King Kaufman's Sports Daily

TBS playoff report card: The low-key, anti-Fox approach is working nicely, but dopey, bunt-obsessed top voice Chip Caray is hard to take.


King Kaufman
October 10, 2007 3:00PM (UTC)

The first round of the baseball playoffs, has ended, and with it TBS's excloo on the broadcasts. The Turner network will carry the National League Championship Series, while the ALCS will be on Fox, which also has the World Series.

After a week's worth of broadcasts, I'll stick pretty close to my initial assessment of TBS, which is that it's doing a refreshingly solid job of presenting baseball games, as opposed to the special-effects-laden, gadget-happy, storyline-riding extravaganzas Fox foists upon a suffering baseball public every year at this time.

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Also, Ernie Johnson is to Jeanne Zelasko as Honus Wagner is to Neifi Perez.

Fox does do some things better than TBS. It brings about 400 cameras to every game, which leads to those annoying 50-cut sequences between every pitch, where instead of watching, say, the catcher flash the sign or, heaven forfend, getting a glimpse of how the fielders are arrayed, we're treated to shots of the pitcher's nose, some boys in the stands, the batter's ear, some girls in the stands, the manager's face, some player wives, the other manager's face, the pitcher's nose again and a shot from the blimp. Before every pitch.

TV networks are so averse to showing the defensive alignment that if I didn't sometimes go to games I'd think all the fielders stripped naked between pitches.

But all those cameras also provide a pretty good replay angle on just about any play that might happen, and usually two or three pretty good replay angles. TBS has often been unable to come up with just the right shot for a crucial replay, most notably on the deciding play at home in last Monday's National League wild-card play-in game.

Fox also has a super slow-mo thingy that's interesting, especially when it's used to show a pitch being thrown, which really displays the incredible violence that an arm goes through on every single toss.

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The announcing teams have been, as I thought they'd be, so-so at best. Don Orsillo and Joe Simpson are a dull pair, and the teams of Ted Robinson-Steve Stone and Dick Stockton-Ron Darling pair good analysts -- great, in the case of Stone -- with bad play-by-play men. Stockton, who's 65 but sounds older, seems to be in a permanent state of confusion. Robinson's just an annoying lightweight.

But the real problem is the A-team of Chip Caray, Tony Gwynn and Bob Brenly, who will be doing the NLCS. Caray is a disaster, and while Gwynn and Brenly are pleasant, they're nothing special, and they don't come close to making up for the many shortcomings of their partner.

Caray has an astonishing lack of baseball acumen for a third-generation baseball broadcaster who's been in the business for two decades, and he combines that with a lack of preparation, a taste for corny, Brennamanesque attempts at memorable calls -- "Cleveland rocks!" he shouted after a big Indians hit -- and the evident belief that anyone's interested in his bone-headed philosophy of baseball, which can be summed up as "Everyone should bunt. Always."

Richard Sandomir of the New York Times got a snootful of Caray in just one broadcast and offered this report, if you want details.

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What I'm wondering about Caray is what world he's living in where there's National League baseball and American League baseball, wildly distinct from each other. He harped almost constantly during the Indians-Yankees series about how over in the National League, where he spends the year broadcasting Atlanta Braves games, this or that situation would be an automatic bunt.

He seems to have missed the little historical trend of the last 15 years that the differences between the leagues have been largely whittled away, and it's no longer true that the A.L. is the stand around and slug league while the N.L. is the walk, steal, sacrifice hit, sacrifice fly, 1-0 final score smallball league.

That difference was probably always greater in the popular imagination than in reality, but in the mid-'80s, when Caray was finishing college and starting his broadcasting career, N.L. teams scored about 90 percent of the runs A.L. teams did. Now it's more like 96 percent, and more runs are scored overall in both leagues than 20 years ago. Both leagues are stand around and slug now.

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But Caray goes on and on about bunting. He tsks that Derek Jeter should have bunted but didn't. He laments when teams don't bunt, lavishes praise when they do, lauding the National League style, regardless of the outcome. He thinks the guy who hits second in the order should bunt whenever there's someone on base. That's how they do it in the National League, he'll say.

It's true that N.L. teams bunt more often than A.L. teams do, but that's because the pitchers bat. If you take pitchers out of the equation, the average N.L. team had 27.6 sacrifice hits this year, the average A.L. team 33.6. Well, hang on. We're counting ninth-place hitters in the A.L., who don't bunt as often as pitchers but they do bunt.

So let's just look at batters in the 1-8 slots in the batting order. Those hitters collected 26.2 sacrifice hits per team in the N.L., 24.2 in the A.L. So, discounting the ninth spot in the order, the average team in that bunt-happy N.L. of Caray's lays down two more sacrifices per year than the average team in the staid, station-to-station A.L. That's once every 80 games, a difference that's visible to the fevered imagination of announcers who don't really pay attention, but not to the naked eye.

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The average team got 9.4 sacrifice hits out of the second spot in the order in the National League this year, 6.4 in the American. That's an extra bunt every two months from the spot that Caray thinks is bunt central in the Senior Circuit.

Don't even get me started about how the average American League team attempted three more stolen bases this year than the average speedy, crafty, scientific National League team.

But it's not just Caray. I've also been disappointed with Gwynn's work on ESPN and now on TBS. He's not bad, and he comes across as a decent, down-to-earth fellow. But he ought to bring more to the table than that.

This is Tony Gwynn, one of the smartest, most dedicated and most respected hitters of the last half-century. This is one of the few people whom Ted Williams thought was worthy of praise for his hitting. Gwynn used to sit around and talk hitting with Williams -- as an equal.

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Tony Gwynn could probably forget more about hitting than most major league hitters will ever know, and he'd still know more about hitting than most major league hitters will ever know. Where is that stuff? All we get is Gwynn narrating a replay of a home run by saying, "That's a beautiful swing right there."

Brenly noted at one point that Gwynn was a pioneer in the now-widespread practice of using video to assess his own at-bats and scout opposing pitchers. Brenly asked Gwynn what he used to look for when he looked at videos, and Gwynn answered in vague generalities.

Seriously, Tony: What do you talk about when you talk about hitting? When you talked about it with Williams or when you talk about it with your players at San Diego State? Share with the class here. We don't need you to tell us that Grady Sizemore put a good swing on that home run. We can see that. Solid front, right foot up to the shoulder. Yeah, we all know that one now.

Try to sneak some insights in there between Caray's pleas for more bunting.

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TBS covers the Colorado Rockies vs. the Arizona Diamondbacks in the NLCS starting Thursday at 8:30 p.m. EDT. Fox carries the Cleveland Indians vs. the Boston Red Sox starting Friday at 7 p.m. EDT. The full broadcast schedule is at MLB.com.

Previous column: Joe Torre: Out?

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  • King Kaufman

    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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