Fox's broadcast of the All-Star Game Tuesday night was just bad TV, nothing more, nothing to get excited about. But it was also so much more than that. It was also an insult.
It was a direct insult to one of baseball's true greats, and by extension it was an insult to anyone who's ever loved the game. That's because the insult to Ernie Harwell, the retired Detroit Tigers announcer, was a symptom of Fox's complete inability, or unwillingness, to get baseball, to understand it, to at long last show it a little damn respect.
I'll admit to a little bias up front. Out of all of the people I've ever interviewed or even been around as a reporter, Ernie Harwell is, by miles and miles, my favorite. I spent three days shadowing him in 2002, his 55th and final year at a big-league microphone, and I suspect if my career reaches a 55th year those three days will still be among the best I ever spent on the clock.
But I think I'd feel the same way if I'd never met Harwell, never even heard his mellifluous voice.
Here's what happened. A few minutes into the 44-minute pre-game show, Fox ran a nice little taped segment with Harwell talking about baseball, Detroit and his memories of the last All-Star Game in the Motor City, the 1971 contest that featured six future Hall of Famers hitting home runs, including Reggie Jackson's famous shot off the light standard on top of the roof in right field.
It looked like it was going to be one of those syrupy tributes, but Harwell must have had something to say about it because it ended up being a classy little segment, though the best thing about it was that the 87-year-old Harwell looked like a million bucks.
After the canned feature, Harwell appeared with Fox hosts Jeanne Zelasko and Kevin Kennedy, who said to Harwell, "Give us your take on Al Kaline," the Tigers Hall of Famer who played from 1953 to 1974.
Harwell talked for precisely 17 seconds before Zelasko interrupted: "Yeah, we wish, we wish we could just go on and on. There's so much to say about him, and thank you so much for coming with us."
Yeah, yeah, love talking to ya, Ernie, you're a legend and everything, but we simply must get to yet another taped thing we have about ... Reggie Jackson's home run! Which we haven't talked about now for 27 seconds!
That piece, a purple prose-over-highlights montage deal similar to the movie tie-in show-opener with Billy Bob Thornton and more in keeping with Fox's usual style, was narrated by noted baseball figure Smokey Robinson.
That quickly led to a Pepsi thing, and then a Taco Bell thing. "We love ya, Ernie" -- Kennedy's actual words -- but we gotta get to some goober trying to win money by throwing five balls through a circle.
Ah, the majesty of our national game. Can someone get this old guy in the fisherman's cap out of here, please? Do you believe this guy, wanting to ramble on about Al Kaline? Who the heck is Al Kaline, anyway?
Again, Kennedy had asked Harwell to "give us your take on Al Kaline."
Now, why we needed Harwell's take on Al Kaline at this moment wasn't made clear. Kaline was the great Tigers star of the second half of the 20th century, and Harwell had mentioned him in that canned piece, but he wasn't a centerpiece of Tuesday's festivities in any way made clear by Fox's broadcast, and really didn't need to be.
And anyway, probably 99 percent of the kids in the youth demographic baseball and Fox are constantly chasing have never heard of Kaline, and, good a player as he was, probably don't need to know about him before they learn about a whole bunch of other baseball history, if they're so inclined.
The question was about Kaline because Harwell's old, so he must not have anything to say about today's players, right?
Well, wrong, but listen, if they wanted to play on Harwell's age, why not ask him about Ty Cobb? Cobb played for the Tigers -- you can look this stuff up, Fox! -- and a few youngsters might have heard his name before because there's a movie about him that's on cable sometimes and also there's a salad.
And Harwell has good stories about him. As a cub radio reporter he knocked on Cobb's door unannounced one day and was granted an interview, just like that. This was in the early '40s -- before there was TV or cellphones, kids! Cobb didn't get along with anybody, but Harwell got along with him. Hard to tell this in 17 seconds, Harwell's allotted time, but I bet he could do it. He's an old radio pro.
Radio, young'uns, is a thing they had before iPods.
So anyway, here is what Harwell said in his rambling, crazy-old-man answer, all 17 seconds of it:
"He was the consummate Tiger. He played 22 years in Detroit, one of the three that played that long in a Tiger uniform. He came right off the sandlots of Baltimore, did not play a minor league game. Had some great years. He was the batting champion, the youngest ever, he was the hero of the World Series --"
That's where Zelasko jumped in. "We wish we could just go on and on," she said. You know, we wish we could just let you go on and on like you're doing, you nutty old coot.
It was just bad TV, nothing more than that. Mere incompetence. Another 35 minutes would go by before the first pitch of game the American League would win 7-5, meaning the Tampa Bay Devil Rays will have home-field advantage in the World Series if they can rally to win the pennant. You don't think Fox could have found 10 or 15 seconds to trim somewhere, or even 30, so Harwell could finish his thought?
Scooter the talking baseball talked for 12 seconds before the first pitch. That couldn't have been pushed back or, heaven forfend, cut? Fox has been recycling the same handful of Scooter clips for a few years now.
Or if Fox wanted a 15-second answer, couldn't Kennedy have asked a question that lent itself to a 15-second answer, rather than the dumb "Give us your take on Al Kaline"? Or couldn't someone have mentioned to Harwell that he only had 15 seconds?
But it was more than just incompetent TV. It was a slap in the face. And not so much in Harwell's face either. I wasn't able to reach him Wednesday morning but I bet when I do he'll say something like "Aw, that's just TV. They've got a lot to worry about. It didn't bother me."
It was a slap to anyone who tunes in to something like the All-Star Game because they love baseball and like to revel in the traditions of the game. As it happens, the 1971 All-Star Game in Detroit was the second one I can remember watching, the first being the extra-inning game in 1970 that ended on the famous Pete Rose-Ray Fosse collision at home plate.
I've watched every one I could since, and not because I want to see some guy who got his name picked out of a jar win a pot of money for throwing a ball through a hoop, and not because I can't wait to see Scooter the talking baseball explain for about the 12th time in the last three years what a changeup is, and not because I'm interested in what movie Fox is going to shill for in its opening segment.
I watch because seeing the All-Stars line up along the baselines in the pregame introductions reminds me of all the other All-Stars I've seen, of the singular moments that this meaningless game can provide -- the 1970 collision, Reggie's '71 homer, Fred Lynn's grand slam in '83, Bo Jackson's titanic shot to lead off the '89 game, Barry Bonds throwing Torii Hunter over his shoulder, and then that tie ending, in 2002.
I watch because these memories form a chain that has meaning for me, that connects Willie Mays to Fernando Valenzuela to Ken Griffey Jr. to Barry Bonds to Albert Pujols, and the 7-year-old me to the 17-year-old me and so on to the me sitting here today. And it's a chain that connects me to my father, who had his own chain with his own father, just as I'm about to start another with my son.
I'm not speaking for every baseball fan here, but I'm not unusual either.
Fox doesn't care about any of this. It'll use the highlights of those old games, but only if it can use them to sell some soda, some tacos, some cars, some movie, some rock band. I like all of those things. There's nothing wrong with selling them. But the price is too high. The price is insulting baseball at every turn.
Baseball signed on with Fox and deserves every insult coming its way. But its fans don't.
And it's baseball's fans who get slapped every time they try to tune in to Fox, the network with a contract to broadcast the biggest events of a sport it hates to the point of blowing off one of its greatest figures.
Previous column: Home Run Derby; college football
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