shortstops in MLB by WAR, ranking ahead of fellow upcoming free agents Carlos Correa and Trevor Story (and also Francisco Lindor)?
But I digress. The point here isn’t to rip Rodriguez or Vasgersian or the ESPN broadcast altogether, but rather to consider what it is we do or don’t like about any broadcast. Obviously, this will be different for different people (and I am curious to see where you agree or not). But it’s an off-day, and the Cubs just took two of three from the Cardinals, so let’s discuss.
Here are some of my thoughts on things I like about an MLB broadcast and its broadcasters, particularly a local one …
Don’t Go Too Broad
I don’t want to be entirely unfair here. I understand that the Sunday Night Baseball broadcast exists, in large part, to reach a wider audience than usual – and that, in isolation, is an extremely important goal for a sport that too often fails to capture the national attention. But also … Anthony Rizzo always stands close to the plate and always chokes up with two strikes, A-Rod. Come on, man. Everyone knows that.
My observation here is only that MLB fandom is not like the NBA or NFL. It’s far more localized and regional. And baseball fans know their teams inside and out. Re-treading the Nolan Arenado trade can’t be that interesting for a Cardinals fan, even if they’re thrilled it went down, and they all know how long Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright have been with the team. Even a non-Cardinals fan doesn’t need that much rehashing.
I think a broadcast that treats their audience with a little more respect goes a long way. For nationally broadcast games, perhaps that means looping in one of the regular, local broadcasters for part or all of the game. And that leads me to my next point …
Get That Hometown Feeling
To demonstrate that I’m not just ripping on the national stuff, here’s something the Cubs don’t currently have going for them (sort of): hometown guys.
I personally enjoy listening to people who don’t just know the team, but might also know the city. Someone who feels like they have been around for a long time, and are passionate about the team. They don’t necessarily need to be homers, but I do want my broadcast to feel like we’re all pulling in the same direction.
Who didn’t love when Len Kasper’s voice would crack with excitement calling a Kris Bryant walk-off homer? Who doesn’t love everything Pat Hughes says (and the calming, familiar way he says it)? And don’t even get me started on Ron Santo …
Now, this actually can be somewhat manufactured. For example, Boog Sciambi isn’t a “Chicago” guy, but I’ll tell you what, he certainly feels like one to me. Can’t you just picture him at Nisei Lounge, sipping on an Old Style, going on about the time Sean Rodriguez went toe-to-toe with that gatorade cooler in the 2015 Wild Card game? Pat Hughes was born in Arizona, and he called games for the Twins and Brewers, but he oozes Chicago now. And as many of us know, Harry Caray was a St. Louis guy, who called games for the Cardinals and White Sox before defining Chicago pretty much ever since. That “hometown” feeling can be developed.
But really, I don’t want them to be pure homers. There are times when the team, or the manager, or the organization, etc. needs to be criticized. It’s endearing. It’s validating. And it helps balance expectations.
At the beginning of this season, when the Cubs couldn’t hit *anything* I wanted to hear about it. Let the team or fans or whoever tell us about the talent and upside and projections and whatever, but when the Cubs are playing poorly, call it out. When a trade seems bad, let us know. When the Cubs got a gift of a call they shouldn’t have gotten it, tell it straight. I think that matters.
Have a Former Player in the Booth
I used to go back and forth on this, but at the moment, I think you need a player in the booth. Yes, there’s always a question about leaning too much on past experiences when the game was different, but if your booth is a combination of talents/styles/eras, that can be balanced out. Frequently, as we’ve seen with many former players in the booth, they have a view to the game that others have a much harder time developing (if they can develop it at all). As long as the stories don’t get too out-of-date or long-winded, it’s a nice addition.
Let the Game Breathe
This isn’t basketball, it isn’t hockey, it isn’t boxing. Baseball has time and space to spare. Let it happen. For as much as Joe Buck bothers some people, the way he let the Cubs celebrate the 2016 World Series after the final out without spoiling it with commentary was not lost on me.
So much of baseball lives between the action and letting it happen naturally is okay.
There will not be a one-size fits all answer here, but even going through this exercise, I think there is a bottom-line: Baseball fans want baseball to feel like baseball. We need to attract a wider pool of fans, but the best way to do that isn’t becoming more vanilla or more broad. It’s leaning further into the things that make baseball great. Authenticity trumps everything else, and striving to achieve more of it – I’m not sure how much fans at the margins *right now* are impacted by a particular booth – is going to be better for the health of the sport in the long haul.
I don’t doubt that most of this is very difficult to achieve – and I certainly could not do a better job than anyone out there – so hopefully this doesn’t come off as overly critical. I just felt like exploring this for myself. And until Marquee (or ESPN, for that matter) takes my advice about offering alternative broadcasts, I think these are some of the things to keep in mind for the future.
— Bleacher Nation Cubs (@BleacherNation) January 11, 2021