Between now and the end of the season, some of us will be spending a lot of time with the Royals broadcasting crew. Including spring training, I estimate I’ll listen to about fifty radio broadcasts, and watch another 120 or so games on TV (yes – between Royals games and my DVD box set of the Gilmore Girls, I lead a rich, full life). Given an average game length of three hours, that means I’ll be listening to some combination of Denny Matthews, Ryan Lefebvre, Rex Hudler, Steve Stewart, and Steve Physioc (Joel Goldberg doesn’t get enough screen time to make a significant impact – although I think he does a good job) for more than 500 hours by the end of September. With any luck, maybe more.
500 hours is a long time to listen to anyone. But it can feel a whole lot longer when you’re subjected to incompetence, especially on days when the team isn’t playing well (winning cures everything…even bad announcing).
A competent announcer entertains, informs, and enhances the game experience for the fans. Even though the color and play-by-play responsibilities differ somewhat in terms of specific responsibilities, for my money, there are five primary factors that determine whether any announcer is worth their salt (listed in descending order of importance):
Knowledge. About the intricacies of the game, strategy and trade-offs, the players – their tendencies and backgrounds, history, the cities and the ballparks, weather patterns, organizational philosophies, influential behind-the-scenes people – the list of pertinent topics is enormous. When you talk for over three hours straight every night for a living, during which time there will be extended periods when not much happens, it helps if you have something useful to say. The term “inside baseball” entered the popular lexicon for a reason. It’s easy to tell which announcers have put in the effort necessary to acquire knowledge, and which ones just show up.
Personality. Likability and style are important. Nobody wants to listen to somebody they despise, or even merely find annoying. Game calls become intertwined with our own personal stories, deeply embedded in our memory banks. We want to create and harbor good memories for ourselves.
Story-telling ability. Everybody likes a good yarn (everybody with a soul, that is).
Interviewing skill. Being a good listener is different than being a good story-teller, though they often go hand-in-hand. A quick wit helps, too.
Voice. Some people are born with good pipes, and some of us aren’t. But it’s not the most important trait, to be sure. You don’t need a great voice to be a good announcer, but you can’t be unlistenable, either.
Baseball announcers aren’t journalists. They know where their paychecks originate. They aren’t going to bite the hand that feeds them (unless their name is Frank White), so they’re naturally constrained in their ability to speak candidly when it comes to organizational and player shortcomings. But timely constructive criticism is essential between members of any healthy organization. And more than one announcer over the years has spotted a flaw, and helped a player or coach contribute more effectively as a result.
Announcers also have a responsibility to their listeners, apart from their responsibility to the team. Even though I don’t expect them to be completely open and forthcoming, I don’t like to be blatantly lied to, either (which is why I also don’t listen to politicians and government bureaucrats).
Judging any announcer’s abilities is a highly subjective exercise. If somebody simply rubs you the wrong way, even for some obscure reason, you’re going to be more critical. But if it’s good enough for half-pipe and figure skating, it’s good enough for baseball talkers.
Based on a rudimentary 100-point scoring system (as you may have already guessed – I’m not exactly a sabermetrics wizard), I’ve developed the following metric for scoring baseball announcers: Knowledge – 33 points max, Personality – 25 points max, Story-telling ability – 18 points max, Interviewing skill – 12 points max, Voice – 12 points max.
Using that scale, here’s how I rank our current crop of announcers (in descending order of performance):
Denny Matthews is a made man. Scores are completely irrelevant. Forty-five years with the same organization will do that for you. He’s probably not the greatest baseball announcer who ever lived, but he’s not very far from whomever you happen to think that is (Vin Scully would probably be a popular choice).
The late, great long-time Tigers announcer, Ernie Harwell, once described how more than one grown woman had told him over the years that merely encountering the sound of his voice while flipping through the radio dial would occasionally bring them to tears, by instantly provoking memories of a beloved deceased father. Even people who probably couldn’t care less about the sport of baseball itself, had still formed an emotional connection to his broadcasts. Powerful stuff.
