Wednesday, September 15, 2010


One of the good things about life these days (the list is shrinking) is Major League Baseball’s Extra Innings package, which for $160 puts on my cable-TV menu just about every ballgame that’s televised anywhere-- more than 2,000 over the course of a season.

That works out to about 12 cents a game, a bargain by any measure. While my viewing is heavily tilted towards the Chicago Cubs and White Sox, my 1 and 1A favorite teams, I’ll sometimes skip around of an evening, watching a couple innings of this contest and a couple of that. That’s particularly true at this time of year, when the pennant and wild-card races are being decided. It puts me into baseball in a way that’s not possible otherwise, something for which I’m grateful.

Extra Innings also has enabled me to listen to most of the broadcasters of the day, a mixed blessing. I’m sorry to report that the state of their art is less than brilliant, consisting mostly of generic TV voices, unreflective homerism and incessant complaining about how the umpires are screwing the broadcasters’ teams. If I didn’t watch most games with half an eye, depending on the broadcasters’ vocal inflections to determine when to look up from my crossword puzzles, I’d turn off the sound altogether.

Part of my problem with today’s baseball voices no doubt stems from my being spoiled in that regard early in life. The first games I heard, on radio, were described by Bert Wilson, the Cubs’ announcer of the 1940s and early ‘50s. Wilson was a blatant homer whose signature line was “I don’t care who wins as long as it’s the Cubs,” but that was okay with my pre-teen and teen selves, which saw baseball just that way. Wilson died of a heart attack while still in his prime, something I blame on the frustrations of having to watch the terrible Cub teams of his later years. I still mourn him.

In 1955, the year of poor Bert’s demise, I went off to college at the U. of Illinois in downstate Champaign-Urbana. There, on St. Louis station KMOX, I was introduced to the jolly, raspy voice of Harry Caray, then the Cardinals’ broadcaster. I hated it when he mouthed the gloating line “the Cardinals are coming tra-la, tra-la” when the Redbirds surged, but came to love him in similar poses in Chicago, both with the White Sox (1971 –81) and Cubs, for whom he held forth from 1982 until his death in 1998.

Harry also was a homer, but his favoritism was that of a fan, not a shill; nothing quite matched the derision in his voice when he’d say “Heeeee popped it up!” after a Cub or Sox player failed with runners in scoring position. He exuded bonhomie, and, after spending an evening with him on Rush Street in the ‘80s, I can attest it was no pose. I also can tell you that his drink of choice was scotch and soda, not the beer he was paid to hawk.

I lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1961 and ’62, when Ernie Harwell was breaking in as the Detroit Tigers’ voice. No one made baseball sound friendlier or more welcoming.

I worked in Pittsburgh from 1963 until mid-1966, where I got to listen to the great Bob Prince. No one made baseball more fun than “The Gunner,” so nicknamed not for any rapid-fire delivery, as many supposed, but because an irate husband once approached him weapon in hand while Prince was chatting up the guy’s wife in a bar. I could do a whole column on Prince. Maybe someday I will.

I lived in New York from mid 1966 into '69 and loved it when Phil Rizzuto would get so wrapped up in one of his goofy stories that he’d miss entire half-innings of the Yankees’ games he called. Rizzuto made scorekeeping history with his notation “ww”—for “wasn’t watching”— which he used for players’ turns at bat he missed.

Next to those giants, most of today’s broadcasters look small. You can’t tell one from another from their voices, their homerism grates rather than amuses, and if you removed the words “incredible” and “unbelievable” from their vocabularies, they hardly could speak. The other day I was watching a Detroit telecast of a Tigers-White Sox game when, in the drowsy second inning of a 0-0 game, Tiger pitcher Max Scherzer slipped a slider past a Sox hitter for a called second strike. “What a pitch! Unbelievable!” cried the Tigers’ announcer, Mario Impemba. “Wow!” chimed in his sidekick, Dan Dickerson.

“Unbelievable!” and “Wow!” for a strike two in a nothing situation? What do those jokers say when something really exceptional happens? Would they know it if they saw it?

This is not to say that all of today’s broadcasters, uh, suck. Jon Miller, who does the San Francisco Giants’ and ESPN national games, is concise and witty, and a nice counterpoint to his peevish ESPN partner, ex-player Joe Morgan. The L.A. Dodgers’ Vin Scully does a radio broadcast on TV but brings it off with his fine phrasing and elocution. The New York Mets’ Ron Darling is an able analyst, destined for bigger things on the tube

Far and away the most-interesting guy out there, though, is Ken Harrelson, the White Sox’s voice for most of the last 30 years. I have to admit that “The Hawk” is an acquired taste. He’s an awful umpiring whiner and was something of a bully with previous broadcasting partners Tom Paciorek and Darrin Jackson, although his present sidekick, the astute and acerbic Steve Stone, doesn’t let him get away with that. Every other word out of Harrelson’s mouth is a catch-phrase; how many “duck snorts” or “chopper two-hoppers” can you take in a nine-inning game, dadgummit?

