On Saturday night, after the Red Sox took a 2-0 lead in their ALDS against the Rays, the TBS postgame studio crew began to discuss the game. This is the job of a postgame studio crew. It would be strange if they didn't. A short time later, Rays starter David Price, who gave up seven runs in the loss, punched back after what he perceived as an insult.
It was difficult for anyone watching to figure out what Price was so upset about. Analyst Dirk Hayhurst had said Price probably should have been pulled before he was -- he threw seven full innings -- but Tom Verducci defended manager Joe Maddon's thinking. Surely if David Price were on Twitter, he'd seen far, far worse things said about him, likely within the previous 20 seconds. But Price, a generally thoughtful player (he wrote the forward to the Baseball America 2013 Prospect Handbook, which is a book), had just lost what might be his last game with the Rays, and he was emotional. He lashed out. It happens. All told: "Save It, Nerds" is a handy little phrase. Every time someone comes at me with Web traffic numbers, I think I'm going to say that now.
The strange thing isn't that this happened; the strange thing is that it doesn't happen all the time. Professional athletes have the sensitivity to criticism of a teenager, or a professional writer: To work in the field, you must possess an almost preternatural overestimation of your own ability, just to make it through the day. (If a baseball player took a moment to think about how difficult his job really was, he'd never stop obsessing about it. Best to just be overconfident and not ask too many questions.) Athletes are always looking for slights, or examples of disrespect, for motivation, for inspiration, for whatever mental constructions required to trick their brains into playing harder, into playing better. If they're looking for these, it shouldn't be hard to find them on television: People are paid handsomely solely to talk about what these athletes are doing. This "disrespect" should be a constant, the oxygen athletes breathe.
But it isn't. Most pregame and postgame shows play it safe, mostly because they're staffed by former athletes who would rather remain friends with their former colleagues than enlighten or entertain the viewing audience. They say nothing by design. This is why most studio shows primarily consist of retired athletes pretending to laugh at each other's jokes. There is nothing else they can do. Anything else they might say, they can't.
Which is why this year's TBS studio crew has been so refreshing, and so fun. I think it's pretty obvious already that this is the best baseball studio crew in recent memory. They're funny, they're sharp, they're happy to be critical, they're even a little weird. While the actual telecasts of the games remain the disasters they've always been during TBS live broadcasts -- TBS games apparently have only three cameras, and they're operated by people who have a scorpion in their boots -- the studio show has been an instant highlight. If all pregame and postgame shows were like this, we'd have a lot more annoyed athletes … and we'd have a lot more satisfied viewers.
The panel is bizarrely put together, which is a large part of its charm. It's impossible to imagine these five people in a room together in almost any other context. It starts with Dirk Hayhurst. Hayhurst was a washout as a major league pitcher -- which is to say, he made it to the major leagues, which is amazing and makes him more talented than just about 99.99 percent of the people you've ever met -- but has proven himself an astute, funny and likable analyst. (And he's an even better writer, which I'll confess I personally find irritating.) He was an impressive, unconventional choice as a studio guy; he has proven to be an outstanding one. Hayhurst is 32 years old and is going to be on your television screen for a long, long time.
Gary Sheffield, a latecomer to the group, is a logical choice, the most traditional studio guy on the panel. But he brings more to the table than the usual back-slapping, you-are-now-graced-with-my-presence role played by your Cal Ripkens and Dennis Eckersleys: He understands the game but can still stand outside it. (You wonder if his new career as an agent helps him here.) He's also surprisingly deft and light on his feet, something anyone who ever had to interview him during his playing career would find quite shocking. Now, I'll confess that I find Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci to be the weak link of the quintet: He always seems to be auditioning for a Ken Burns documentary. But that's OK, because sitting right next to him is Pedro Martinez.
Pedro Martinez's struggles with public speaking -- with the actual art of broadcasting -- are obvious to anyone watching at home. He talks around his points, he gets stuck on certain words, he is fluent enough in the language to speak it but clearly hasn't mastered it. (Hey, neither has Kevin Millar.) But he has nonetheless been the breakout star of the postseason. Pedro is quick, whip-smart and brutally honest. This is a person so talented and beloved that no one has even told him not to say something, so he just plunges forward, undaunted. He's not afraid to disagree with his fellow panelists, bluntly, awkwardly, awesomely. He also, because he's Pedro Martinez, once of the most cerebral pitchers in baseball history, has a subconscious understanding of the game on nearly every level. I feel like I've learned a ton about the game just listening to him talk this week, and there is all you could possibly ask of a studio analyst. It's more, really.
And holding it all together is Keith Olbermann, whose new ESPN show has clearly revitalized him. He's having the time of his life being away from politics -- the way politics is right now, can you blame him? -- and clearly reveling in being able to bind this motley crew together. As much as I enjoy his ESPN show -- and it has held up better than I initially thought it would -- he benefits sometimes here from having to play Traffic Cop Host rather than Creator Of All Words In This Special, Important Television Program. He seems to enjoy this group in particular, and has shown impressive dexterity in getting out of the way when it's time to, a skill he hasn't always shown, or cared to. He's at the top of his game.
Every game this postseason, I've made certain to tune in early and watch the pregame show, and that's something I can't ever remember doing before. I don't know if they'll be able to keep this crew together, but I feel comfortable saying, just five or six shows in, that TBS has put together the best pregame crew I can remember. Now, if they can just figure out a way to have them operate the actual telecasts. Can Pedro run a camera?
* * *