By Sarah D. Bunting
Yes, we know all about Harold Reynolds' resistance to sabermetrics. He's still a great choice for Fox's World Series booth.
Let's face it: The best argument for Harold Reynolds as a replacement for Tim McCarver on Fox's Fall Classic coverage is that he's … not Tim McCarver. McCarver's retirement from Fox prompted sighs of relief across the land and "only X more games of this foolishness"-type tweets throughout the 2013 season. Though St. Louis Cardinals fans haven't exorcised him completely -- he'll call 30 games for the Redbirds in 2014 -- the national fan has probably heard the last of him. But as much "anyone but him" rhetoric as we heard among the speculation as to who might replace McCarver, many baseball fans didn't really mean "anyone." They meant "anyone who embraces modern baseball statistics." They meant Brian Kenny, or Keith Law, or Mark Simon, or one of the dudes from Slate's "Hang Up and Listen" podcast.
That isn't who we got. We got Harold Reynolds.
We also got Tom Verducci, at least for the World Series, and we'll also get John Smoltz in some capacity, though it's not clear yet whether he's on the desk or in the booth. But let's talk about Reynolds, who's a great choice for coverage of the World Series.
That's right: He's a great choice. He's not a perfect choice; there is no perfect choice, no guy who's going to please everyone, at least until science contrives a Vin Scully-tron 4000 with a constantly updating Wi-Fi microchip in the back of his neck. (Note: Get on that, science.) But for the biggest series of the year, the one that aims for the broadest nationwide viewing appeal for what has become a regional game, Reynolds is a smart pick, because Reynolds genuinely loves baseball and has fun talking about it. If a network hopes -- even in vain -- to pick up a casual viewer or excite a fan with no dog in the fight, Reynolds is your guy.
I still speak fondly of his boyishly adorable reaction to the final day of the 2011 regular season, when almost every race came down to the last minutes. MLB Tonight anchor Greg Amsinger is holding it together, narrating the Orioles' win and Evan Longoria's long ball, while just to his left, silently because the network is rolling footage, Reynolds and Dan Plesac freak out to each other, and as Plesac is F-bombing in happy disbelief, Reynolds is up out of his seat and capering around at the back of the set like a cartoon bedspring, unable to contain his joy. That's exactly how that night felt to baseball fans. It's awesome to have a guy on the mic who still lets the game get to him that way.*
*It's also a ray of hope for those of us who don't quite understand why Joe Buck is still holding down a stool in the booth. Buck isn't bad at the job at all; it just feels like he'd rather be anywhere else, which starts to wear on the audience. And I have compassion for him, that he has spent years yoked to ghosts -- his legendary father Jack Buck, for one, and the comparisons he no doubt makes for himself even if everyone else has mostly stopped, but also McCarver's abilities. In the '80s, McCarver was the gem of the Mets booth. Granted, Fran Healy et al. didn't put up much of a fight for that designation, but McCarver's tickled description of a "seeeeeed" zipping past an infielder remains a shared pleasure in my family to this day, and Buck didn't get the best of McCarver, or even the adequate, at the end there. If anyone's going to remind Buck why he does this job in the first place, it's Harold Reynolds.
Unfortunately for the stat-reliant fan, Reynolds is not going to WHIP it good. More than one writer, including our own Will Leitch, has pointed to Reynolds' infamous face-off against Brian Kenny on the subject of pitcher wins as evidence that Reynolds is too old-fashioned for the job, a Joe Morgan-esque Luddite with an affinity for terms like "gutty" and "clubhouse leader." A SABR poster child he ain't, but I have to exclude the Reynolds/Kenny set-to in particular as prejudicial, because the "old school vs. new school" nature of the fight was the entire point of the segment, and of every other dust-up between Reynolds and Kenny. The network explicitly set the debate along the old-school/new-school axis in its onscreen graphics, and promoted Reynolds/Kenny scraps during other shows. Acting the part of the outdated-metrics guy is Reynolds's job here, not because he's necessarily that intransigent (he may well be, of course) but because they need to put someone on the con side of the discussion so Kenny can do his thing. It's called "viewer bait," and the baseball blogosphere keeps swallowing it as though it proves anything.
Not that it "proves" that Reynolds has a tattoo of Bill James on his bicep, either. I relate to the frustration of hearing an analyst extol "ribbies" with no context; I'd love to have a stat guy in the booth. But calling a baseball game period is harder than it sounds; calling a baseball game with a complete array of advanced stats, and not just "a game" but a World Series game, which assumes a wider audience and therefore requires explanation of those statistics, because you can't assume a 9-year-old and/or his grandpa will know what Rpos is? It's certainly doable -- but it's also an aspect of the coverage that Buck or Verducci could work into the game call, as neither of them is allergic to these metrics. Why do Reynolds' perceived shortcomings in that area have to define his fitness for the gig?
I agree that the 53-year-old Reynolds, not known for embracing "the new math," isn't the most forward-thinking choice. The postseason TV demographic is aging, but that's really about the challenge of broadcasting what is, in the end, a battle between regional powers to the entire country. Maybe it's only the older folks who watch the World Series no matter who's in it anymore, and a craven attempt to bring the median viewer age down might backfire the same way Monday Night Football's Dennis Miller experiment did. Older folks (my pops, for one) like VORP just fine, or can, but a cynical feint toward "new" and "young," without understanding what makes a solid baseball booth, isn't the answer, either. What does make a great booth is often as simple as liking the sport, and knowing when to shut the hell up.
Reynolds might not have the tightest grip on that second thing, but hey, even Ted Williams didn't bat .500.
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Disagree? Check out Aaron's Gordon's take.
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Sarah D. Bunting is the East Coast Editor at Previously.TV. She has written for New York, Glamour, MSNBC.com, NPR.org and Yahoo!, and despairs of the Mets at TomatoNation.com.