King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Fox's baseball announcers: Lyons improves, Brennaman doesn't, Piniella makes a nice guest. Jeanne Zelasko Watch? So 2004.


Salon Staff
October 19, 2005 8:00PM (UTC)

Several readers have written to ask why I haven't been chronicling the mind-boggling awfulness of Jeanne Zelasko this playoff season.

Fox's studio co-host has been on the subdued side, though I'm told she tortured a "Wizard of Oz" allusion to within an inch of its life when talking about White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen. Oz, Ozzie. Get it?

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But she hasn't gone in for any of those surreal, nonsensical, cliché-riddled opening monologues that made her a favorite of this column and the inspiration for the Jeanne Zelasko cliché watch. Fox's sinister-voiced announcer guy has narrated one or two of those, but without Zelasko's lamentable wordplay. She might just be waiting for the World Series.

I'm mostly ignoring her. I feel like the subject's been covered. I think Zelasko's terrible, unwatchable, and everyone seems to agree with me. All the abuse I've heaped on her over the last few years, all of the hundreds, maybe thousands of e-mails I've received saying, "Amen," and not a single reader has come to her defense. Not one. No one has even said, "Hey, we get it. Lay off."

Fox's baseball coverage, including Zelasko, is just about the only thing I've ever criticized without getting a single message expressing disagreement. Someone, somewhere, must enjoy Zelasko's work. I've just never met or heard from any of these people, never even heard tell of them.

I don't think we need to keep the echo chamber going. We'll all just ignore her and it'll be fine.

Even more surprising to me than my ability to ignore Zelasko this year is the fact that Steve Lyons isn't driving me up the wall. Maybe I've mellowed with age, but I think Lyons, for years one of the worst analysts, has actually improved. He's been working the National League Championship Series with Thom Brennaman and Bob Brenly.

I had forgotten this, but I noticed the same thing last year. Lyons is still a little eager to make with the Interesting Personal Anecdotes about players, but I haven't heard him do it at moments when the game is on the line, which he used to do, and he doesn't seem to be making a full-time effort to live up to his nickname, "Psycho," anymore.

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Gone are the annoying catchphrases -- "pickin' and grinnin' at first base!" -- and the concerted attempts to be quirky. Instead he's been offering pretty interesting analysis of various hitters' swings, and he's limited his jokes and one-liners to situations where they're actually warranted and occasionally amusing, rather than just tossing them out willy-nilly and hoping one or two make sense, and if not, hey, that's why they call me "Psycho."

In Game 4 of the NLCS, St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa had been thrown out for arguing balls and strikes and was trying to continue the argument with home-plate umpire Phil Cuzzi, but towering crew chief Tim McClelland wouldn't let him. La Russa tried to go left, tried to go right, but McClelland kept himself between the two men.

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"Tony's gonna have to work on a spin move to get around Tim McClelland," Lyons said. Not exactly Bartlett's stuff, but it was funny and it was actually about the subject at hand, two vast improvements.

I've never met Lyons, but my guess is that away from the booth he's an engaging, funny guy, which is how he got the gig in the booth. It's a lot harder than it looks to transfer those qualities from the sofa to the press box, in the same way that that hilarious class clown guy from your high school probably bombed as a stand-up comedian.

Lyons is still not among my favorite color guys. He doesn't have enough to say. But he's made the enormous leap into the middle of the pack. I no longer cringe when I know he's going to be on a broadcast. That's huge, and my hat's off to him.

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In fact, I get a lot of e-mail from readers saying they've managed to enjoy baseball on Fox by turning off the sound so they don't have to listen to the announcers. I actually think the announcers are the least of Fox's problems.

For me, baseball's tough to watch on Fox because of the network's complete and obvious lack of respect for the game itself, and because of all the gimmickry and nonsense it clutters the broadcasts with.

From the asinine Scooter the talking baseball to the pointless "Diamond Cam," that microcamera buried in the dirt, from endless severe closeups to seizure-inducing quick cutting, uninformative graphics with dopey headlines to irritating sound effects that accompany every change in the score bug and every return from a replay, Fox essentially dares baseball fans to watch.

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The announcers aren't great, but they aren't the problem. Here's a thumbnail review of the other five men who have been working the League Championship Series. I ignore "sideline reporters" as best as I can.

Joe Buck: Fox's unquestioned No. 1 guy is fine. No real complaints here. Others seem to find him funnier than I do, and I don't agree with the prevailing sentiment that he's hands down the best play-by-play announcer of his generation in baseball or football. But he's a solid pro who's easy to listen to.

If Buck were an ESPN baseball announcer he'd be nowhere near the network's best -- Jon Miller -- but solidly in the upper tier, with Dan Shulman and Dave O'Brien. As a football announcer I'd say about the same. He's good, but I'd put him well behind CBS's Gus Johnson, whom I'm just in love with.

Tim McCarver: I've written before that McCarver doesn't send me into fits of blinding hatred the way he does for so many. There are Web sites dedicated to the proposition that Tim McCarver should immediately and painfully cease to exist.

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And I don't just mean as an announcer.

