Monday, September 28, 2009

Tell Us Something We Don't Know

Over the years, JB and I have had many a conversation on the frustrating inadequacies--sometimes bordering on maddening incompetence--of most television sports commentators. Across the sports world what you encounter more often than not with television commentary is obvious observations, irrelevant anecdotes, inane analysis, banal banter (with the play-by-play announcers), and a deluge of shopworn clichés particular to whatever sport you happen to be watching.

What's especially galling about the crummy level of commentary you usually get is there is a definite audience demand for informed, appropriate, and yes even entertaining television sports commentary. We're not at the game so we can't see everything that's going on. Most of us haven't played the sport at the highest level so we don't know all the intricacies of the game and what's really going on in the huddle, on the bench, or in the dugout. That's why the commentators are often former professional athletes who should be able to offer us a window into the world beyond what we can see taking place on our television screens.

Unfortunately, as Skip Rozin astutely observed in Saturday's WSJ, instead of meaningful insight we usually get drivel:

Don't misunderstand; I love good talk, talk that draws back the curtain separating fans from athletes and their games. Have you ever watched a baseball game and seen a batter hit a single and then visit with the first baseman? I want to know what they're discussing. Or in football, when receiver and safety lock up chasing a pass that barely eludes their outstretched hands, then jaw at each other as they trot back up field--what are they saying? When a manager blows up at the umpire, is he really angry or just supporting his player? These are the secrets from which fans are barred; that's the talk I'm eager to hear, not drivel.

Exactly. I don't want to hear a rehash of what just happened on the field. I saw it too. I want to hear a perspective from an angle that I can't see or wouldn't think about. Rozin continues:

Since television gives us all the action, commentators are most valuable when they provide information that fans cannot discern for themselves. We want more than a tedious dissection of the previous play, canned facts from press releases or trivia about an athlete's childhood.

Again spot on. We can easily access all the publicly available information we want about a team or a player. What we want is for you to go behind the facade a bit and enlighten us about aspects of the game that remain hidden.

Everyone can probably cite their own examples of the most egregious offenders when it comes to poor sports commentary on television. My personal bete noire in this area is Twins television commentator Bert Blyleven. There are a couple of factors that probably exacerbate my exasperation with Blyleven. One is simply the sheer number of baseball games televised over the course of the year. This translates into hundreds of hours for Bert to bore and annoy us with his insipid commentary. The other is that he's paired with Dick Bremer, a play-by-play announcer who combines casual arrogance with actual cluelessness. That fact that neither one of them has a real sense of humor or any discernable personality at all also contributes to the level of anguish one experiences when watching a game with the sound on.

Given Blyleven's twenty-three year major league baseball pitching career--which included All Star Game and World Series appearances--you would think that he would bring a lot to the table in terms of colorful stories, inside baseball insights, and understanding of what's really going. But you would be wrong. Instead of drawing on his past experiences in baseball and current contact with the team to enlighten and entertain the audience, Blyleven is content to stick with regurgitating the same clichés, well-worn references, and observations of the obvious that he's been throwing out for the last thirteen plus years as a color commentator.

Over the many months of this year's baseball season, there have been scores of examples of Blyleven's failings in this regard. One particular one that stuck in my craw was a few months ago. I can't recall all the details, but the Twins had a new pitcher who was making his first start of the season, at Texas I think. He managed to work into the fourth or fifth inning without too much trouble. Then, he allowed runners to reach first and second with no out. The next batter laid a bunt down the third baseline which the pitcher stumbled off the mound to field. He picked up the ball, spun, and underhanded it to third not realizing that the third baseman (a rare appearance by a healthy Crede I believe) was not on the bag. The ball went into leftfield, a run scored, and the other runners advanced an extra base.

A key turning point in both the kid's outing and the game. And what do we hear from Bert after seeing the replay? "He picked up the ball and threw it thinking someone was at third." Really? Wow, I would have never realized that's what had taken place without that stunning insight. Even worse, Blyleven added nothing more on it afterward. Nothing about how important it is for a pitcher to field his position. Nothing on how a pitcher can learn to become a better fielder (a skill that Blyleven is not shy bragging about himself). Nothing about what a team might work on with a new pitcher who just came out to the bigs to make sure he was prepared to handle various fielding scenarios. Nothing interesting for the fan that might help better understand and appreciate what I had just witnessed.

The key is to balance entertainment and information. Commentary should be interesting but also advance fans' understanding of the game or its players.

A combination that you rarely receive when listening to Blyleven. Another shortcoming of commentators that Rozin does not mention is one-sided homerism. There's not necessarily anything wrong with the broadcasters on a team's network being homers. But if they're going to side with fans they need to embrace the way fans truly feel about their team's performance. When you're winning, everything is great and your players are the best in the world. When you're losing, the sky is falling and they're a bunch of bums. A good homer announcer or commentator is one who's not afraid to admit that the team is playing poorly and point out players who aren't performing as they should.

Bad homer announcers and commentators like Bremer and Blyleven do a disservice to fans by pretending that the things that we're seeing aren't really happening. Errors by infielders are bad hops. Weak ground outs to second come at the end of a "good" at bat. Pitchers who are getting hammered are "just missing" hitting their spots. Managerial decisions are almost never questioned. And anyone who might even deign to argue against the wisdom being imparted by this enlightened pair by presenting statistics that show a contrary viewpoint are mocked as "geeks" who have never played the game.

One question that JB and I have never answered to our complete satisfaction is why? Why do some many commentators choose the route of bland generalities and rehashed drivel instead of drawing on their own experiences and knowledge to educate and entertain the audience? A few possible theories:

1. The commentators are simply ignorant of what passes for good. They think that what they're doing now is entertaining and educating and see no reason to change.

2. They believe that audience is too ignorant to understand anything more than the superficialities. They know a lot more about the game, but we're too stupid to understand it so they would just be wasting their time.

3. They're still trying to live up to some locker room "code" from their playing days. This means that they can't reveal too much about the secrets of the game or what happens off the field (or screen). This also impacts how honest they can be about individual players as they don't want to be appear to be disloyal to the group that they're retired from, but still active among.

In the case of Blyleven, I believe it's actually a combination of all three.

Rozin's close:

That's what commentary should do: Open the door to the secrets from which fans are usually barred. If it can't do more than tell me what's on the screen, shut it down and let me enjoy the pretty color pictures.

Shut down the sound. Advice that Twins fans would do well to heed as they closely follow this week's season ending stretch on television.

JB "The Rug Doctor" Adds:

And what makes it worse is both Bert and Dick have plugs! Guys, come on. It's obvious.

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