I bet we're going to miss Tim McCarver more than we think.
Now, this is a little different than saying Tim McCarver was beloved, or even particularly, you know, good. Obviously, I'm saying the opposite of that: Watching McCarver be batted around on Twitter during FOX telecasts was sometimes as entertaining as the game itself. (Here are some selections from the All-Star Game.) For all McCarver's supposed insights back in the day -- Mets fans will swear up and down he once made sense -- it was difficult to find anyone who didn't think it was his time to go.
He'd been fading for years, and by the end, he was sounding less like an older Perd Hapley -- "the thing about scoring runs, it's that it helps you win" -- and more like your increasingly confused great-grandfather, wandering through a field somewhere, looking for a cat that died 45 years ago. This was perhaps best illustrated by his attempts to explain the obstruction call that cost the Red Sox Game 3.
But I come here not to bury Tim McCarver, but to praise him, sort of.
The thing about ripping on announcers during a game is that, well, it's fun. It was fun before Twitter, but being able to do it in real-time, with millions of other fans, has transformed the practice from the private act of screaming at the television into the dominant way we watch sports now. Within seconds of McCarver's bewildered, mystifying obstruction breakdown, Twitter had hundreds of jokes about it, some of them actually funny. ("If you type random words in a text-to-speech app you get Tim McCarver's explanation of the game 3 obstruction call.")
In many ways, announcers are, in fact, there for us to hate on; it is a large portion of the job description. Don Ohlmeyer famously once broadcast a game with no announcers, just radio silence, and it was infamously unwatchable; we want and need those guys there, in large part so we can complain about them. McCarver served this purpose as well as anyone ever has. After listening to McCarver call a game, particularly in the last five years or so, it was impossible not to be entertained -- even if it was by the increasing confusion and incompetence. It gave us all something to talk about, and that is, after all, why sports fans consume sports in the first place.
As an illustrative example: How about Billy Packer? The former Final Four announcer was despised in a way that not even McCarver was. McCarver is at least kindly befuddled; Packer had a willful, steely malevolence. Packer loved that you hated him, and he did everything he could to fuel your bile. He was a cranky, cantankerous, ornery old man; he thought he was the only person who understood a damn thing about college basketball and acted like it, almost disdainful of the stupid people who deigned to find enjoyment in the game that was rightfully his. He thought you were a moron, and cherished telling you precisely why; he was a professional mansplainer. Billy Packer was the Bob Knight of broadcasters, and I think you can make a case that he's the most hated announcer of all time. When he retired five years ago, people cheered, a vile despot finally deposed from office.
Here's the thing, though: Final Four broadcasts are so dull now. Clark Kellogg doesn't provide any more insight than Packer ever did, and his voice and personality is so bland and undistinguished that you barely notice he's talking at all. He becomes background noise, which very well might have been the goal; after 30-plus years of Packer, CBS decided they wanted someone who didn't try to make himself bigger than the game he was calling. But he's water: I can't think of a single thing Clark Kellogg has said in an NCAA tournament game, ever. He is blandly competent and unobtrusive and boring as hell.
That's not fun at all: Getting angry at Billy Packer made the experience of watching a Final Four game a more active, dynamic one. Talking about how much we disliked Billy Packer was something we all shared, something we did together; we loved how much we couldn't stand him. When he was gone, it took something out of the experience. Packer was old and cranky enough to not give a sh-t what anybody thought about what he had to say. Name me another person on television right now other than Charles Barkley who doesn't care what anybody thinks about what he says. People making you angry is good television, particularly when they're broadcasting a live game. I don't miss Billy Packer. But I miss talking to other people watching about how we all wanted to jump through the screen and strangle him.
This is worth keeping in mind as FOX replaces McCarver. SI's Richard Deitsch reported last month that the frontrunners were MLB Network's Harold Reynolds, TBS's John Smoltz and SI's Tom Verducci. These are, on the whole, Kellogg choices. Smoltz and Verducci are from the Troy Aikman school of safe platitudes, establishment picks who won't rattle any cages and, for my money, won't provide much real insight. (I feel like I'm supposed to stick up for the notion of one of my fellow writers being chosen for a booth, but in recent years, Verducci has become strangely strident, like he seems himself a caped protector of the game or something. He's smart and hardworking, but weirdly humorless for a writer.) I'll confess personal affection for Reynolds, the universally accepted favorite for the job; we have a history, and I've appeared with him on MLB Network several times and found him charming, funny and welcoming. I'm not sure he's the right pick either, though. He's a little too friendly; for all his ability to break down a play -- and it's worth remembering he's the only person who got the infield fly play in the 2012 wild-card game right -- Reynolds is pretty much the definition of an establishment choice. His temperament, and his willingness to buck conventional wisdom, is basically the exact opposite of Packer's. He is safe and easy and palatable, which means he might very well disappear on air. Unless he talks about sabermetrics, it's tough to see people getting riled up about him at all. And getting riled up about announcers is the point.
I'd love to see a crazy choice: Pedro Martinez. He was fantastic during TBS's playoff coverage, candid and honest in a way that Barkley is … the way someone who absolutely does not care is. He needs some television polish, but that's part of the fun, just something that makes him a little more real. Martinez just says whatever the hell he wants, which is destined to rile us all up. And as much as we yell and grouse … that's what we want. We want to yell at the screen and light up Twitter. This is why broadcasters are here. That's the fun part. That's what we like to do. Losing Tim McCarver might make it less likely our brains will melt during a telecast. But it also gives us less reason to get invested. Here's hoping FOX picks someone we'll still be talking about in 10 years, rather than someone we've forgotten is still there.
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