Random Thoughts From A Guy Watching The World Series
With the Anaheim nee California nee Los Angeles Angels capturing a World Series titles this weekend, the franchise has finally avenged the death of former owner Gene Autry at the hands of the San Francisco Giants.
Hmmm? What's that? Autry didn't suffer personal and professional ruin due to the Giants' treachery? His works of philanthropy and charity weren't constantly being thwarted by the machinations of his cruel neighbors to the north? Dusty Baker, Jeff Kent and Barry Bonds weren't seen by eyewitnesses sneaking away from the scene of Autry's demise with an industrial-sized vial of ear poison? Gee, that's not the impression I got from Fox's coverage.
Because every time fortune smiled upon the Angels -- and it seemed to be smiling a lot this weekend -- viewers were treated to a shot of Jackie Autry, Gene Autry's wife. The Angels are trailing the Giants in the late innings? Cut to a shot of the Widow Autry looking nervous. The Angels are mounting a furious rally? Back to Jackie Autry looking hopeful. The Angels take the lead? Jackie Autry's jumping up and down. The Angels win? All Autry, all the time. The Rally Monkey doesn't get this much screen time.
You've heard of the Pepsi FanCam? Maybe this was the Fox SympathyCam brought to you by the good men and women of Forest Lawn Mortuary.
You would think, given the frequency with which Autry appeared on camera, that she still owned the team. Not so -- she and Gene sold off their interest to Disney shortly before the Singing Cowboy headed off to the Final Round-Up in the Sky. Maybe Jackie Autry still has a stake in the Angels, but to call her an owner would be like saying I own AT&T because I have a couple of shares in a mutual fund.
Still, I guess showing Jackie Autry rooting Anaheim on to victory is a hell of a lot more inspiring than a tight shot on Michael Eisner as the Disney CEO fields cell phone calls to unload the team before the end of the next fiscal quarter.
This is the second postseason series in a row, incidentally, where the Giants were made to look like the heavies just for trying to win a ballgame. During the National League Championship Series, the St. Louis Cardinals invited the five-year-old son of their late teammate Darryl Kile to sit with them in the dugout -- a heartfelt gesture that probably meant as much to the players as it did to the kid. Never one to leave a good thing alone, Fox peppered its broadcast with frequent shots of Kannon Kile -- including an ill-timed cutaway to the boy right after the Giants had eliminated the Cardinals from the playoffs.
Ladies and gentlemen, your National League champs -- and destroyers of dreams for little boys everywhere -- the San Francisco Giants.
Ah well. The Fox cameras also happened to catch the three-year-old-son of Giants manager Dusty Baker sobbing uncontrollably after Game Seven. So next time Anaheim and San Francisco square off, Fox can promote it as the Giants seeking revenge for making Darren Baker cry.
We've come a long way in a short amount of time when it comes to baseball coverage on television. I happened to catch Game Four of the 1981 World Series on ESPN Classic the other day -- a series near and dear to my heart since I was there live and in person. This was back in the days when ordinary people were allowed to attend World Series games, not just high-rollers, major advertisers and stars of new fall TV programs on Fox.
(Speaking of which, that 1981 ABC telecast didn't feature many cutaways to the likes of Ted Knight, Judd Hirsch and the cast of The Love Boat enjoying the hospitality of Dodger Stadium. Instead, it featured shot after shot of the players' wives. And if it sounds like the TV viewers of 1981 got the better end of the deal, consider two things: 1) the fashions favored by the spouses of athletes in the early days of the Reagan years have not held up well over time; and 2) twenty-one years after all those players' wives appear on camera, a fellow with a sizable cruel streak might pass the time during the rebroadcast by acknowledging the succession of camera shots with, "Divorced... divorced... embarrassed by palimony suit... committed adultery with Marvin Hamlisch..." Not that I condone Boychuk's behavior.)
Nearly everything about baseball coverage is better today than it was in 1981. The footage airing on ESPN Classic was blurry and washed out. Fox's coverage is so crystal-clear, you can count the moles on John Lackey's face during one of the network's trademark extreme zooms. The camera angles in today's broadcast are so multiple, you wonder if they didn't hand each fan a camcorder along with a pair of ThunderStix as they entered Edison International Field. The onscreen graphics can tell you instantly what a player did during the regular season, what he's hitting during the postseason, how many home runs he has against the opposing pitcher and, if things are really humming, the exact dosage of anabolic steroid he injected prior to the game and what part of Mexico it was smuggled from.
