The Importance of Broadcasters

Jon Miller. Kruk & Kuip. Hank Greenwald. Lon Simmons. Bill King. Ray Fosse. Heck, even Vin Scully. These are the voices that fans on the west coast have long associated with baseball. When it comes to baseball, the voices are the ambassador as much as the All-Stars. Those voices are the ones that teach us and introduce us to baseball's heroes.

Baseball is a game of implicit simplicity. Hit the ball. Run the bases. Go Home. Or don't let it touch the ground if you're on the other side. Tag the runner before he gets home. Simple stuff.

Yet, the game is incredibly complex and subtle. The difference between a fastball and a changeup is a time of barely a second. Many plays are decided by less than that. A defensive shift of a few feet can reduce the chances of getting a hit. The strategies employed by baseball teams are incredibly complex and difficult to understand.

This deceptively subtle dynamic to the game is part of the game's inherent problem when it comes to finding and keeping fans. Despite the relatively simple rules when compared to other rule-driven games like football and hockey, the game's complex undertones remain that difficult to find key to the love of the game. As was once said, Baseball is like church. Many attend, few understand.

This is where a game's broadcasters come into play. The announcers have always been the game's ambassadors. Long ago, on the radio, they were the ones who brought the game to fans who lived far from their team's home, or could not travel with the team on the road. Those voices on the radio were the only descriptions of the game most fans have. The voice had complete control. We saw things only by their viewpoint, and didn't see what they decided to leave out. Of course, nowadays, we have television, and the role of the announcer has changed. Instead of telling us what we're missing, they're letting us know what we're seeing.

Unlike the first 80 years of its existence, baseball could survive on it's inherent fan base. The men who found something to believe in, emulate, or envy in the ballplayers they watched were all the teams needed to survive. The idea of increasing the fan base was taken care of by barnstorming teams traveling across the country, introducing people who'd never seen baseball to it, and finding new fans in new people. Nowadays in the media saturated world we live in, everyone knows baseball. There are no more new people to find. So, the way baseball finds, captures and enthralls new fans has to be in connecting to people who think they know the game, and showing them what they've never seen.

For the most part, the Giants have been lucky, because we are home to some world-class announcers.

For all the flak that they take, a big part of this is in the duo of Mike Krukow and Duane Kuiper. I know Kruk and Kuip have their detractors, but the duo have struck an important balance in announcing.

The first part of this is capturing the attention of fans. A lot of this is done with the duo's very unique language. A recent A's columnist included words like ‘pine,' ‘meat,' ‘gamer,' and others as words to avoid at Pac Bell so you don't sound like an idiot. But those terms, like ‘hanging banger' and ‘happy zone' aren't just random names to sound silly or unique. They're terms that come from the players themselves. And this snappy language catches people's attention. Not just prospective new fans, but old ones as well. Getting someone's attention is important in this day and age. But it's hardly the most important part of what Kruk and Kuip do.

Once you get past the unique terminology and the ability to laugh at the game is an incredible ability to explain the game, from a former player's experience. Krukow was, of course, a former 20 Game winner, while Kuip was a second baseman. Drawing upon their experience, they have begun to introduce us to the game few people know outside of players. Listening to Kruk and Kuip discuss a key at-bat not only shows their enthusiasm for the game outside of the homer, but also their knowledge. Kruk will begin discussing pitch counts and strategies. He'll get into how the ability to change speeds throws a hitter off balance, how to set up batters to hit the ball where you want it by using location, and when the details of the pitch count come into play. Meanwhile, Kuip brings in the touch of defense. He'll indicate how the defense is playing, and why. He'll explain how the positioning of a fielder should be coordinated with the pitch calling, to try and get a ball hit to a certain side of the field.

In an effective contrast, the Giants have paired them up with the full, baritone voices of men like Lon Simmons, Jon Miller and Joe Angel. These guys are the storytellers of the game. Coming from a radio-emphasis on describing the details, they make sure you see everything you need to, just by listening to them on the radio. The details of the game roll off of their tongues like well-recited poetry (even when reciting difficult to pronounce names) and they make sure you don't miss a thing. They also are importantly connected to the team, and know the players and have many stories to tell to fill in the slower moments.

This combination makes for a successful broadcast team. Unfortunately, so few teams understand the importance of all these elements when choosing their voices. Watching games broadcast by others after watching or listening to Giants games can leave a bad taste in your mouth. Listening to Cubs and White Sox games on WGN, or Braves games on TBS are often slow with long moments of silence between pitches. There's no doubting the veteran broadcasters have a love and knowledge for the game, but they remain victims of the mindset that announcers simply announce.

Even watching games broadcast nationally can throw Giants fans off. This isn't as true on ESPN, as the regular Sunday Night Baseball broadcast is done by our own Jon Miller and former Giants announcer (and player) Joe Morgan. Even when Jon isn't announcing the team he watches 6 days a week, his love and understanding of the game comes through in the thorough descriptions and detailed stories he tells. Even other ESPN broadcasts are done by announcers who have similar dynamics, such as Chris Berman's catchy calls and Harold Reynolds' great insights.

Watching certain other national broadcasts disappoint me, though. It's apparently been decided that games airing nationally need more than just baseball to keep people interested. In these broadcasts, I've watched the announcers stay quiet for an entire at bat so that the audience could listen to music vaguely thought appropriate for the player batting (in this case, the Sopranos theme for Rich Aurilia.). Even after staying silent for a full two minutes, when the announcers went on discussing other topics, without even acknowledging the existence of the at-bat itself. Another time, I listened to them berate the A's Eric Chavez for running back to first on a deep fly ball with nobody out in extra innings, so that he could attempt to advance to scoring position. This play was made interesting because the center fielder made the unpredictable mistake of dropping the ball, and Chavez's sprint to second kept the play close.

Broadcasting as such not only shows a disregard for the game, but a lack of interest and experience. Not only do such broadcasters make clear that their knowledge of the game does not extend far beyond that which we call a home run, they do a disservice to the fans who truly could be learning from them. Watching these games are difficult after having been exposed to the team the Giants put inside the booth.

Ironically, these offending broadcasters are the ones in the booth for the important game, superceding our superior options. Unfortunately, it is not easy to hit mute on the TV and turn on the radio to hear the enticing tones of Jon Miller and Kruk and Kuip. The national television broadcasts are done on a delay, so a KNBR broadcast is always three to five seconds ahead of the game on TV, which results in a sensory confusion strong enough to induce nausea.

So, unfortunately, we seem to be stuck with these two national lackeys whenever an important game comes on, including this year's playoffs. So, to all my loyal (and casual) readers, I ask this of you: If you can jerryrig a way to delay the KNBR broadcast to synch with the Fox broadcast, please let me know. Playoff parties are at your house.

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