Sunday Night Baseball

(The Internet has made TV criticism more prominent, but the kinds of shows TV critics write about—serialized dramas and single-camera comedies—are rarely the kinds of shows that become popular with a mass audience. Every week, TV Club is going to drop in on one of the top-rated programs in the nation, one that we don't normally cover. What makes these shows popular? Should we be covering them more often? Are our preconceived notions about quality not necessarily following popularity justified, or are we jumping to conclusions? This week, Noel Murray watches Sunday Night Baseball. Next week, Todd VanDerWerff watches an entire day of America's fourth-most watched TV network, Univision.)

I’ll watch just about any televised sporting event, but I reserve my deepest passion for Major League Baseball. I’ve been an Atlanta Braves fan practically since I drew my first breath in a DeKalb County hospital nearly 41 years ago, and they remain the one team whose performance can alter my entire demeanor. When the Braves win, I feel proud, confident, and generous of spirit. I devour every news story and column I can find about the game—sometimes getting a little choked-up while reading about how well my boys played—then spend the rest of the night tracking every other game relevant to the standings, while admiring how amazing some of MLB’s other superstars can be. When the Braves lose, on the other hand, I’m short-tempered and despondent, convinced that the team’s flaws are too pronounced for them to make a deep run. And while I still keep an eye on the rest of the league, I do so bitterly, unable to enjoy any non-Braves’ success. There are NFL teams I follow closely (the Falcons, the Titans) and college football and basketball teams for whom I feel a lot of affection (UGA, Vandy, the Razorbacks). And I become a deeply patriotic dude every few years during the Olympics and World Cup. But the Braves are the only team I really care about.

I don’t live in Braves country—my local cable system here in central Arkansas gets the Cardinals, Royals, Astros, and Rangers—so for the past couple of years I’ve ponied up for a MLB.TV subscription, which I watch on my laptop, iPad, and Apple TV. I also spend a lot of time watching the MLB Network and especially the last hour or so of MLB Tonight, where I can get live-look-ins to all the late games and decide if any of them worth dialing up on MLB.TV. Between watching just about every Braves game of the season—sometimes with the Atlanta broadcasters and sometimes with the opponents’—and watching pieces of about four or five other games a day, it’s fair to say that I’ve immersed myself in televised baseball these past few years. I’ve watched the veteran broadcasters, with their quirky turns of phrase and (sometimes) blatant homerism, and I’ve watched the blow-dried youngsters, still developing their personalities. I’ve heard dozens of ex-jocks of varying articulateness provide color commentary and seen dozens of perky reporters talk to kids and/or old ladies in the stands.

But if I can avoid it, I don’t watch ESPN.

I’ve written before—maybe too much, in fact—about how I used to be an ESPN junkie but grew frustrated over the past decade with the network’s elevation of personalities over reporting. The decline of the once-essential Baseball Tonight has been especially painful to watch, as the show has lost the combination of expertise and enthusiasm that used to make it such a treat and has become like so many other basic-cable shows in which smug, humorless dudes make baseless pronouncements. As for the baseball broadcasts, they’ve been hampered over the years by ESPN’s inexplicable commitment to some truly terrible announcers. Joe Morgan was a drag on Sunday Night Baseball for far too long, and I experience a slowly mounting rage every time I listen to Rick Sutcliffe start spouting knee-jerk opinions on players and teams about which he clearly knows nothing. (Aaron Boone’s not so bad, except that he sounds a lot like Will Forte’s high-voiced, clueless broadcaster Greg Stink.)

Currently, Sunday Night Baseball features the color commentary of Bobby Valentine, who’s not as bad as Morgan or Sutcliffe but still has the habit of getting mired in complicated sentences which ultimately end with him delivering judgments based strictly on what’s happening in the moment. In tonight’s Cubs-Cardinals game, for example, play-by-play man Dan Shulman asked Valentine for his “gut feel” about whether Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa would return next season, which is fine in and of itself, except that (like Morgan before him and Sutcliffe on Mondays) about all Valentine does is offer “gut feels,” and talk about how some players need to “step up.” Valentine knows the game, undoubtedly, but mainly in the abstract. When I watch local baseball broadcasts, it’s clear that the announcers have actually talked to the home and away players before the first pitch and can speak with some authority. I’m not sure the ESPN color commentators even read the sports pages, let alone take it upon themselves to do some actual reporting.