The one area that's decidedly not an improvement? Those microphones on the pitching coach.
You know the situation -- game on the line, bases drunk with runners, fearsome slugger at the plate ready to pounce on the first fat pitch he sees. The pitching coach makes a beeline to the mound, says a few words to the pitcher, slaps him on the ass, and then skedaddles back to the safety of the dugout. Meanwhile, Fox's Joe Buck is telling us that the pitching coach agreed to wear a microphone before the game and that we're going to listen in on his tete-a-tete with the pitcher. And your ears prick up because you're about to be privy to the pitching coach's inner thoughts. You're about to learn what sage advice professional baseball coaches offer to their players when the chips are down and the odds are large and the fans are screaming for blood.
So what do you hear the coach say?
"Let's get an out now." "Attaway to pitch 'em, Lefty." "Keep throwing 'em the ol' pepper." Or, if you're dealing with a really on-the-ball pitching coach, "Hey -- pitch smart now."
I'm not expecting the coach to go out there and start cursing at the pitcher or to remind of the sizable wager they placed on the outcome of the game or even to discuss the merits of throwing a split-fingered fastball versus a slurve. But if Fox is going to go through all the trouble of bringing me, the home viewer, into the pitching coach's confidence, I guess I'm expecting a little more than a line reading from the Bull Durham Big Book of Pitching Clichés.
Then again, those five seconds of the pitching coach mouthing bland pleasantries are five less seconds that I have to listen to anyone on Fox's broadcast team.
No, I'm not a big fan of Joe Buck -- unless we're talking about the good-natured hick played by Jon Voight in the 1969 motion picture "Midnight Cowboy." He's great. The baseball announcer? Not so good.
It's nothing personal against Buck, who probably pays his fair share of taxes and comes to a complete stop at red lights and who has done nothing to personally wrong me except provide lifeless and forgettable play-by-play. It's just that Buck speaks in that over-modulated, utterly unremarkable way that's so popular with broadcasters these days, particularly those in the employ of Rupert Murdoch. I'm still not entirely convinced that Buck is an actual person and not so voice simulator cooked up by the boys in Redmond. All's I know is I've never heard him and Thom Brenneman on the same telecast, which implies to me that they're either the same guy or that Fox hasn't rigged the synthesizer to produce two distinct voices at the same time. Perhaps in version 2.5.
Then again, having a distinctive voice does not necessarily mean what you're saying is worth hearing. Just ask Tim McCarver, Fox's blowhard color analyst who approaches each broadcast with the assumption that you are unfamiliar with this base-ball, and that even if you have watched a game or three, there is no possible way that you can know as much as him.
So McCarver explains things. Over and over again.
In the Giants-Cardinals series, it was a play involving Reggie Sanders running from first base to second on a fly ball, only to return to first when the fly was caught. Ah, but McCarver pointed out, since Sanders had straddled second base, he needed to touch second before returning to first; otherwise, he should have been called out. No matter that the inning ended without Sanders getting any farther than first base or that the play was really a judgment call by the umpire who happened to be standing two feet away from the bag -- McCarver spent the rest of that half-inning and most of the next talking about the rule and analyzing the replay like it was the Zapruder film. McCarver's point was that... well, I'm not exactly sure what his point was. Other than he knows the exact rule and that you and I probably didn't, which makes him much smarter than you and me.
Remind me again -- Vin Scully and Ernie Harwell are both still alive, right? Two of the greatest baseball announcers to ever live are still with us and still in possession of their faculties -- I'm correct in this, am I not? Then why in God's name aren't we locking those two guys in a broadcast booth and forcing them to do World Series play-by-play until they go hoarse? Look, if it's a matter of sparing Tim McCarver's feelings, just hand him a microphone and tell him he's live on the air. He'll be so busy explaining the infield fly rule in painstaking detail he won't even notice the mike isn't hooked up to anything.
We will refrain from lumping Jeannie Zelasko in with our sweeping condemnation of Fox's terrible announcers. Not that she doesn't deserve it, with her fumbling postgame questions to an understandably confused Mike Scioscia and her stiff-as-a-board demeanor. But we remember from our San Diego days, when Jeannie Zelasko worked for a sports-talk radio station we enjoyed listening to. And she was great -- funny, well-informed, quick on her feet. She gave no quarter and asked for none in return. And now? Now she's reduced to babbling horrible puns about Rally Monkeys and trying to banter with baseball Muppet Kevin Kennedy.
