On broadcasting expectations

Online baseball consumption has taken our ability to watch broadcasts from different markets and driven it to new heights. What was once just a luck of the draw depending on what was being televised on a given night has now become a conscious choice. Researching which broadcast teams are good and which are not so good has become a common practice, and a useful one at that.

As the playoffs near and the number of teams playing baseball begins to dwindle, our decisions over who we want to watch or listen to will be made for us, and there will be many teams that are still playing games with relatively unsavory broadcast teams in the booth.

The question that has piqued my interest is: What can we reasonably expect from a team’s broadcast?

The classic example of an eye-roll inducing broadcaster is former major leaguer Hawk Harrelson, who does television play-by-play for the Chicago White Sox. Harrelson is known for his “distinct” calls:— “He gone”—every time a White Sox pitchers gets a strikeout — and “Yeeeeeaaaassss”—every time something goes right for the Sox—stick out.

Most see Hawk’s antics as over the top silliness. I find it to be an annoying type of hilarious because I’m easygoing and am inclined to laugh at these things. But this divergence in opinion also led me to consider what we ought to expect from a broadcaster.

Many people are quite adamant about not listening to Harrelson, or any other number of like-minded play-by-play men. It’s simply too hard for them.

At Fangraphs, Carson Cistulli “polled the audience” in February and had readers rank each television and radio broadcast team in baseball on a scale that factored analysis, charisma and overall ability into what makes a broadcast team good.

Which team finished dead last on the TV side? Hawk Harrelson’s Chicago White Sox broadcast, of course. By contrast, it was Vin Scully’s Dodgers home broadcasts that took the honor of top television broadcast. (Note: If someone reading this sentence hasn’t heard Vin Scully call a game, you aren’t living life. Rectify this.)

Now, I may diverge from the opinion of the masses here and argue that these two men are not categorically unlike one another. In terms of execution they couldn’t be further apart. Scully’s approach is steeped in nuance and simplicity while Harrelson is about as subtle as a foghorn in your bedroom.

Categorically speaking however, they each have elements which make them quintessentially them. Scully’s storytelling is absolutely brilliant, tying together Dodgers history with anecdotes on current players and the goings-on of a game. Harrelson’s unique delivery and over the top style make him completely distinct from anyone else. And on the issue of “homerism,” whether we choose to admit it or not, every home broadcaster is a homer for his team, Scully included.

When we put it all together, the primary difference here is Scully’s style is more widely enjoyed than Harrelson’s. However, both men have their own flair.

Broadcasters are there not only to relay what’s going on in a game, but to provide insightand do so in an entertaining way. They can’t be faulted for being homers, even if it is often utterly over the top, as Mr. Harrelson is prone to being.

The demands of a national broadcast are clearly much different. Objectivity is at a much higher premium than in a local broadcast because you are meant to transcend regional audiences. Blatant favoritism in this instance is much harder to stomach. You’re not supposed to pander to a fan base the way some local broadcasters feel feel compelled to.

I raised the question at the top: What can we reasonably demand from a particular team’s broadcast?

We should expect an accurate portrayal of what’s happening, reasonable insight as to why things are happening the way they are, and to be entertained in a way that makes us want to stay there. If you were looking for a gold standard, Vin Scully is a classic case and baseball rightfully cherishes him for it.

You can say what you will about the Hawk Harrelsons of the world—broadcasters who polarize an audience—but they’re entertaining, and I’ll gladly take that over the broadcasters who bring plenty of substance and no style. Harrelson may drive you insane, but he delivers on all rightful expectations you ought to have from a broadcast.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

As we near the postseason with the White Sox appearing more and more poised to make the playoffs, perhaps you’ll consider giving Hawk a try. You may grind your teeth, you may laugh with tears at times, but you’ll be hard-pressed to say there’s something else like it. Perhaps that makes it as good as it gets.

And because of that, you can put it on the board. Yes!

References & Resources
Carson Cistulli’s full broadcaster ranking list can be found here.

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11 years ago

Polarizing broadcasters are entertaining? You can’t listen to them without wanting to throw something at the tv or radio and are as entertaining as the flashing scoreboards, weird mascots and blaring music between innings that makes sure conversation can’t take place.
Rather than adding to the experience, these homers are a constant irritant that rob the game of the joy and natural flow of the play.
When watching a game, the announcer shouldn’t be the focal point, yet the harrelson’s of the world think that people watch the games to be entertained by them. Instead, all they provide is torture.
Get rid of the whole gang of homers and get more like Vin.

Aces win
11 years ago

I listened to Vinny in the 60s and nowdays, it is creepy to hear the same stuff 50 years later.  Then you get to see him and it always seems that he is badly sunburned, red patches all over his face.  There are other old voices that are far better.

As for bad voices, there are several in front of Hawk, McCarver and Buck start that list.  The Boston and Yankee homers have become much more impossible to listen to than Hawk.  MLB Radio gives you a chance to hear them all.

