I’m sure it’s subjective, but it’s always seemed to me that baseball, more so than other sports, possesses an aesthetic beauty that approaches the most pleasing pieces of visual art. From the unique design of a stadium to the subtle movement of the game’s participants between every pitch in the batter/pitcher conflict, it’s a very good looking sport. It’s one that benefits perhaps more than others from the accessibility of high definition broadcasts.
The standard bearer for baseball broadcasts is ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball. Yes, it’s highly mockable to many of us, but every sports broadcast, in its pursuit of catering to the demographic of everybody, is highly mockable. However, it’s also innovative, and it tries for something beyond what baseball fans might might receive from their local broadcasts. This translates into exceptional camera work, access to advanced metrics and graphics that actually inform an audience, rather than describe factual information that doesn’t require visual representation.
Perhaps the most impressive element of a Sunday Night Baseball broadcast is the booth that includes Dan Shulman doing play-by-play, Orel Hershiser providing analysis, and John Kruk creating an outlet for those who enjoy getting frustrated at dumb things said on television. Shulman and Hershiser were quick to form commentary cohesion when they began working together on television in 2011 after some time as partners for the radio version of the broadcast, and the strength of that bond has been tested with a different third man in the booth in each of the three seasons since the contracts of Jon Miller and Joe Morgan weren’t renewed.
Kruk replaces Morgan’s buffoonery better than either of his predecessors, Bobby Valentine and Terry Francona. He speaks with the conviction of someone deeply familiar with baseball, but the content of that conviction quickly reveals his ignorance. Last night, for example, Kruk suggested that hitters are best off swinging at a 2-0 pitch, lest they let a strike go by and fall back into a pitcher’s count. It was the type of moment for which one wishes that the Fire Joe Morgan blog was still active.
During last night’s broadcast, Hershiser countered the questionable logic of Kruk by informing viewers ahead of a Yu Darvish/Josh Hamilton match up that while the Texas Rangers pitcher had the second highest strike out rate last night, the Los Angeles Angels batter had the second highest swing rate. It was an informative use of advanced metrics that was practically applied to grant the viewing audience something to watch for in the coming at bat. It enhanced the experience of the viewers. This should be the goal of all television analysts. Hershiser’s ability to go back and forth between statistical and empirical analysis – even if he’s slightly more adept at one over the other – makes it astonishing to realize that Morgan covered two-thirds of the new roles in the booth for parts of two decades.
Just like how the best era of hip hop music according to the taste of individuals is conspicuously likely to be from whatever era they first started listening to it, I doubt anyone will ever replace Jon Miller as my platonic idea of a play-by-play announcer. To me, he is perfect. Part of the joy of following the San Francisco Giants comes in the form of his familiar presence in the broadcast booth for radio, and sometimes television. He combines his voice of authority with a sense of humor and polite irreverence that places a correct context for everything he calls. Miller contains his excitement in a fashion that enhances those moments in which exuberance is heard in his voice, while somehow never seeming to be the slightest bit bored of the action he’s relaying.
It’s a credit to Shulman that he’s been able to slip into his role on the national broadcast so easily. It reminds me of something that’s often said of officials: If you don’t notice them, they’re doing their job well. In order to properly appreciate Shulman, it’s necessary to understand that doing play-by-play for such a large audience, all with different levels of baseball knowledge, is an incredibly difficult task. Shulman’s calm tone and correct content are able to strike a perfect balance that makes his language understandable to a hearing aid utilizing great grandmother who was once courted by Honus Wagner, but also appealing to the baseball nerd taking notes for his blog the next morning that’s going to rip him if he dared to refer to batting average and RBIs instead of on base percentage and weighted runs created plus?
He’s best likened to a successful party host who recognizes that the celebration isn’t necessarily about him. His duty is to make sure that all the party goers have the best time possible. Shulman is able to do this all while making his efforts seem natural. So, even though my own personal nostalgia might appreciate the vocal performance of Miller, it’s undoubted that Shulman will become the Miller to a younger generation of baseball fans.
On the whole, ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball remains the premier broadcast for baseball games. It’s been like that for a while now, even with what was the sometimes maddening commentary from Joe Morgan. What pushes the newer incarnation further ahead is its lack of reliance on its past success. The broadcast as a television series doesn’t seem satisfied with merely being the best that baseball has to offer, and instead pushes itself to be one of the best weekly broadcast experiences in all of sports, something that for this admittedly biased judge who loves baseball, its already achieved.