The best broadcaster you won't hear on the air talks about umpire arrogance, the home-run chase and "the Viagra of baseball."
The San Francisco Giants closed out 40 years of baseball history in windy Candlestick Park last week with a moving family reunion. Some 59 former Giants — from stars like Willie Mays and Orlando Cepeda to players who had the proverbial cup of coffee on the Giants roster — streamed out of the dugout, and the scene became a real-life Field of Dreams, as older players in yellowing uniforms, hobbled by age, mixed with admiring current Giants in their bright white jerseys and all their youth and health.
There was only one bitter omission: As the Giants honored past owners, managers, broadcasters and staff, the team left out Hank Greenwald, the legendary and beloved broadcaster who was the voice of the team from 1979 through 1996, except for a two-year stint with the New York Yankees in the late 1980s. After an unhappy contract negotiation, Greenwald retired three years ago, prematurely, and with some bitterness at his treatment by Giants Vice President Larry Baer.
Earlier this year he vented his spleen — tastefully — in a sweet memoir, “This Copyrighted Broadcast.” The book is a love letter to the Giants, singling out president Peter Magowan and manager Dusty Baker for special praise. But because he devoted a handful of pages to his complaints about Baer — and a couple of paragraphs to disparaging superstar player Barry Bonds — the Giants have frozen him out of the organization. He used to occasionally fill in behind the mike as needed, broadcasting weekend home games with his former buddies, but now the team leaves some broadcasts understaffed. When it was time to hold a book party, it was hosted by the Oakland A’s, not the Giants.
Greenwald attended the Giants’ final Candlestick game last week, making his way down to a seat behind the dugout, thronged by fans. His classy successor in the broadcast booth, ESPN star Jon Miller, did the right thing and asked him up to call the game’s fourth inning on the radio. But he was never recognized out on the field that day.
Greenwald isn’t bitter, he says. He’s enjoying his retirement, and more time with his family. But when I talked to him before the end of the season it was clear he’s still an avid fan, catching every Giants game and well-versed on the team’s late-season stumble.
You’ve been a pretty vocal critic of the current umpiring situation. What was your reaction to the umpires’ ultimatum — threatening to quit, and then having their resignations selectively accepted?
Well, it’s not anything that I couldn’t see coming. What they are essentially is a group that is willing to be paid by Major League Baseball but doesn’t want to be ruled by them. And somehow society doesn’t work that way. And I think it’s time that they learned that they are not an entity unto themselves, and that there has to be some conformity with some sort of order. And right now I think they just feel that they can do whatever they want and don’t have to be governed by the rule book, by the definition of the strike zone, by any kind of code of behavior — that it’s OK for players to be suspended for their behavior, but you can’t do that to an umpire. And they’ve got a lot coming to them and I don’t feel at all sorry.
Has it gotten worse in the last couple of years, or is it just that I’ve gotten more impatient?
No, I think it’s gotten worse over the last several years, because they feel that they’re untouchable, that nothing can happen to them, so their arrogance on the field knows no bounds. And I’m maybe the first person who’s called into question the integrity issue. I mean, they always, “Well, you can question our judgment, but you can’t question our integrity.” Well, hell.
Yes, we can.
Yes, we can! And we are.
I was at a Giants game recently where they threw out Mark McGwire in the third inning. I’m not saying any player should be God, but it was a questionable strike call; he questioned it, and within five or six seconds he was gone. And the stadium was packed to see McGwire. What’s the resolution in your mind?
Well, I think the resolution is that you set up a code of conduct that they have to adhere to, and that they have to realize that when they get out of bounds in their behavior they’re going to be treated like ballplayers — be suspended. And they can be fired for their actions. There has to be a showdown, as painful as it may be. It has to be seen through to its conclusion. Because there’s a lot at stake here. I mean, this is a game where you can ban Pete Rose because you question his integrity, but you let the umpires work who will do things that will influence the outcome of the game because of a certain spite they may be carrying inside of them.
So, you’ve retired from broadcasting. You seem to still follow it very, very closely. They can’t take that out of your blood, I suppose. Are you still following the Giants?
I sure do. I listen or watch the games all the time. You know, I’m a great Dusty Baker fan.
I know. Let’s talk about his greatness just for a minute. I talk about it every chance I get.
What is it about Dusty? How does he accomplish what he does — sportswriters have picked the Giants to finish near the bottom the last three years, and they’ve been on top or close to it every season?
Well, I think that Dusty has not lost the feel for what ballplayers go through, even though he’s been removed from that situation himself for probably 15 years. But he has never forgotten the day-to-day frustrations of a ballplayer. He sits down with them. He cares about their families. He knows what’s bothering a player. And guys feel that he cares about them. And they play hard for him.
What’s the best news for baseball in the last few years? Since you’ve left?
I think the new stadiums that are going up are the best news. Because baseball went through a stage where they all wanted new stadiums, and so many cities got them. And they were awful. The Astroturf. They were circular. They weren’t made for baseball; they were really made for football. Multipurpose stadiums. And they now suddenly realize that the concept of the old ballpark was really what baseball was about, in terms of the fans.
