“Sunday Night Baseball” loves Chachi

ESPN bringing Steve Phillips into the booth with Jon Miller and Joe Morgan is the oldest trick in TV land, and one of the worst.

Topics: Baseball, Paul Shirley, ESPN,

ESPN announced this week that Steve Phillips will join Jon Miller and Joe Morgan in the booth of “Sunday Night Baseball,” the network’s signature baseball telecast.

There had been rumors during the postseason, denied by ESPN, that the network was about to break up the 19-year pairing of Miller and Morgan.

Instead, the four-letter has turned to the oldest trick in the long-running TV series book: It’s brought in Cousin Oliver.

Phillips is the new kid, introduced to give a little goose to a program that’s gone flat, that has — if I may use a catchphrase that has MySpaced — jumped the shark.

Steve Phillips is Seven on “Married … With Children.” He’s Olivia on “The Cosby Show.” He’s Chachi.

I’m not sure the show needed freshening up — I mean “Sunday Night Baseball,” not “The Cosby Show.” But I do know that Phillips is just the guy to not do it. The former New York Mets general manager has been with ESPN since 2004, working some games but mostly on the panel of “Baseball Tonight,” where he’s provided a steady stream of reasons for the other 29 teams not to hire him.

Notwithstanding the moronic mock press conferences “Baseball Tonight” used to present, with Phillips impersonating the G.M. of the featured team each night, he has never given viewers a reason to believe he was ever a general manager, has never offered evidence that he gleaned any insights or inside knowledge from his years running the Mets.

His signature moment, for me — and in the interest of full disclosure I should say I have missed a lot of Steve Phillips moments on ESPN — was his confident statement in July 2006 that the New York Yankees should trade Alex Rodriguez, dump him, get rid of him while the getting was good. Rodriguez was having a down year — for him, that is: He ended up with a .915 OPS and 35 home runs. And he was in the midst of an ugly slump.

“His play won’t come back,” Phillips proclaimed. “I think it’s time to move him before it’s too late.”

TV executives are always yammering on about how this or that broadcaster is just like a guy you might watch the game with on your couch at home. Why this is supposed to be a good thing is beyond me. If I wanted to hear what a guy sitting on my couch might say about a game, I’d talk to the guy sitting on my couch.

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Guys who can sit on my couch and say dumb stuff about sports are not scarce. I’m one of those guys myself. It’s nothing, trust me.

But even the guy who sits next to you on the couch would have been smarter than Phillips that day. He’d have said, “You don’t dump one of the greatest players of all time when he’s in the middle of a slump, you dolt. That’s called selling low.” That’s the kind of insight and insider knowledge the guy on your couch gleaned from playing rotisserie baseball when he was supposed to be working.

Over the next week or so Rodriguez had four two-hit games and a three-hit game and he put up a .975 OPS the rest of the year. The next season he hit 54 home runs and won the MVP, with daylight second.

There’s an online cottage industry devoted to hating Joe Morgan, and he can be awfully frustrating to listen to. His ESPN chats, which the late Web site FireJoeMorgan.com made its bones dissecting, reveal how little he actually watches or thinks about baseball. He can be hostile to new ideas, and while he has a sense of humor, which the excellent Miller adroitly draws out at times, he can turn dour and humorless when something offends his sensibilities.

All that said, I like listening to Morgan for the same reason I like listening to Bill Walton comment on basketball: There just aren’t that many chances to get the point of view of guys like that. That’s because there aren’t many guys like him in the first place. Morgan is right there with Rogers Hornsby as the greatest second baseman of all time.

Guys like that, scarce as they are, are even more scarce in the booth. They tend not to take announcing gigs. In my lifetime the only players anywhere near Morgan’s caliber who did it were Tom Seaver and Reggie Jackson, neither of whom did it for long. I’ll put up with some pontificating about how things should be and some lobbying for Dave Concepcion’s Hall of Fame candidacy to listen to Morgan talking about the playing of the game.

Now I’ll have one more thing I’ll have to put up with to get that. The new kid with his insight-free ramblings. Steve Phillips. Chachi.

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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