Overall, I’d love term limits on these guys.  The good ones will goto another team, but at least my ears will be free of the worst at some point.

11 years ago

I absolutely disagree that Hawk delivers on all rightful expectations I ought to have from a broadcast.  One of my rightful expectations is to be told what the other team is doing, whether it reflect well or poorly on the White Sox.  On this front he utterly fails, often declining in complete silence to simply acknowledge that somebody who isn’t a “good guy” did something that caused the “good guys” to lose the game.

bob magee
11 years ago

I listen to John Sterling and Suzyn Waldman for Yankees radiocasts.  Or, more accurately, I listen to Sterling read ad spots throughout the game.  Waldman is there to remind everyone that THE YANKEES (and Derek Jeter in particular)ARE baseball – the rest of the teams and players seem to function only to give the Yankees competition.

The Yankees radiocasts include the following (and I am only listing the 1st items that come quickly to mind):

1) sponsor for the time and temp at start of game
2) sponsor for a good defensive play
3) sponsor for a long hit (“drive of the game”
4) sponsor for the 15th out
5) sponsor for a “rally”
6) sponsor for a player scoring a run (”…and   you can be safe at home too…)

I think it takes more than 1 minute to read all the sponsors prior to the postgame show – not reading ad copy, just reading the NAMES of the sponsors takes that long

Sterling reads ad copy between a foul ball drifting into the stands and the next pitch – doesn’t even bother to let an at bat play out!

To be fair to Sterling it is possible he is an ok baseball announcer, but he has no time to do anything but to read ad copy…and say “it is high, it is far, … – check that thought – Sterling is a terrible baseball announcer

Waldman has 2 favorite questions she constantly recycles:

1) ALL ballplayers, regardless of prior MLB accomplishment, MUST be thrilled to wear the Yankees uniform.  This goes for career minor leaguers, journeyman and stars.  And that is how she generally words the “question” – It must be a thrill to wear that uniform

2)Here she showes her true genius – she can get a glowing reference to Derek Jeter worked into any interview.  I once heard her interview a player on another team about that players performance in the game just ended.  The opposing player was a star of the game type interview, yet Waldman managed to get the player to TWICE acknowledge how great is Jeter!!

It is no wonder that the Yankees brass – who have radio announcer approval rights – are in love with these two

Mike Schryver
11 years ago

I grew up a Mets fan, and they’ve nearly always had outstanding announcers.  IIRC, their group was second to Scully in the Fangraphs poll.

Harrelson just sickens me, along with his would-be imitators.  If I wanted to listen to an obnoxious homer, I’d go to the game and listen to the guy next to me.

Jim G.
11 years ago

To me Harrelson’s greatest sin is being a Homer. I much prefer his baseball comments over Tim McCarver, Joe Buck, and Bob Brenly. The most vile announcer in baseball has to be Ed Farmer on the ChiSox radio. Although his insights are certainly consistent with his career as a player.
On the good side, I enjoy Steve Stone. I think John Smoltz has promise, as long as he can’t do national Braves games. Listeing to Jon Miller do Giants games was eye opening after years of watching him on ESPN. (Just how much did Morgan bring him down?) Someone who did fantastic color when he was in Detroit was Kirk Gibson. Unfortunately, it was during some pretty awful seasons. The two broadcast teams I miss the most are the Braves Skip Caray, Ernie Johnson, and Joe Simpson, and Detroit’s team of George Kell and Al Kaline.

11 years ago

Re: “play sponsorship”….like the Yankees the White Sox radio broadcast has them all over the place. It stinks. The Sox radio is equally as bad as their TV in my opinion…a ‘know it all’ style from Ed Farmer and color by Darrin Jackson, who sounds like he took elocution lessons from Dizzy Dean.
Grew up on Harry Cary and Jack Buck, loved Harry and remember thinking Buck as color was pretty bad…but then he grew into his own once Harry left. Tell it like it is with a little flair, along with some stories and have a great HR call.

11 years ago

If you are looking for insight from Harrelson then you are at least 10 years too late.  He used to be able to teach a thing or two about hitting approach, but he has abandoned all pretense of that for the caricature he has become.  He continues to preach that pitching wins and RBI’s are the most important stats.  He implies that anybody who believes otherwise is some geek in a basement who loves math more than baseball and maybe has some kind of agenda against the game.  Thanks, but no thanks.  I’ll take someone who can explain to me why that last swing was so bad over Hawk telling me that the hitter is “in between” one more time without ever explaining what the heck that means in over 20 years.

Furthermore, his rants against umpires offer no insight at all and the lack of respect he and Steve Stone have for each other comes over the broadcast loud and clear.  It’s just not very enjoyable even though you can definitely learn a thing or two about pitching from Stone.

