To truly invest oneself in a professional sports team requires a massive commitment. Never mind the 162-game, or 82-game or 16-game season: Games are just the entertaining three hours a day in which something actually happens. Something happening, that’s just a minuscule portion of the sports fan experience. Cheering for a sports team requires spending multiple hours every day, even in the offseason (especially in the offseason), obsessing about your roster, your upcoming draft, your schedule, all of it. We do all these things, labor over these tiny moments, in the hope that our teams will reach the postseason, the time of year that every one of those other days builds up to.
All sports are like this: smaller, seemingly insignificant matchups leading toward the grandest stage of all. It’s why we do it. Nothing is more vital and stressful than a postseason game. It’s what we were waiting for all that time.
Which is why I hope I can be forgiven for that time around 5 p.m. on Sunday, as my beloved St. Louis Cardinals had a runner on first in the fifth inning of their NLDS Game 1 against the Washington Nationals, when I was screaming a torrential cacophony of expletives in my Brooklyn apartment. I was, after all, staring at a blank television screen.
It never fails to baffle me how many problems Major League Baseball has televising its postseason. This is a sport that has introduced a game-changing revenue stream by broadcasting live every single moment of its sport over the Internet when, even today, most live streaming is unreliable and infuriating. (Ask NBC about that one.) One of the main reasons why the league is thriving is because its online arm has become so skilled -- and thus profitable -- at allowing us to watch baseball whenever we want, however we want. (Assuming, of course, you don’t live in Las Vegas, Iowa, Buffalo or Hawaii, ahem). And yet once the games become more important, when we finally reach the culmination of a season that we’ve spent six months obsessing over, we’re all beamed back to 1994. It’s like The Baseball Network all over again.
It’s been like this for a while; I’ll never forget frantically trying to find a sports bar that had Fox Family Channel so I could watch, you know, one of the most important playoff games of the year. (Back in 2004, the Cardinals and Astros played one of the great League Championship Series of all time, but no one knew it, because it was on opposite Yankees-Red Sox and because it was on FX back before FX had “Louie” and “Justified.”) But this was supposed to have been resolved by now.
Which brings me to TBS, and the realization that the 10 minutes of blank screen during Sunday's Cardinals-Nationals game might have been the most peaceful ones I’d had all day. (Even if it ultimately turned out that they were caused by the sun. STUPID SUN.)
TBS broadcasts games throughout the year, every Sunday, but like most hardcore baseball fans, I haven’t watched any, because any game they have I can watch on MLB.tv or Extra Innings (I have both; you can never be too careful!). So I wasn’t completely aware of all of the network's struggles. There are struggles.
TBS is still new to this, and each year has been a little better than the last. (Losing Chip Caray helped.) But it’s as if TBS has watched the other, more experienced broadcasts and taken the exact wrong things from them. Like the old-boy-network baseball Luddite-dom of Joe Morgan? Meet Bob Brenly! Like Kevin Millar’s and John Kruk’s interpretation of “analysis” as back-slapping, locker-room towel-snapping, when-in-doubt-just-start-laughing? Hi, David Wells! Like the dulcet, comforting tones of Vin Scully but tired of all that annoying knowledge of the sport he’s broadcasting? Come on down, Dick Stockton!
I don't mean to pick on those guys. (OK, I do mean to pick on Brenly, who seems to have been in a hermetically sealed bubble and therefore missed the last decade of baseball thought. When he managed the Diamondbacks, did he ever bunt four times in an inning? He must have, right?) But TBS still hasn’t quite scrubbed that amateur-hour feel, from the technical mistakes (never forget the time it missed a whole inning of the 2008 ALCS for “The Steve Harvey Show”), to the lack of understanding of the intricacies of the game (Stockton on Sunday seemed perpetually disappointed that not every pitch ended in a homer), to mispronounced names (Hey, David Aldridge, it’s “Mo-say-lock”) to a general sense that this is a baseball production by people who don’t watch much baseball.
It at times felt like the baseball broadcast version of the Bleacher Report, the search-engine-optimization-manipulating content-farming Website that Turner Sports bought earlier this year and was openly shilling throughout the games this weekend. All that was missing was an inning shown to us via slideshow.
At this point I feel obliged to point out that at no point on Sunday did TBS do anything even a quarter as dumb as what Bleacher Report does about 5,000 times a day. I’d feel bad even mentioning the two in the same sentence if TBS didn’t insist on doing it themselves.
OK, so the sun thing wasn’t TBS' fault; Turner says that was a “Fall Equinox” issue. Though somehow, Fox, MLB Network and ESPN are able to regularly account for the presence of the star that provides and sustains all life on this planet. I suppose it can sneak up on you. But what about when an equipment malfunction cost TBS an in-game interview with Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez during the wild-card game on Friday? Or, worst of all, when it misidentified a certain Baltimore icon as “Carl Ripken Jr?” (I’m personally suspicious that this is some sort of under-the-table advertising tie-in with a burger joint.)
Though I’m sure the cerebral, Cronkite-esque, Shane Victorino will turn it all around. I’d been wanting more of my broadcasters to end all their questions with “brah.”
I should settle down: I don’t want to be Phil Mushnick here. There are good people doing some good work on TBS, from Ernie Johnson, to Ron Darling, to Tom Verducci. And Cal Ripken is better than I thought he’d be, all told. But there aren’t enough of them; TBS has too many games to broadcast to have enough experienced teams to go around.
This would be no big deal if this were just any old series. There are plenty of local broadcasters who don’t know what they’re doing, either. And besides, complaining about the broadcasters, whether they’re good or bad, is part of the fun of being a sports fan. But these aren’t any old series: This is the playoffs. TBS is showing baseball at its best with baseball broadcasting at decidedly less than that.
When I could see it anyway. When discussing the shadows at Busch Stadium late in the Cardinals-Nationals game on Sunday, Brenly said, “Visibility is such a huge part of the game.” You’re telling me, pal.
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OK, I know TBS is trying. Thoughts, concerns, grousing, future column ideas? Remember, this column is meant as a valve, a release, for when you’re yelling at your television during games, or, after reading a particular column, you’re pounding your fists into your computer. Obviously, I’ll need your help to do that. Anything you want me to write about, let me know, through email or Twitter. I am at your beck and call.