So we're holding off on making fun of Jeannie Zelasko in the hope that whoever stole her personality returns it before spring training next year. No questions asked.
This has little to do with baseball and absolutely nothing to do with television, but those 2002 World Champion hats the Angels were sporting during the postgame ceremony -- the black ones with the heavy white stitches? Not a good look.
I'm not saying that the Giants' hats would have looked any better, mind you, since it would have been the same black hat with a Giants logo slapped on instead of an Angels' one. And as you're probably aware, there are 2002 World Champion hats bearing a San Francisco logo floating around in this world -- they have to make a whole bunch to hand out to the players immediately after they clinch the series. I think I read somewhere once that instead of burning the hats and t-shirts and sweaters of the team that didn't win the championship or burying them in a lead-lined cylinder, Major League Baseball ships them off to a part of the world where they're just happy to have clothes and not particularly picky about whether their shirts are crediting the right team with a World Series victory. So right now, there's a village somewhere in Bhutan where the Giants are recognized as the world champions of baseball, where the Atlanta Braves are known only for postseason success, and where the Buffalo Bills of the 1990s are recognized as the greatest football team ever, thanks to T-shirts that claim they won the Super Bowl four years in a row.
Good God. I'm talking about commemorative World Series hats. It's official. This piece has turned into Larry King's old USA Today column.
And when all is said and done, the 2002 World Series will go down as the lowest-rated World Series ever -- even lower than the 1924 series between the Washington Senators and New York Giants. Of course, there was no cable back then.
Nielsen says the seven-game series averaged an 11.9 rating and a 20 share -- down 24 percent from last year's New York-Arizona tilt. Fox can crow about how 57.9 million people watched at least part of the series, but the network can't be terribly happy that it disrupted its entire fall schedule for something
But hey... how about those girls club promos, huh?
(The now-annual hand-wringing by sportswriters over World Series ratings amuses me because it ignores a seemingly obvious point -- unless you're employed by Fox, Major League Baseball or their respective advertisers, what does it matter what kind of rating the World Series got? It's not like Fox is going to cancel the World Series after Game Three one year and replace it with World's Scariest Police Chases -- no matter what the increasingly dreary Keith Olbermann insists. If you tuned in for any of the Angels-Giants games, you saw an entertaining series with a lot of drama, several comeback victories and a transcendent performance from the best player since Babe Ruth was hitting home runs for sick children. And if you didn't, well, your loss. As for myopic East Coasters who refused to watch the World Series because it featured two California teams, now you know how those of us on the left coast have felt for all those years when Joe Torre and Derek Jeter were exacting their brutal, merciless reign over baseball.)
The gripe on the East Coast is that the games start way too late in the evening, which has them finishing up about the time the farm report is ready to go on the air. And while they have a point, there's really no good starting time that won't inconvenience some of the country. Having the first pitch at 7 p.m. Eastern may get the games over with long before Jay and Dave are ready to hit the airwaves, but that means most of the World Series will be played before folks West of the Mississippi get home from work. The suggestion by wizened traditionalists -- unhappy, old grumps who think everything's been in steady decline since Warren G. Harding died -- that baseball revert to weekday afternoon World Series games is even more laughable. Yeah, start the games when everyone's at work or in school -- that'll boost ratings.
The fact of the matter is, you could start a World Series game at 8 p.m. Eastern and finish it just in time for the late local news with a modest amount of effort. Just eliminate the pregame pageantry -- the lengthy player introductions, the musical numbers, the embarrassing Jeannie Zelasko-Kevin Kennedy interactions. Put the kibosh on those five-minute strolls that batters routinely take between pitches, and tell pitchers who stare at the plate as if they're waiting for the batter to fall over dead to hurry it up please. I shouldn't be able to comfortably channel-surf between pitches. Oh, and reduce the tsunami of programming promos, house ads, and cutaways to the cast of Malcolm in the Middle taking in the game at Anaheim to a mere trickle -- they not only add to the length of the broadcast, they rob the game of anything approaching flow or tension.
Wait a minute -- a World Series telecast that's not overflowing with promos for upcoming Fox shows? I think I might have better luck finding a watchable episode of Hidden Hills.
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