The dead-air era of baseball

Why do so many broadcasts resort to gimmicks that make long games seem even longer?
A record player
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I was driving home from my son’s baseball practice on a recent night when I turned on the radio to hear the Baltimore Orioles broadcast and the play-by-play team of Jim Hunter and Fred Manfra.

Hunter was the subject of a conversation I had some 15 years ago with a newspaper reporter colleague about Hunter’s excessive use of the phrase “on the season.” Hunter was still at it on this recent night: For instance, O’s first baseman Chris Davis hitting his 34th home run on the season.

Not only would “this season” be preferable to “on the season,” but neither is needed as it’s generally assumed that the broadcaster is referencing current statistics. This is how the game is played, on a season-by-season basis.

I certainly don’t mean to pick on Hunter, who is a smart and thoughtful broadcaster. There are many offenders among today’s baseball broadcasters.

The night of the Orioles broadcast, I reached out to Curt Smith, a former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush, current senior lecturer in English at the University of Rochester, and an authority on baseball broadcasting.

I asked him in an email whether “on the season” similarly gives him pause. He wrote back:

I like and admire Jim Hunter and Fred Manfra as broadcasters, but as a rule current broadcasters don’t edit themselves as ruthlessly as they did, say, 20 to 30, let alone 50 years ago. Mistakes include: ‘whatsoever’ instead of ‘whatever,’ ‘towards’ instead of ‘toward,’ and ‘I could care less,’ when the Voice clearly means to say ‘I couldn’t care less.’ ‘On the season’ is a device to fill dead air.

Here I feel sympathy for today’s Voice. The pace of the game is so incredibly slow … that announcers, who have been trained to think that the worst sin of all is dead air — throw in such expressions, indeed, everything verbally except the kitchen sink — to avoid it. Their problem is that there is so exceedingly much more dead air to fill than a quarter- or half-century ago.

The ellipsis in his quote is where he referenced this article in that day’s Wall Street Journal, “In America’s Pastime, Baseball Players Pass A Lot of Time.”

Accompanied by a photo showing a couple sleeping during a Brewers-Cardinals game, the article concluded that a fan sees 17 minutes and 58 seconds of action in a three-hour major league game.

“The amount of inertia during a major-league game has been on the rise. This season’s average game time of three hours and three minutes is the longest game duration since Stats LLC started tracking the numbers in 1987, the firm said. In 1987, the average was two hours, 52 minutes.”

The article cites hitters working counts, pitchers throwing more pitches, and the number of commercials between innings as reasons for longer games. I’d also add the deliberation of players, hitters adjusting and readjusting batting gloves (does Velcro get that loose?) and pitchers staring in endlessly for signs (see Papelbon, Jonathan, closer for the Phillies).

I attended my first Boston Red Sox game in 1975: it took two hours and 54 minutes to play; the last time I visited Fenway Park, the game lasted three hours and 18 minutes.

Vin Scully (Craigfnp at en.wikipedia)

Vin Scully (Craigfnp at en.wikipedia)

The same night that I listened to Hunter and Manfra on the radio, I heard Vin Scully call the Los Angeles Dodgers game on television.

Scully, in his 64th season of Dodgers play-by-play, remains sharp as a tack, always as comfortable invoking Charles Dickens as he is “Cargo,” the hipster nickname of Colorado Rockies outfielder Carlos Gonzalez.

Of Cargo’s teammate Manny Corpas, Scully quipped: “You can imagine he’s heard all the habeas corpus jokes there might be.”

Scully is a storyteller with six decades of tales to relate to his audience. He is elegant and smart, his broadcasts so intimate that Vin really seems to be sitting in your living room describing the action.

One wonders why instead of emulating Scully so many of today’s broadcasters go the “on the season” route, and why so many broadcasts resort to gimmicks that make long games seem even longer. Does the reading of fan tweets really make a broadcast more enjoyable?

What’s so remarkable is that Scully is a one-man show.

There is no ex-player sharing the booth with him.

There is no sideline reporter.

But there is an economy of words such that nary an “on the season” is heard.

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