Since he announced earlier this week that he'd be retiring from broadcasting after this year's World Series, the discussion about Tim McCarver -- which was always and already defined by a heavy payload of "ugh, this guy" -- split in two. The more generous argument holds that McCarver -- a player for 21 years, and a broadcaster for an astonishing 29 postseasons -- was once a more generous and less grandiose broadcaster than he is in his prickly, mannered endgame. This argument holds that McCarver was someone who understood and loved the game deeply, and expressed that right up until the moment when he stopped understanding or loving it. Depending on the observer, this could be five or ten or 15 years before McCarver realized that it was time to retire.
At which point this first argument kind of collapses into the second, which is that McCarver was always a vain and pedantic character, unforgivably given to high-fiving himself for his own crummy puns and puddle-deep insights and crustoid prejudices, and never quite interested in what people other than himself -- or his notional and unloved audience, rapt as rubes before a traveling magician, albeit the sort of crummy magician whose prestige trick is predicting which pitch would be thrown when -- might have taken from a given game.
The first way of seeing McCarver involves viewing him as a brilliant baseball mind who allowed the game to pass him by, more or less on purpose and more or less to prove some cranky and ill-defined point about… well, whatever it was about, you kids should get off his lawn. The second way of seeing McCarver is that he's just something of a vain jerk, full stop. It says something about McCarver that both of those arguments feel correct enough, to an extent. But neither one of them says quite enough about Tim McCarver, who spent 50 years in baseball without ever quite becoming anything greater or more endearing than himself. It's funny how much of that last sentence -- more or less a condemnation, if read from front to back -- looks like praise.
McCarver played 21 years in the Majors, and was teammates with both Stan Musial and Mike Schmidt; he was the personal catcher for Bob Gibson and Steve Carlton. In 1966, McCarver led the National League in triples; he'll almost certainly be the last catcher to do that. As a member of a St. Louis world championship team the next year, McCarver put up an OPS+ of 136, which was better than Lou Brock, Roger Maris or Curt Flood managed that year, and better in fact than everyone else in the lineup except Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda.
It's a shame, in a way, that McCarver would almost certainly sniff at that latter achievement. He's as entitled as anyone else to be skeptical or confused by a stat like OPS+ -- I like the stat and find it telling, but I'm not sure I could calculate it myself if given a supercomputer, some strong coffee and, say, seven years. If McCarver is not quite as flamboyantly, aggressively retrograde as Joe Morgan -- his peer during their playing days, and perhaps the only baseball color commentator who evokes a similar revulsion -- it often seems as if it's only because he isn't quite interested enough. Morgan, who was an advocate of uncontroversial ideas like the value of on-base percentage during his playing days, descended into grouchy self-parody at the end of his ESPN tenure; by the end, he was essentially arguing that bunts, RBI and World Series rings be the only statistics used. McCarver had no real time for stats, but more to the point he didn't have much interest in them -- he knew what he knew and he knew how to express it, and seemed serenely certain, with that certainty only increasing by the year, that this was more than enough.
For some time, it was. When McCarver started out in broadcasting, what he brought to the booth -- an easy fluency born of old-growth jock-confidence and a deep understanding of the game's on-field dynamics -- was, if not quite thrilling, at least consistently illuminating. This is, it's worth remembering, McCarver's only job: to explain some things that might need explaining, offer some insights that might not be immediately obvious, and then to blend into the ecstatic drone soundtrack of televised baseball -- breezes and bat-cracks and indistinct fan-murmurs and little play-by-play arpeggios. Imagine the whole experience as an orchestra, and McCarver as a virtuoso who plays a solo now and then, and you'll understand his job. Imagine McCarver as a virtuoso who continues to play the same solo -- regardless of the composition being performed, and then without even bothering to tune his instrument, and by the end without bothering to wait for the part in the piece that requires his performance, just standing up and sawing away at it whenever he's moved to do so -- and you start to see the problem.
It's easy, if not necessarily productive, to take McCarver to task for not embracing Wins Above Replacement or xFIP or whatever your stat of choice -- if he was never quite as much of a hemorrhoid about it as Joe Morgan was, McCarver simply seemed to believe that he was seeing and understanding the game well enough without all these strange new acronyms designed to help us see and understand the game more clearly. His own solo never stopped sounding good to him, so he never stopped playing it.
Which, of course, is invariably wrong -- change comes and keeps coming, and there are always new things to learn and new things to see. The choice not to learn -- simply cutting yourself off when you've had enough -- is a choice, and it's one that McCarver is certainly not alone in having made. The stats are the stats; McCarver, at some point -- there are arguments about when, but they're not very important arguments -- just seemed to withdraw from the game and any way of discussing it but his own. This didn't quite make him a bad announcer -- he was stilted and platitude-prone and increasingly out of touch with the game circa now, but still better than many or most of his peers -- but it did make him a frustrating one. It's hard to beat him up too badly for this withdrawal, if only because he had his job for a long time, and because the job -- as Jon Bois noted in his tribute to McCarver at SB Nation -- is a much more difficult one than we might think. That he seemed to lose interest in the game, to fade and curdle and recede from it, is surely a part of why McCarver was so little loved by the end. He certainly did his research and game-planned his quips and otherwise did his job, but the best broadcasters do not show their work quite so clearly in that regard. The game, which is our escape and sleepy delight and means of borrowed transcendence, was his job, and increasingly sounded like it. It had, to be fair, been his job for half a century, which we might as well admit is a long time to stay interested in anything.
If there was a flaw that undid McCarver, that stopped him and left him in grumpy suspension this last decade or so, it seems to come back to that extinguishing of interest and loss of joy in the game. That, I think, is what made him strange, and what seemed to shrink him. With every broadcast, McCarver passively spun an increasingly hard cocoon of blithe, self-confident ignorance and thunderous if faintly peevish certainty. He got comfortable in there, building himself a steak-and-cigar man cave of the mind from which he periodically issued little weird encyclicals -- On The Importance of The Little Things, Derek Jeter Considered, or whatever moved him to say "There is nothing in my view more disturbing than social networking -- nothing" into an open mic, during a baseball game. The game, which was always great and is bigger and bigger in every way with every year, kept on growing. McCarver, simply by choosing not to grow with it, started to sound awfully small.