Homer on the mike

For those with nothing better to do tonight, I will be announcing the Platteville–River Valley football game around 7 p.m. You can listen at wglr.com.

The timing is coincidental, but the Wall Street Journal decided that one of the burning questions of today is … how biased home-team baseball TV announcers are:

The conventional wisdom in sports is that TV announcers should strive to call the game straight down the middle. It’s a philosophy that’s been embraced over the years by most of the famous baseball voices.

The first problem is: Where, other than the networks and national sports channels (that is, ESPN), is that the conventional wisdom? If you’re watching baseball on Fox or ESPN, you expect an unbiased broadcast. If you’re watching on Fox Sports or whoever carries the team in its market, you expect them to favor the team they’re covering, though not egregiously.

What’s my definition of “egregiously”?

If you’re wondering what’s going on in the American League Central pennant race over the next week, all you need to do is tune into a Chicago White Sox telecast and listen for the voice of the team’s play-by-play man, Ken “Hawk” Harrelson.

Harrelson is, to put it diplomatically, a bit of a “homer.” In other words, he’s unapologetic about his devotion to the White Sox, the team he routinely calls “the good guys.” According to one measure, Harrelson and his booth partner, Steve Stone, make more nakedly biased statements during a single game than every other TV broadcast team in the American League combined.

“Let’s just say that if we’re losing, you’re going to know it,” Harrelson said in a recent interview. “I won’t sound happy.” …

Harrelson has taken a decidedly different approach. He considers himself the biggest White Sox fan on the planet. It just so happens that he’s paid to talk about them. He’s known for begging long fly balls (Stretch! Stretch!) to soar over the fence and imploring the players for key hits. He even criticizes calls that don’t go Chicago’s way. In May, he went on a rant against umpire Mark Wegner, saying that he “knows nothing about the game of baseball.” After that outburst went viral, he met with Commissioner Bud Selig and ultimately apologized.

Harrelson should apologize to anyone watching White Sox games for not only his blatant homerism — which one would expect to some extent for watching a WGN-TV White Sox game — but his unprofessionalism in announcing. Several years ago I watched the White Sox blow a ninth-inning lead and lose to California … I mean Anaheim … I mean the Los Angeles Angels. I don’t think Harrelson said 10 words as the White Sox proceeded to lose their lead and the ballgame.

(Harrelson should also apologize to Stone for ruining Stone’s reputation as a really good analyst, which he was with the Cubs’ Harry Caray before the Cubs stupidly decided they didn’t need him around anymore because he was — horrors! — too hard on the Cubs.)

Regardless of who employs them — the team or their broadcast outlet — an announcer should be expected at least to tell listeners or viewers what’s going on, not sit there in a snit because he doesn’t like what’s happening. (I once announced a season of a football team in which the team lost every game. I didn’t like that, but I didn’t take entire drives off because I didn’t like how they were playing. At a minimum, that’s unfair to the listeners and viewers. At the high school level, it’s also unfair to the players, who certainly do not intend to lose.)

Some comments claim Harrelson recognizes good performances by the “bad guys.” (Yes, that’s what he calls Sox opponents.) I have yet to hear this, but we’ll assume they’re right. The point, however, is that WGN is carried across the world via satellite, which means that not only White Sox fans, but fans of their opponents watch, and because of their superstation status, probably in greater proportions than other teams’ cable outlets.

Based on one game — yes, one game — the Journal proceeded to rate all 32 baseball team TV announcers for bias, or lack thereof:

Some of what the writer sees as bias doesn’t strike me as bias, or at least objectionable bias. The Pirates’ “E-I-E-you’re-out!” comment might be funny … once. “Casilla’s window-shopping!” is a more contemporary version of longtime Tigers’ announcer Ernie Harwell’s comment on an opponent’s called-strikeout that “He stood there like a house by the side of the road and watched it go by.” (If I ever got a chance to do baseball, I’ve thought of announcing a called strikeout as “SIT … dowwwwwwwwn.”)

As a viewer, I would be annoyed by “Can I get a big WOOOO!” or “Paul GOOOOOOOOLDSCHMIDT!” As an announcer, I am not saying anything close to that. I’m not sure who’s to blame for this, but announcers, even at the major-league level, seem increasingly eager to shriek like baboons at big moments. Some announcers sometimes seem to spend more time practicing their catch-phrases than, say, doing game prep. (I have exactly two catch-phrases: “Bullseye!” for a three-point basket, and “To the end zone!” to announce the end of a long touchdown run. The former replaced “Bango!”, a reference to former Bucks announcer Eddie Doucette that no one remembers; the latter was my attempt to say something other than “touchdown” for a football team that averaged 46 points a game.)

I do not refer to the team I’m announcing as “we,” because I’m not a member of the team. (Believe me, no team wants me on their team. And yes, that rule includes when I’m watching the Packers, Badgers or Brewers; I’m not on their teams either.) I don’t refer to players by their nicknames. The story does point out that former players who become analysts, which could include the Brewers’ Bill Schroeder, are probably more comfortable saying “we” or “us” because they were on the team. And if I say “we go to the fourth quarter,” that means the listeners or viewers along with us announcers.

But if I’m announcing one specific team, I would be an idiot if I didn’t want that team to win. For one thing, the listeners want that team to win. (Which means the sponsors too.) Beyond that, if I’m covering a team in the postseason, it’s in my own best interest as an announcer for that team to win. The more the team wins, the farther it goes in the postseason. Teams that win titles tend to help their announcers’ careers, as Wayne Larrivee, who called the Bears’ Super Bowl XX win, can probably attest.

I used to announce Ripon College football and basketball games for Ripon’s cable TV channel. The last few years, those games were broadcast live on the Internet as a conference package, with each home team originating the webcast. Our games had the same announcers broadcasting for three different audiences — each teams’ fans live, and the Ripon viewers (including the players) the next day. If I got any complaints about bias, I never heard them. (In fact, one of the nicest announcing compliments I’ve ever gotten came from a follower of one of Ripon’s opponents.)

There is a difference between an announcer who wants his team to win, and an announcer who wants his team to win so badly that he refuses to acknowledge reality — that maybe his team is not as good as its opponent, or that an official’s call justifiably went the other way. One reason Harry Caray was tolerable to watch if you weren’t a Cubs fan is that Caray would turn on the Cubs when they did poorly. (Caray’s call of a Henry Aaron home run in a Braves–Cardinals game: “Here’s the pitch … oh my god … it’s over the roof.”) That also applied to his son, Skip, who was legendary for wittily skewering the team that was paying his salary. (He was fond of announcing “partial sellouts” at Atlanta–Fulton County Stadium, where fans dressed as empty seats got in free, and opened one game with “And like lambs to the slaughter, the Braves take the field.”)

The first, most important thing a sports announcer must do is call the game. It amazes me how often the little things like, say, score and time don’t get mentioned. (Having written that, I must admit that one issue for me in converting from tape-delay TV to live radio is calling the score and time enough.) Beyond that, an announcer has to know his audience. Fans forgave Packer and Badger announcer Jim Irwin, and forgive Brewers announcer Bob Uecker, for their announcer lapses because their careers demonstrated that they wanted the teams they were announcing to win. That seems to be priority number one among Wisconsin sports listeners.  They even forgave Larrivee for having been the Bears’ announcer before he got to the correct side of the Bears–Packers rivalry.

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