He can be pompous and lazy, annoying as hell when he pulls out one of his annoying McCarverisms, a tortured play on words. He'll get on a point and beat it into the ground, and when a replay contradicts whatever point he's making, he often refuses to acknowledge it. On the other hand, he's really smart, and he does offer insights into the game, particularly the dynamics of a single at-bat.

Not my favorite, but not my least favorite either.

Lou Piniella: Buck and McCarver's guest this year during the American League Championship Series, Piniella, recently let go as manager of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, did a solid job, as active players and managers often do when they make cameos in the booth.

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Piniella had a lot more to offer than McCarver when it came to discussing the strengths and weaknesses of the players on the field, which makes sense because he'd just been managing in the league a few weeks earlier.

His unguarded, almost naive style -- surely an act, at least in part -- was kind of charming. He claimed at one point never to have heard the phrase "neighborhood play" in reference to the tradition of umpires letting middle infielders just be near second base on the front end of a double-play.

The great thing about having guys like Piniella in the booth, active guys just visiting, is that their insights and stories are fresh. They haven't had time to start repeating themselves yet, the way most analysts do after a fairly short time, a year or two.

It'd be great if the networks could cycle analysts through the booth fairly quickly to keep them fresh, but of course that would never work. It would be too time-consuming and expensive to have to train and publicize a fresh crop of announcers every year or two, and anyway who'd take that job knowing he'd only keep it for so short a time?

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It would be even better if the analysts themselves would work hard at staying current, staying fresh, not recycling the same ideas, insights and anecdotes no matter how long they stay in the booth. But now I'm really asking for the impossible.

Piniella's done for the year. Buck and McCarver will work the World Series alone. Too bad.

Thom Brennaman: Fox's most irritating announcer, having wrested that title away from his partner Steve Lyons.

It starts and nearly ends with his irritating, high-in-the-throat voice, which sounds like he's trying to imitate what he thinks an announcer should sound like. Then there are his "this is what a baseball announcer is supposed to sound like" mannerisms, like stretching out the word "long" for about five seconds whenever he uses it, or saying "nineteen hundred and eighteen" to refer to a long-ago year, rather than, you know, "1918."

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But there's also Brennaman's tendency toward sanctimony, seeming to pass moral judgments on players for, say, not getting a bunt down. And then when he really is on his high horse, as when he can't stop talking about some infraction of etiquette by Manny Ramirez or something, he's insufferable.

I also find his observations to be as deep as a puddle. On Sunday, for example, while the Astros and Cardinals were engaged in a pitcher's duel, he said that the more postseason baseball you watch, the more you see that pitching is the most important thing.

Really? Did you watch the 2004 postseason, Thom? Do you remember who won? I'll give you a hint: They led their league in runs scored, by a lot, but were a fairly distant fourth in fewest runs allowed. Here's another: At one point they had managed to win two playoff series and take a 1-0 lead in the World Series while allowing an average of six runs per game in the postseason to date.

Bob Brenly: A guest with Brennaman and Lyons during the NLCS, Brenly was a Fox broadcaster before becoming the manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2001, a job he held through 2003. He's OK, a nice mix of humor and smart, but not earth-shattering, analysis.

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Bill King, R.I.P. [PERMALINK]

It wouldn't be right to do a whole column on announcers this week without mentioning longtime Oakland A's announcer Bill King, who died Tuesday from complications following hip surgery.

As a Bay Area resident for two decades, I whiled away many an hour listening to King and Lon Simmons do A's games. They were a great pair, Simmons laconic and funny, King intense and whip-smart, with a vocabulary to die for. King and Ken Korach, Simmons' replacement a decade ago, were almost as good a pair.

King was actually better on more intense sports, terrific in his days doing Warriors basketball and out of this world doing Raiders football. At one point, he was the broadcaster for all three teams at the same time.

Here's a link to the Bay Area Radio Museum's page that features his call of one of the most famous plays in Raiders history, the "Holy Roller" against the San Diego Chargers in 1978. Skip ahead to about the 11:00 mark to just hear that play:

"Stabler back, here comes the rush, he sidesteps. Can he throw? He can't! The ball slips forward! There's a wild scramble! Two seconds on the clock. Casper grabbing the ball. It is ruled a fumble! Casper has recovered in the end zone! The Oakland Raiders have scored on the most zany, unbelievable, absolutely impossible dream of a play! Stabler, while being hit, the ball squirted forward. Madden is on the field. He wants to know if it's real. They said, 'Yes, get your big butt out of here!' He does."

I used to enjoy watching King work when I was spending a lot of time in the Oakland Coliseum press box. When you saw him before the game -- a time when most media types are just hanging around -- he was always in motion, bustling around with a stack of papers in his hands, darting in to get a plate of food, then back out in a flash. In other words ... working!

King was definitely not your usual sports media type. He loved fine arts, especially ballet, if I recall, and he had a healthy disrespect for authority. He hated nothing more than bad calls by officials, and not just if they went against the home team.

With his pointy beard and waxed, handlebar mustache, you could tell Bill King was a oner just by looking at him. But that was nothing compared to listening to him. A great one. He was 78.

Previous column: Pujols saves Cardinals

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