Andy R.
11 years ago

I recently listened to a Giants-Cubs broadcast from 1970, and was struck by the almost total lack of ads (maybe two or three) during the play-by-play. Russ Hodges, Lon Simmons, and Bill Thompson simply called the action. Stations and teams seem to have to grub for every penny they can these days- makes you yearn for the simpler days…

David P Stokes
11 years ago

You can’t really blame the on-air team for all the ads in some broadcasts, though.  If the executives in charge decide that all that ad copy has to be worked in, the broadcasters don’t really have any choice but to work it in if they want to keep their jobs.

11 years ago

four key criteria:
1-chemistry within the broadcast team, so there’s an interesting conversation that makes the casual listener feel they’re among friends, and want to listen more closely. The Mets/Giants TV teams, already mentioned are clearly the best today. Lots of other classic examples (Kalas/Ashburn).One top broadcaster correctly noted the best trio in the business was Scully and two empty chairs, as it would be impossible for any newcomer to suddenly mesh with someone with 50 years experience
2-they really add info/insight that a smart fan couldn’t readily tell from watching. This was the breakthrough of the Garagiolas and McCarvers and Kaats. They really tried to help you understand what the pitcher/batter’s options/thought process was, adding a level of drama to any game. You can push this too far, and it doesn’t work when folks like McCarver only work every couple weeks and aren’t up to date. But it is huge when done right.
3-make you want to keep listening, even when its a bad team and the game’s not very good. Scully himself noted this was the key—anyone can make a tight World Series game sound interesting. Incorporates parts of 1&2 plus interesting historical stories.
4-Knows how to hit the high notes on the rare occasions when the drama really calls for it. Go back and watch Scully’s Kirk Gibson call—not just the homer but the 5 minute buildup to the homer. A gifted writer couldn’t have written a better script even if they’d known what was coming. Al Michaels isn’t in Scully’s category (no one is) but he earned much of his “big game announcer” reputation in some classic baseball games like the Angels-Red Sox playoffs.

Hank Rademacher
11 years ago

I like listening to Kruk and Kuip out in San Francisco. Krukow has an irreverent style that I enjoy. Vin Scully has always been too “homer” for me, but I respect him.
The best was Hank Greenwald for the Giants!

11 years ago

This column was as annoying to read as Harrelson is to listen to.

Steve Millburg
11 years ago

What can we reasonably demand from a particular team’s broadcast? On radio, that the announcers tell you what happens in the game. That includes describing every single pitch. Many so-called play-by-play announcers today seem to think it’s not necessary to describe a pitch when “nothing” happens—i.e., when the batter neither reaches base nor makes an out. So instead they treat/subject listeners to their opinions about how the game has changed for the worse since they were playing, the thoughts of a player’s wife about an upcoming charity bake sale, or an extended bit of allegedly hilarious banter with their announcing partner. It drives me nuts, especially when I hear the crowd roar for some reason (foul ball? brushback pitch? terrible call by the umpire? cat running across the field?) that the announcer never deigns to share with me. I tune in to hear a baseball game, not a sports talk show. Describe every pitch. Even “ball, two and one” is better than nothing.

11 years ago

I tuned into the Yankees radio broadcast yesterday for the first time (on satellite radio, I’m a Jays fan usually watching, rather than listening), and was very quickly turned off by the massive number of ads read by the broadcasters. Pitcher steps off – read an ad. Foul ball, read an ad. I gave up in about 2 minutes and just turned it off. I expect that a high flyball has ads read during the play. Awful setup for what seemed to be decent enough announcers.

Not much wonder the Yankees have so much revenue…but it’s a bad long-term strategy to make your broadcasts so little about the actual game. Eventually, you lose fans because they never got attached to the team the same way.

On Blue Jays telecasts, a few years ago, Rogers started running what were essentially full commericals mid-inning. I stopped watching entirely. Years of training have lead me to “Commercial – turn the channel”. I have a very short attention span, but this was just terrible.  They still do it once in a while, but at least most of them are somewhat integrated into the game (along the lines of “a homerun this inning means somelucky fans wins a TV from XXX”). Those I can appreciate somewhat, as they actually involve the game somehow.

11 years ago

The Phillies announcing crew suffered a key blow when Richie Ashburn died, but they simply haven’t been the same since they lost Harry Kalas.

Mike Schryver
11 years ago

The Yankees don’t even confine their ads to radio and TV.  They play an ad for PC Richards in the stadium after every strikeout.  Come on, now.

Ed DeCaria
11 years ago

I don’t really see any comparison between Buck/McCarver and Hawk Harrelson. I could listen to Buck/McCarver all day, as much as they have their issues.

The thing about Harrelson isn’t just that he’s a homer. Ron Santo was a homer, too, but he was humble, and I actually found him charming and sometimes hilarious when Pat Hughes would pick on him. But Harrelson is both a homer and arrogant. And that combination is just beyond offensive.