Monday, April 04, 2011

Some Observations- ESPN and Sunday Night Baseball

Sunday night's contest between the Dodgers and the Giants was hugely entertaining. Barry Zito started for the Giants and Hiroki Kuroda started for the Dodgers. Zito looked downright batting practice poor in the beginning and the Dodgers built a quick 3-0 lead. He wasn't helped by a miscue in right by poor Aubrey Huff (more on him later).  But the Giants bounced back to tie the game as Zito got tougher to hit and Burrell and Sandoval hit bombs. All of this was ably called by the trio of announcers calling the game. The Fan would rate Orel Hershiser as very good. Bobby Valentine was pretty good and this Fan doesn't enjoy Dan Shulman at all.

Let's start with Shulman. His conversational voice is pleasant enough, if lacking a little in charm. But when a big play happens and his voice goes louder, he takes on this cartoonish voice that does not sound natural. It's not like a natural voice that gets louder. It's a lounder voice that gets more Dudley Dooright-like. The Fan definitely missed Jon Miller. Miller's voice is so entertaining and his excitement level was so natural, that Shulman paled in comparison.

It was awkward when Shulman and ESPN had to show Miller, who was working the game for his local station, and pay him homage. Shulman was properly respectful to Miller as his predecessor and said a lot of nice things, but it did seem like an awkward moment.

Dan Shulman does do a nice job of conversationally engaging his analysts by asking good questions. He often asked questions that the Fan wanted to ask and that was very good. But Jon Miller was the best. When the Fan thinks back of all the major network play-by-play guys over the years, Miller is right on top.

Hershiser began doing the games for ESPN last year and has seemed to come into his own as an analyst. Last year, he seemed to be like a kid baiting Joe Morgan and fighting for airspace. He's much more relaxed now and at times his honesty is brutal and refreshing. He has kind of a smarmy delivery though which can get annoying at times. This was never more evident than when Tommy Lasorda joined the broadcast for a half inning. It's obvious that Hershiser feels his career success was due to his former manager and that in itself is touching. But it's not as if Lasorda doesn't have a large enough head as it is. Valentine was also doting on Lasorda, but more as a peer than as a "son" of Lasorda.

Orel still puts himself and his pitching too much into the conversation. The Fan hates when ex-players do that in the booth. But it has to be hard to avoid.

Bobby Valentine is still feeling his way in these broadcasts. You can feel him searching for his spots. There is a bit of self-consciousness in his tone. He works best on feeding off of Hershiser and the fact that both are formerly tied to the Dodgers organization gives them a natural bond. The chemistry between the two is fine and there does not appear to be any tension there. Valentine was properly respectful of the managers in the dugout and at times did a nice job of helping us know what they would be thinking.

The team's best moments were of brutal honesty when early in the game they discussed how helpless Barry Zito was. They were also instructive on how Zito's lack of ability to miss bats is hampered by less than stellar defense. The roasting of Aubrey Huff was the proper mix of honestly stating Huff's inadequacy out in right field, but also stating that it's wasn't Huff's fault because he really didn't belong out there. Another great moment of honesty was Valentine roasting the pitching choice of Jonathan Broxton throwing a slider to Aaron Rowand when it was obvious Rowand couldn't catch up to the fastball. Rowand's homer shouldn't have happened and Valentine told us all about it. So they told it like it was without tearing down the player.

Their best moment came when they properly roasted Miguel Tejada for swinging at the first pitch on a non-strike after the relief pitcher had just walked two straight guys, one bringing in a run. It was a terrible at bat for Tejada and Hershiser and Valentine were all over it. Hershiser then gave a concise observation about the pitch being in the middle of the plate but low and out of the strike zone. It was a brilliant moment.

There were some curious moments. One in particular stuck out and left the Fan gasping for more information. Shulman, or somebody made a point about the flexibility the Giants have in their line up construction. Tejada has bounced all over the line up so far. But then Bobby Valentine says that the Giants do a great job with that and praised the Giants players for their lack of egos concerning their flexibility. He then contrasted that with the Red Sox. What did he mean? What does he know about the players on the Red Sox? Was he talking about the Red Sox having players with too much ego? We'll never know. If you are going to open that kind of can of worms, at least let us in on the tease.

It is clear that Hershiser and Valentine offer far more to the table than Joe Morgan. Their insight is sharper and more clear. They don't hold back where Morgan was loathe to berate a play or a player. They come off as far less egotistical than Morgan.

But Shulman is a big step down from Jon Miller. Miller always showed us his own passion for the game and allowed us to get swept up in the emotional roller-coaster that is any kind of game. Shulman does not have the same kind of passion, does not have the same timbre in his voice and does not sound natural in big moments.

The Dodgers and Giants gave us a great game. And for the most part, the announcing team added a lot of fun to the telecast. It's not perfect, but overall, without Morgan, it's a lot juicier for the average fan and for the more devoted Fan of Major League Baseball.

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