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Van Earl Wrong

To paraphrase that cartoon bird who's got the Cocoa Puffs jones, we've been cuckoo for the 20th Century as of late. Top 100 this. Best 100 that. Slap together some footage of Nazi tanks rolling through Paris, stick Peter Jennings in front of a blue screen, and wham-o, you've got yourself a 20th Century retrospective special. Call it "Looking Back: The Last 100 Years" or "The Last 100 Years: A Look Back" or "Uncle Petey's Good Time History Hoedown." Whatever. The point is, we're big on the 20th Century.

And so long as we're on this end-of-the-century-list kick, let me just throw my two cents into the kitty, vis-a-vis the most significant achievement of the 20th Century. And I think I speak for every good American when I say that the greatest achievement of our Earth scientists for the years 1900 to 1999 is none other than ESPN.

Splitting the atom comes in a close second, of course. Oh, and curing polio -- man, we hate the polio. But, all things being equal, I'm going to have to go with the 24-hour cable sports channel.

Because if you're like me -- and if you are, please start paying your share of the rent -- there are those nights, those lonely, godless nights when the only sound you hear is the howling of the wind and the beating of your own heart and you bolt up in bed with the sheets soaking wet from sweat and a question burning its way through you brain: Who won the Twins-Royals game tonight?

Before ESPN -- in the dark times -- you would have to toss and turn and somehow manage to live through the night until the morning paper arrived on your doorstep. And even then, there was a pretty good chance you would stumble across that phrase that ripped through your heart like a dagger: As of press time, the game was still in progress.

Thanks to ESPN, though, you need never live in that kind of information vacuum again. Instead of tossing and turning and staving off your demons, you can jump out of bed, turn on the TV to ESPN and discover that, yes, Ron Coomer hit a bloop single off Hipolito Pichardo in the 12th to lead the Twinkies to victory. In this, the information age, no bit of relevant sports data -- final scores, hirings and firings, groin injuries -- need never be beyond your grasp again.

But with every great advance comes an unintended consequence. Mass production and industrialization brought us better goods at cheaper prices, but they also led to widespread pollution. The Beatles recorded some fine tunes, but they also foisted Paul McCartney's solo career upon us. And ESPN, while giving us the sports highlights and hockey coverage we so desperately need, must also be blamed for the glut of glib sports anchors, now reaching epidemic proportions.

ESPN has had its share of fine anchors over the years -- Dan Patrick, Keith Olbermann, Charlie Steiner. They're able to run you through those all-important highlights, turn a clever phrase or two and elevate what used to be a three-minute segment on the local news wedged between the nightly weather report and the fawning human interest story into an hour program that can match more than half the shows on the air for pure entertainment value.

Trouble is, an entire generation of local sports anchors saw the Patricks and the Olbermanns of the world cracking wise and getting to appear in Hootie and the Blowfish videos and concluded, "Shtick is my way out of this lousy berg."

Even worse, they were right.

Turn on any sports cable channel nowadays -- ESPN and its assorted progeny, the contemptible Fox Sports Net, whatever -- and instead of getting sports highlights narrated by competent and seasoned professionals, you'll get Shecky and Slappy and the rest of the kids from the Morning Zoo Patrol busting a gut at their own contrived cleverness.

Where once wit was an added bonus, a nice compliment to shows where conveying information was the raison d'être, now the only thing that matters seems to be who can come up with the most elaborate catchphrases. Who won the Hawks-Pistons game? Sorry, buddy, I was too busy making a ribald pun out of Mookie Blaylock's name. The Red Sox score? I'll get that right out to you, just after my obscure reference to Putsy Caballero.

And among these blow-dried blowhards, these rejects from an open mike night at Zanee's Comedy Hut, Van Earl Wright is their king.

Should you be fortunate enough to live outside the reaches of the cruel Fox Sports nexus, Van Earl Wright is an amalgam of hair-spray and suits from Botany 500 intended to pass for a sportscaster. He blurts out scores, news and injury reports in a rhythmic cadence, occasionally barking or rolling his r's for added emphasis. He may also be -- and there's just no polite way to say this -- the worst sports anchor in the English-speaking world.

I mean, I'm sure there's some guy in Cuba or somewhere who just really sets people's teeth on edge when he's running through the jai alai footage. But if we restrict ourselves to the Western World, well, Van Earl laps the field.

Part of the problem is, of course, the fact he's on Fox. That channel is pretty annoying in and of itself, what with all the swooshes and the logos and the glowing hockey pucks. But Van Earl doesn't help his case by choosing to read the TelePrompTer in a voice that sounds like an auctioneer gone to seed. As normal people do not speak this way, I can only conclude that this is a conscious choice on his part.

Imagine the voice of Michael Buffer -- the "Let's Get Ready To Rumble" guy who introduces all those fixed Don King fights -- and then imagine that Mr. Buffer only chose to enunciate his nouns. Only then can you savor the full-bodied flavor of suckitude that Van Earl Wright brings to the sports anchor game.

"In tonight's Dodger-Marlin GAME, a HOME RUN by PRRRRRRRRRRRRRESTON WILSON propels the FISH to an 8-4 VICTORY, as the Blue CRRRRRRRRRRRRREW struggle... in front... of their home town FANS!"

If it's possible, that actually sounds more annoying than it reads.

As family and friends will attest, there are few sports-related programs that I will not watch. Stick a few sweaty guys in uniforms, devise some method of scoring, add hitting and kicking as the rules permit, and I will sit there on the couch slack-jawed and happy. I will watch a meaningless Phillies-Pirates baseball tussle. I will scan across TV channels, desperately looking for golf highlights. I can name several players on the roster of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

And yet, when the elongated face of Van Earl Wright appears on screen, and he's about to open his yap, the TV gets turned off, put in its box and sent back to the original manufacturer, lest one syllable uttered by that Ken Doll come to life manage to rattle around in my brain.

If this were a just world -- a world where substance trumped style -- the likes of Van Earl Wright would be relegated to giving the five day forecast in Abilene or reading off high school baseball scores on a Sioux City UHF station. That way only a select few would be exposed to his deadening blather, saving the larger populace from the shattered tympanic membranes and bleeding ears that are sure to follow when Van Earl's on the case.

But this is not a just world. Look at Keith Olbermann. A few years ago, he was on top of the world, sports anchor-wise. With Dan Patrick, he hosted ESPN's highest-rated permeation of SportsCenter. But Bristol, Connecticut felt like a small stage, and he dreamed of greater things. So off he went to MSNBC, where he spent the next year and a half interviewing second-tier pundits about the president's bedroom prowess. Humbled, he returned to what he did best -- sports -- hoping to recapture some of that lost glory at Fox Sports Net.

Where he now works with Van Earl Wright.

Yes, God is cruel.


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