Like Harwell, Denny has become a significant part of many people’s lives. His voice has been the pleasant, soothing, familiar soundtrack of many a Kansas City fan’s summer days and nights, for decades, if not since the day they were born. He’s often told the story of the ancient woman, with failing eyesight, living alone, whose greatest single pleasure each day was listening to the Royals game on the radio. Don’t mail it in, is the lesson he imparts, even after a three-hour rain delay in Seattle, with the score 9-2 Mariners, when it’s 3:00 AM back in KC. Somebody, somewhere, is listening, and pulling for the club to win. They deserve your best effort. Even though Denny doesn’t travel much with the team any more, he understands his job. And he does it extremely well. I appreciate Denny. It’s a pleasure to hear the great ones at work. And I hope he does another decade or two before he retires.
Ryan Lefebvre. Solid in every respect. The heir-apparent to Denny’s mantle as top-dog, although he did consider a return to the Twins a few years ago (the Royals would be very foolish to let him go). He has an atypical background, having literally grown up in big league clubhouses, and has openly struggled with depression and alcohol abuse, which all serves to provide a wealth of interesting personal stories to draw upon. He played baseball at a high level in college, and knows the game. But also knew quickly after being drafted that he wasn’t good enough to ever become a big league player. He’s observant, quick-witted, knowledgeable, brings out the best in his partners, and has a good — if occasionally biting — sense of humor. Score – 84.
Steve Stewart. Under-rated. He’s competent, and that’s more than can be said for some. He’s a good interviewer (I love the Jon Miller spot they occasionally run during rain delays). He listens well, and plays to the strengths of his colleagues. He deserves more air time than he gets. Score – 70.
Rex Hudler. I have to admit, he’s grown on me. Yes, his corny catch-phrases, over-the-top homerism, and over-reliance on clichés can be grating, even obnoxious on occasion. But his relentless enthusiasm, and the obvious joy he takes in his job — he gets paid to watch and talk baseball, after all — is hard not to appreciate. It’s genuine. It’s who he is. If he ever has a bad day (and we all do), or gets bored by the monotony and repetition, he doesn’t let it show.
A career journeyman player who nevertheless managed to get paid a not-so-small fortune to play baseball for twenty years — ten in the big leagues — he goes out of his way to make sure the young players understand how fortunate they are to be doing what they do. He has lots of personal anecdotes to draw upon, and he knows the game well, even though he’s been somewhat reluctant to let go of some of the old ways, and embrace the tremendous value the sabermetrics revolution has created (not unusual for baseball men his age…see also Ned Yost). Score – 68.
Steve Physioc. Not good. Not good at all. He fills the large void of incompetence left by Bob Davis’s wildly acclaimed departure with way too much of the same. He’s probably either a really great person, or he has compromising pictures of Dayton or the Glasses. There’s no other rational explanation for why the man has a job as a Royals broadcaster.
He does have a great voice, somewhat reminiscent of Ted Baxter from the old Mary Tyler Moore show – even down to the frequent use of the pretentious and pompous phrase “Frankly,…” as a precursor to one of his many inane observations. You should be frank all the time, Steve. Otherwise – find something else to say!
Steve is a terrible listener. He often makes a statement identical to something just said by his partner only a few moments prior. He misses obvious set-ups, goes off-topic with total non-sequiturs at the worst possible times, and conducts poor interviews. I’m just waiting for the time when Steve is interviewing some person about some charity event in the middle of the game, only to have the person casually mention that they were abducted and probed by space aliens the previous week. Steve’s reply? “And where can people send those donations again?”
He rarely if ever has anything of interest or value to add to the broadcast. Sorry if that seems harsh. It’s not personal. And I’m certainly not implying that I could do better. For the record, Steve is ten times better than I could ever be, at a very difficult job. But everyone who puts themselves out there for public consumption (me included) has to accept the criticism that comes with their endeavors. He’s simply not good enough. And as a fan, I resent being subjected to that level of incompetence. Score – 51.
If I had the power, I’d fire Physioc, promote Stewart to fill his role, and promote Stephen Davis (Bob’s son, who apparently takes after his mother) from the Northwest Arkansas Naturals to fill Stewart’s present position.
I’d also hire Kate Upton and Paulina Gretzky, and maybe a few of their hot friends, and give them as much TV time as possible. Perhaps seat them strategically behind home plate – one in the left-handed hitter’s camera view, and one in the righty’s. That would definitely enhance the game experience for the bulk of the viewing audience.