Yet much of his shtick is funny and his enthusiasm for the game is infectious. One Saturday afternoon last month I was in a South Lake Tahoe sports book, playing the horses, while an Oakland A’s- Tampa Bay Rays game was running in an adjacent TV lounge. An A’s player hit a home run and two young men—apparently locals in a town that roots for Bay Area teams—arose as one and emitted Hawk’s signature cry, “You can put it on the board, YES!”

I had to laugh, as did everyone else within earshot. And you don’t often see such lines migrate in this era of parochial tastes and interests.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010


I’ve never paid much attention to the awarding of the Heisman Trophy, given to the young man voted best college football player for a particular season. Begun in 1935 as an exercise in self-promotion by the Downtown Athletic Club, a now-defunct Manhattan men’s club, it honors individual performance in the quintessential team sport, and is more a product of hype than anything else.

Like many things in our culture, it’s gotten more objectionable as it’s gotten bigger, with the ESPN program that announces its awarding resembling nothing so much as a cheesy game show (“And the winner is….”). Caring who gets it is a sure sign that something’s lacking in your life.

However (and you knew there’d be a “however”), I have a candidate for this year’s award-- Ricky Dobbs of Navy. Not only was he the best and most exciting collegiate player I saw last season, and promises to be that again this year, but there’s every reason to believe that he’s an actual student at a university that exists for reasons other than fielding a football team. If those things eliminate him from consideration by the actual electors, so be it. I’d rather lose with Ricky than win with a more-conventional candidate from some Enormous State U.

The Heisman is about football, so a few words about Mr. Dobbs’ qualifications in that activity are in order. He’s a quarterback, the right position for the award (almost all the winners have been QBs or running backs), but not a usual sort of one, just as Navy isn’t your typical big-time football team. It runs what’s called the triple-option offense, which is based more on deceiving opponents than overpowering them. That’s because Navy doesn’t field the dozens of stud-jock aspiring pros that some of its foes do.

In the triple-option, the quarterback (Ricky) gets the ball from center and then must decide whether to pass it, pitch or hand it off, or run with it himself. It’s a reaction call based on what the defense does, and thus requires decision-making skills as well as physical ones. In practice, Navy’s is a running offense, and last season, en route to a 10-4 won-lost mark, it ran the ball about eight times as often as it threw it, a most-unusual ratio. It depends on crafting long drives with 4-, 5- or 6-yard gains, thus controlling the ball and keeping foes’ offenses off the field.

That doesn’t sound very interesting, but it can be. The best college game I saw last year was Navy versus Missouri in the Texas Bowl. Navy thoroughly flummoxed lummoxy Missou, going through, around and over it for a 35-13 victory, with the bouncy Dobbs running for 166 yards, passing for 130 more and scoring three touchdowns. He scored 27 TDs over the season, a national record for quarterbacks. In other games against the big boys last season, he helped Navy beat Notre Dame and lose narrowly to Ohio State.

It’s remarkable in itself that Navy can compete with the likes of Missouri, ND and OSU. While athletes undoubtedly get preferred treatment for admission to the U.S. Naval Academy (as they also do at Ivy League and other schools that award no athletic scholarships, per se, but still field varsity teams), by all accounts they get no breaks once they’re there. Freshman year at Annapolis begins with seven grueling summer weeks of what amounts to basic training, and every midshipman (that’s what a student is called) has to complete a four-year course load heavy with math and the physical sciences in addition to military subjects.

School days begin with 6:30 a.m. reveille and end with lights out at 11 p.m. Uniforms are worn everywhere and there’s lots of marching and formations. Dorm rooms must meet white-glove neatness standards. (Yours did, too, right?) After graduation there’s a five-year service obligation that can involve getting shot at. You have to wonder how those guys keep their minds on football even part time.

If anyone can juggle multiple obligations, apparently it’s Ricky. Not only is he captain of this year’s Navy team—a signal honor-- he’s also vice-president of his senior class. In high school in his native Douglasville, Georgia, just west of Atlanta, his nickname was “The Mayor,” indicating an active and gregarious nature.

His Navy web-site biography notes that his birth date, January 31, 1988, was the day Doug Williams of the Washington Redskins became the first black quarterback to lead a team to a Super Bowl victory. Young Mr. Dobbs says he’d like to do that, too, once his Navy stint is ended, then go on to be president… of the United States.

The kid doesn’t make it easy on himself, does he? That alone deserves a trophy these days.