There are some fundamental aspects of the ESPN Sunday baseball broadcast that work. They look good, with minimal frippery, aside from the live K-Zone (which I could certainly do without). I do miss Jon Miller—who has a way of making even routine fly balls sound like a wondrous surprise—but Shulman has a rich, Al Michaels-like voice, and a refreshingly professional demeanor. In tonight’s game, he peppered his call of the action with updates of what happened around the league this afternoon and tidbits about the historic importance of Wrigley Field. He did what a good play-by-play man is supposed to do: provide context for the game, both for this day and in general. About all I can fault him on is a lack of camaraderie with his partner. I rarely get the sense that Shulman and Valentine are having a great time together. There’s no apparent animosity, just very little… ease.

Of course, tonight’s broadcast was a little different than usual. The SNB’s third man, Orel Hershiser, is away working the Little League World Series. (And while I generally prefer a two-man booth, the presence of Hershiser does reduce Valentine’s mic-time.) Also missing: Karl Ravech, Barry Larkin, and John Kruk, who weren’t doing an on-location Baseball Tonight outside the park the way they frequently have this summer. This was also fine with me; I didn’t really need to see a video package about Kruk looking for the city’s best hot dog or whatever.

Sunday Night Baseball did have reporters Buster Olney and Pedro Gomez hustling around the park. Olney provided some actual value, suggesting some possible candidates for the now-vacant Cubs GM position and breaking the news that the Angels’ Jered Weaver has signed a five-year contract. Gomez’s main contribution, on the other hand, was an innocuous in-game interview with Cardinals’ manager Tony LaRussa, in which Gomez asked, “How important is it to get out of here without being swept?” (Um… very?)

I hate in-game interviews. With a deep, hate-like hate. If broadcasters want to interview people before the game and then replay the choicest bits, fine. But when batters are facing live pitching and I’m listening to yesterday’s starter offer his thoughts on the game thus far, I always get the feeling that the network doesn’t trust baseball itself to be compelling enough to keep people watching. (I’m not sure which broadcaster is the worst about this: Fox, which seems to have more interviews than game coverage some weeks, or WGN, which spends whole innings talking with people who often have no interest in baseball.)

That said, this Cubs/Cards game did feature a legitimately worthwhile interview with Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts, whom Shulman pressed on what Cub fans have said they want him to work on and on what he plans to do with troublesome pitcher Carlos Zambrano. And though I’m no Valentine fan, there was an exciting stretch in the seventh inning when Valentine was laying into Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro for his bad on-field habits, including looking away from the plate as a pitch is being thrown, and gobbing sunflower seeds, rather than moving to back up a play.

The problem, though, is that since I haven’t watched the Cubs a lot this season, I have no idea whether Valentine based this rant on Castro’s usual slackness or whether he was just extrapolating based on what he saw that inning. I know from watching teams I’m more familiar with on Sunday Night Baseball in the past that while Valentine is better than Sutcliffe, he also doesn’t always know what he’s talking about.

This I think is at the root of my resistance to ESPN’s baseball broadcasts and Fox’s as well. We live in an age where on any given night of the week I can dial up just about any baseball game and watch it with the play-by-play and color commentary of people with specialized knowledge about one or both of the teams competing. But when Fox is on the air on Saturday, or ESPN on Sunday, my options are drastically reduced, unless I want to mute the TV and listen to the radio announcers. And that’s frustrating. Because this is the sport I love the most, and I want to hear it called by people who care as much as I do.

Stray Observations:

  • Cards won 6-2, by the way.
  • One of the things I like about MLB Network (and MLB.TV) is that I get to watch a lot of different teams. Compare that to the Fox, TBS, and ESPN packages, which tend to show the same handful of teams over and over. Cubs vs. Cardinals was the Fox Saturday game here, and now here they are again on ESPN. TBS, meanwhile, had the Yankees, of course. (I shouldn’t complain too much, though. The Braves are one of those teams that gets a lot of network play. If I were a Brewers or a Tigers fan, I’d be more annoyed.)
  • Maybe it’s just that I have almost no interest in the event, but it seems to me that ESPN is way overselling the Little League World Series. It’s one of those cases where I feel like ESPN is trying to make the LLWS a bigger story because the network is airing so many of the games.
  • I will say this for the ESPN Sunday crew: they generally don’t do the “I’m just a dumb TV guy and don’t know anything about anything” shtick that gets on my nerves. I was watching the Braves telecast this afternoon, and Tom Glavine used the word “plethora” and got mocked by Chip Caray and Joe Simpson for his fancy vocabulary. C’mon, guys. You both went to college. Quit pretending.
  • This time of year is both exciting—playoffs chases heating up!—and a little sad, because the number of potentially significant games dwindles by the day. A few weeks ago, I had to keep an eye on the Pirates and the Reds, along with the Brewers, Diamondbacks, Cardinals, Giants, and Phillies. Now those two are pretty much out—as are the Cards, really.
  • If my calculations are correct, the Braves’ magic number for the wild card is 27. Just throwing that out there.
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