Saturday, October 10, 2009

You Are Listening Live! to People You Wish Were Dead

Here's a sentence I'm sure is an original thought. Listening, or rather, being driven to infuriated distraction by Chip Caray last night reminded me of a girl I used to know.

I say "girl" because my memory is from when I was just out of college, back in the exciting term of Richard Nixon's presidency. She was my neighbor in a small town a long, long way from Boston. I had a tremendous, moon calf crush on this young woman, who was beautiful and kindly. Nothing significant came of this attraction, and that was my own fault. I was paralyzed with ambivalence and guilt that had nothing to do with either of us.

The girl's father was a famous national television sportscaster. And even as I yearned for her, I couldn't get one thought out of the back of my head.

"What am I doing? I've called this girl's dad every dirty name in the book on an almost weekly basis for years. What if we watch a game together?"

So I failed to pledge my troth. My diffidence was more proof that perhaps the strongest emotion shared by all sports fans, more powerful than the love of the home team, is a visceral hatred of national TV announcers. Some of them deserve it, some don't, but they all draw our scorn and rage. I am sure that when Graham McNamee broadcast the 1924 World Series on the radio, the first national broadcast ever, Americans did not pause to ponder the miracle of 20th century communication technology creating a shared cultural experience. They cussed McNamee for getting a ball and strike count wrong.

Broadcasts of games the woman's father called are shown on ESPN Classic and other cable sports networks, and, as you'd expect, he comes off like a combination of Edward R. Murrow and Grantland Rice compared to the broadcasters of our time. But boy did I hate him back in the '60s. So did every other fan in Wilmington, Delaware. And when I went away to Wesleyan University, sports fans hated him there, too.

How pathological is this sentiment? Very. After I became a sportswriter, I met and spent time with many of the national broadcasters who do the most games and therefore are the most reviled by their fellow citizens. They were also, to a man, the nicest guys you'd want to meet. To cite just a few examples, there couldn't be better company to share before and after a game than Joe Buck, Tim McCarver, Brent Musberger, Dick Vitale and Paul Maguire. Jim Nantz and I were not meant to run in the same social circles, but he is a pleasant and gracious man.

So now I'm a TV fan again. You'd think my experience of knowing these men, and of knowing that theirs is a demanding craft, harder than daily journalism (there's no copy desk in the broadcast booth), would have taught me to see their work in a new light. You'd be wrong. They still drive me crazy when they're on the air. Obviously, this has nothing to do with their abilities or lack of same. What I (and all other fans) bring to the experience of watching and listening to national games is the root factor.

The hatred for national TV and radio guys becomes harder to understand when it is contrasted to the way in which fans treat local play by play and color guys. Those chaps, if they survive the treacherous world of broadcasting business for more than a season or two, become icons-beloved civic figures more revered in their communities than any athlete. Ernie Harwell in Detroit, Gil and Gino right here in Boston, the list includes at least one announcer in every city with major sports franchises.

And that love has as little to do with the broadcasters' actual abilities as does the hatred for the national guys. Vin Scully is an institution in Los Angeles on a par with the Hollywood sign, hamburgers, and the beach. On his infrequent (these days) appearances on national games, there's a growing groundswell of complaints Scully talks too much. This is like saying Matisse painted too much. It's not a rational aesthetic judgment, but a knee-jerk expression of the primal dislike of any national telecast.

My theory as to what drives the hatred is simple. Tip O'Neill was wrong. It's not all politics that's local-it's all sports. Local announcers are perceived as fellow humans sharing the same experience of following the home team. This breeds affection, particularly if the home team has stunk on ice for a decade or four. Patriots' fans are prepared to cut Gil and Gino a great deal of slack because they respect the way those two (really wonderful) men slogged to Foxboro Stadium all those years to broadcast games for a team whose most celebrated moments and involved lawyers and accountants instead of blocking and tackling.

National broadcasters, by contrast, are seen as interlopers. They are giving a fresh perspective to our sports-watching experience, and we don't want one. Because they have to do the best they can to make both teams in a game equally important in the broadcast, the national announcers present a hint of a truth fans don't and shouldn't want to recognize. Every team is somebody's home team. They're all the same guys out on the field/court/ice, just wearing different colored underwear.

That insight is what I call the Tree of the Knowledge of the Lack of Good and Evil. Once it hits you, you're never the same fan again. Sportswriters all began life as fans, but their jobs force to accept the value-neutral nature of games. That, at bottom, is why fans and sportswriters often don't understand each other. They exist in different realities.

That goes triple for national broadcasters. They don't even have the comfort of communicating with a local audience. They are trapped in the TV assumption, which isn't inaccurate, that the larger one's audience, the lower its collective level of information on the subject at hand. Some director or producer tells McCarver that research indicates that x percent of the Fox audience doesn't know that Derek Jeter is a good player. That may not excuse McCarver's babble about the Yankee shortstop, which makes my crush from yesteryear look like nothing, but it should make it more understandable, and hence forgivable.

As a follower of sports I'm a spiritual hybrid. Part of my soul is fan, part is sportswriter, and I move between their two realities -- belonging to both, belonging to neither. You'd think that'd make me a better TV watcher, much more tolerant of the foibles of the talented, extremely well-paid, even more extremely unloved individuals who broadcast what I watch. It should, but it doesn't. The pathologies we learn early stay with us forever.

Then again, not everything in life is just in your head. A jury of the saints in heaven would tell me Chip Caray sucks.


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