King Kaufman's Sports Daily

The Marlins beat the Cubs in extra innings, but the real upset is that a Fox announcer has some incisive things to say.

Published October 8, 2003 7:00PM (EDT)

One of the annoying features that Fox uses to try to distract viewers from the baseball game while collecting some sponsorship scratch is a pointless poll question, called the Virtual Manager, that you're supposed to use your cellphone to answer.

The first one during the Marlins' thrilling, 11-inning, 9-8 victory in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series Tuesday night was "Who has the better young pitching staff, the Marlins or the Cubs?" Why anybody actually answers these bonehead questions is beyond me. And once they do, I can't fathom why any of us should care what a bunch of cellphone fetishists think about these sub-trivial subjects. OK, America thinks the Cubs pitchers are better than the Marlins pitchers. So what?

Wouldn't it be nice if Fox used the gimmick to ask meaningful questions? If my readership and every single person I know in the real world are any indication, Fox's audience is in a constant state of irritation with its broadcasts, which one reader described as presenting the game "from the point of view of a Chihuahua hopped up on caffeine and speed." Fox should use the Virtual Manager to gauge just how irritated we are, and maybe even change things accordingly.

This is an idea, by the way, that I've stolen wholesale from Kara Yorio, who writes about hockey for the Sporting News.

To give Fox an idea of how this might work, this column will be interrupted from time to time by Virtual Manager questions. And look, here's one now.

Virtual Manager question: Now that it's the League Championship Series, we've added a third announcer to the booth. Do you like that?

A) Yes: There just wasn't enough chatter before
B) No: Every word said by that third guy is another insight from Steve Lyons that we don't get to hear
C) Oh, I shot my TV days ago

That third guy Tuesday night, joining Thom Brennaman and Lyons, was veteran Mets left-hander Al Leiter, and he was good. He doesn't have much of a broadcast voice, but that's pretty secondary. He offered sharp insights into not only the approach a pitcher might take in different game situations, but also into the mechanics of pitching, and he did it without the phony aw-shucks-I'm-lousy humility and the reluctance to criticize that are the hallmarks of active players dabbling in the booth.

In the Marlins third, with Florida trailing 4-0, Juan Pierre tripled with one out. Cubs pitcher Carlos Zambrano then nibbled and nibbled at Luis Castillo, eventually walking him to bring up the Marlins' red-hot slugger, Ivan Rodriguez. "You've got to get the out there," Leiter said. "You almost concede the runner at third, get the out, you're up by three. Now you have first and third and Rodriguez coming up."

In other words, trouble. Zambrano started Rodriguez with Ball 1.

"Now this is the intangible with fast runners on base," Leiter said. "The effort and energy that you have to pay attention to Castillo at first kind of takes you out of whack with your mechanics to where you don't execute a pitch. Get behind, bad things happen."

In response to a question from Lyons, Leiter reiterated that Zambrano should have gone right after Castillo. "He should have tried to put the ball in play." But he tempered his criticism: "Easier said than done sometimes, Psycho."

On the next pitch, Rodriguez homered to make it 4-3.

"So much for Josh Beckett beating on the Marlins bench," Leiter said, referring dryly to an earlier shot of the 23-year-old Marlins pitcher melting down in the dugout after the Cubs' four-run first. Watching that, Leiter, who is almost 38 and has started 326 ballgames in a big-league career that began in 1987, had calmly said, "It's just one inning."

Miguel Cabrera and Juan Encarnacion also homered in the fourth, giving Florida a 5-4 lead. "Well, you hate to chalk it up to being nervous and postseason," Leiter said, "but for a sinkerball pitcher to be up and also for it to straighten out, it means he's overthrowing, and that usually comes with nerves and just wanting to do well." He then watched a replay of Encarnacion's homer and noticed that Cubs catcher Paul Bako had set up outside, but the pitch had tailed back inside.

Most color analysts would simply have said that Zambrano missed his spot, but Leiter said, "For a sinkerball pitcher, his hand still has to be behind the ball. If it gets off to the side, it'll have more of a running effect as opposed to a sinking effect, and that's what that was."

So in the course of five minutes Leiter said more informative things than I've heard any other Fox announcer say in all of the years the network has been broadcasting baseball.

Virtual Manager question: How many times after each home run do you need to see that shot of the dugout reacting?

A) None
B) One or two
C) A dozen or so, half of them in slow motion
D) Several thousand, so just keep doing what you're doing

If Game 1 was any indication, the Marlins-Cubs series is going to be as exciting as three of the four first-round series were, the Yankees-Twins tilt being the exception. Mike Lowell won it with a pinch homer in the top of the 11th after Sammy Sosa had tied it for the Cubs in the bottom of the ninth with a two-run shot onto Waveland Avenue. Sosa's homer had evened things after the Marlins had scored twice to take the lead in the top of the ninth on a two-run single by Rodriguez, who has been at the center of just about every Marlins rally this month.

There was some urgency for the Marlins to win Game 1 because they'll be facing Mark Prior and Kerry Wood in the next two games Wednesday at Wrigley and Friday in Miami. The Cubs are 42-23 in games started by those two, 50-53 in games started by anyone else. They've won Wood's last six starts and Prior's last five.

But the Marlins got off to a rough start. In the bottom of the first, Florida center fielder Pierre started in on Mark Grudzielanek's drive, then watched it sail over his head for a run-scoring triple. An out later Beckett grooved a fastball that Moises Alou hit into the street for a two-run homer. Then Pierre went back to the warning track on Aramis Ramirez's shot to left center, leaped -- and realized in mid-air that he wasn't going to catch it, a bad time to come to that conclusion. The ball went over his head and bounced off the brick wall at the same time he did. Triple. And to cap it off, left fielder Jeff Conine did a Matsui on Alex Gonzalez's line drive, coming in and making an ill-advised attempt at a shoe-string catch, turning a single into a double.

In front of 25 big-screen TVs somewhere, the Giants were watching all this and going, "Where were these guys when we were playing them?" The guys the Giants played showed up later, erasing that four-run lead and then scoring in the ninth and 11th innings after having been tied.

Virtual Manager question: At a dramatic moment in the game, what is it that you want us to show you?

A) Tight, tight close-ups of the faces of the batter, the pitcher, some random fan, the pitcher's wife, the manager and the pitcher again
B) A full-screen graphic having nothing to do with the situation at hand
C) The beautiful city skyline, courtesy of the Product Placement Lightship
D) Where the fielders are positioned, the catcher flashing the sign, the baserunners -- oh, this is just too outrageous a suggestion. Really? You want to hear it? OK --the baserunners taking their leads, and where the catcher sets up.

If Brennaman and Lyons don't stop complaining about Manny Ramirez of the Red Sox showboating after his home run in Game 5 Monday against the A's, I'm going to take a hostage.

We get it, guys. You didn't like it. Brennaman and Lyons would have us believe that Ramirez pointing at his teammates and walking the first few steps of his home run trot is the kind of thing that destroys the very fabric of our national pastime, but Ramirez would have had to shoot a few people to do as much to harm to the great game of baseball as the Fox broadcast team's continuing asinine harping on him.

And guess what clip Fox shows when it teases the American League Championship Series, Yankees vs. Red Sox, beginning Wednesday night in New York.

Why, it's Manny Ramirez swinging, connecting, dropping the bat, pointing into the Red Sox dugout and walking up the first base line. Disgraceful, ain't it boys?

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