And the downtown ballpark.
Yeah, and having them downtown, I think is a very important thing. And now you’re going to have some — how do I put this? — instant nostalgia. People who saw pictures of the old ballparks now are going to get to go to games and be there in person.
For example, in Boston, where they’re going to get a new park, with technology the way it is, and design and all of that, there’s no reason you can’t reproduce the look of Fenway Park, as hallowed as it was, as you see it from the stands, but with all new infrastructure, the comforts, amenities that people deserve in this day and age. But when they sit there and look out it looks the same.
You talk in the book about the greatness of the Sosa/McGwire home run chase last year. But is there a downside to that?
Well, the only downside is that expectations get so unrealistic on the part of fans that they start thinking that if McGwire only hits 64 this year, he’s had a bad year.
Right. And also, I like Dusty Baker baseball — the hit-and-run, stealing, just being aggressive on the base paths and eking out runs. It seems like that’s less valued than it used to be.
Well, it’s possible. The home run has always been the glamour hit, so to speak. But I think people come out to see teams win and play well … I don’t know that the superstar factor is that strong. But I think a winning ballclub certainly is. And that’s what’s more sustaining in terms of fan interest. The exception being if you have a star pitcher. Whether it be a Randy Johnson today, or somebody like [Sandy] Koufax or [Juan] Marichal or guys going back into the ’60s. Certainly in the case of the Dodgers, you could have proved years back that on the nights that Koufax pitched, he had at least somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 more people.
What do you think is the worst news for baseball in the last few years since you’ve left?
Well, this umpire thing is probably not going to affect the fans a whole lot, because the game’s still going to be played. But there’ll probably be another player-owner war on the horizon. I’m sure of that, in 2001 or whenever this next contract comes up. And there are other problems that need to be addressed, namely the playoffs and the World Series being played at night in climates that are conducive to monsoons and building snowmen and things like that. All this talk about the kids, and we have to do things for the young fans and make new fans. And the games go on in the East at hours that the –
That they can’t stay up for.
Even adults can’t! And that’s utterly ridiculous. If TV said to play at 3 in the morning they’d play at 3 in the morning.
You called the wild card playoff spot “the Viagra of baseball,” but Viagra’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’m wondering what you think of the wild card now.
My analogy to Viagra was it didn’t matter how you got there, as long as you made it.
Right. I was against it until last year, when the Giants were fighting for a wild card spot, and now I think it’s great.
Well, I don’t. You’re rewarding something that diminishes finishing first. I think what needs to happen, and will eventually, is that baseball will expand again. And they will go to 32 teams, which is a workable number. And it certainly would be my hope that at that point they’d eliminate the wild card, because now, knowing baseball, they will have eight four-team divisions, four in each league. And if you have four teams finishing first, you’ve got two rounds of playoffs right there. So you won’t have a need for a second-place team to get in.
They’ll probably create two wild card spots.
Yeah, I know. And then play until December.
I wanted to talk a little bit about the Giants’ reaction to your book. I read that you wound up doing an event in Oakland, and that seemed kind of unfortunate. Has there been hostility? I mean, you’re really only hard on Larry Baer.
Yeah, I know.
But I guess that’s enough?
Well, apparently it is. I don’t know. Did you get the impression that I trashed the organization?
No, no. You praise them for privately financing their great new stadium — and even though you hate seat licenses, you defended the Giants in this case –
I defended that, absolutely. I said the city ought to build a statue to Magowan. Which I still believe. But [Baer] had it coming. And I was in a position to say it, and others who are there are not. And so I felt this was the appropriate forum. And there’s certainly been no denial. I mean, as I said in the book, I felt he had no respect for what we did as broadcasters. Witness the way he treated us. But others can’t talk, and that’s understandable.
A friend of mine has never gotten over your leaving broadcasting. He says you sound like somebody who grew up and became a broadcaster because you loved baseball, whereas certain other broadcasters, not mentioning any names, sound like they grew up and became broadcasters because they loved broadcasting. And I thought that was an interesting distinction.
Well, I certainly would agree with my end of it, yeah. There’s no question about that. Because as a kid in Detroit following the Tigers during the war years I became a big fan. And you’d become a fan in those days by listening to the radio and going to games, which I had the chance to do. And then later, when we moved to upstate New York, in Rochester, I’d go to the minor league games, of course. But I’d sit in my room at night and see how many major league games I could pick up on the air. And I knew at a very early age that this was something I really wanted to do. And I loved the game, and I read everything I could read about it. I wanted to learn the stories and the lore and the history of the game. And I tried to communicate that, and I felt that you have an obligation as a broadcaster to stimulate the imagination of would-be baseball fans in a way that mine was. You hope you can help to create a new generation of fans, just as the broadcasters before did.
Well, you did it. Are we going to hear you again?
I think it’s doubtful. I mean, I’m not seeking any work at this point. But the biggest thrill I’ve had this year was sitting in with my son who’s doing the games in Stockton. And being on the air with him for a few innings. And that satisfies me, in my career, and in my life.
Joan Walsh is Salon's editor at large and the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America." More Joan Walsh.
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