The Baseball Desert

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Manny being...something else?

During an IM conversation with Beth the other day, we got round to talking about Manny's home run the other day on the very first pitch that the Tigers' Freddy Dolsi ever threw in the major leagues. I said something to the effect that the home run once again proved that Manny was no idiot. He may not have known exactly who Dolsi was - or even that it was his very first major league game - but I'm pretty sure he knew that he'd never seen this guy before and that there was every chance that Dolsi would want to start him off with a first-pitch strike. He did, and Manny hit the ball over the "420'" sign in straight-away center field. As Beth herself said: "Welcome to the bigs, kid, and have a nice day."

My "Manny's no idiot" got us talking about the perception that people have of Manny. There was a time when all you would ever hear were comments about "Manny being Manny", but that point of view - in the Boston media at least - has changed in recent times, and you are at least as likely to read or hear comments and stories about Manny's work-ethic and his game preparation as you are about him selling a grill on eBay or attending a custom car auction. Maybe this change in perception has something to do with the fact that, over the past few seasons, Manny has been far more accessible and open to the media than he had been previously. With no access to what Manny himself had to say about things on the field, all the media had to go on were his off-field idiosyncrasies. Now that Manny is talking more, suddenly everyone is underlining all that's good about Manny: what a smart hitter he is, how well he prepares for games, how he will sit on a pitch for as long as it takes to get it, etc.

Beth's reaction to my comments about Manny's baseball smarts was: "but I guess you're preaching to the choir there, 'cos I figured everbody realized he did stuff like that." On evidence you'd have no reason to think otherwise, but if you are following the Red Sox from somewhere other than New England, it ain't necessarily so.

I know that Red Sox Nation extends around the world (62 countries is the latest official count), but I'm guessing that the majority of the Nation is getting its coverage from within the boundaries of New England, with TV coverage almost exclusively by NESN. This means that there are a bunch of people of this planet who have the enormous good fortune to be able to tune in to Don and Jerry about 150 times a year. A normal state of affairs, you might think, and so it is. But what it also means is that those same people are seeing the Red Sox through rose- (red-?)tinted spectacles - they're getting the full picture. However, that other groups of fans - those of us who live outside New England - are forced to get our Sox coverage any which way we can, which for many means / MLB.TV.

"Forced" sounds a little harsh - I should clarify. For international fans, MLB.TV is the best thing ever, and my own love of the service, and of baseball on the Internet in general, has been well documented on this very website. It is a lifeline without which my love of the game might well have slowly faded and died. However, if you're not a generic 'fan of the game', but a fan of a specific team, you are subjected to MLB.TV's choice of feed. As far as I can gather, the general rule seems to be that they show the home team's feed, meaning that I get NESN for 81 games a year, and for the other 81 I watch that old favourite WEIOT (Whatever Else Is Out There).

Most of the time, watching the other team's feed depresses me. I hate to be an unabashed homer, but there really is no other broadcast team I would rather hear than Don & Jerry. However, there are times when watching all those other feeds gives me a unique insight into the Red Sox, not in terms of learning things that haven't already been covered by the Boston media (and IMHO, if it ain't been covered by the Boston media, it probably ain't worth covering), but in terms of realising how the Sox are presented outside the New England area.

Which brings me back to Manny. Whilst most of Red Sox Nation is now exposed to fairly balanced coverage of Manny, fans of other teams continue to get the unbalanced, shorthand version night after night. This thought has occurred to me on several occasions, as I've heard announcers just trotting out the old "Manny being Manny" line, instead of trying to come up with something new and/or intelligent to say. If you've ever listened to Tim McCarver broadcast a game on FOX, then you can imagine the kind of thing I'm talking about: Manny botches a catch in left field, and instead of, say, putting it into context and stacking it up against the outfield assists he makes in a season - basically, anything that would enlighten us on some aspect of the game - we get "there's Manny being Manny", along with a knowing chuckle, as though 1) this explained anything at all, and 2) he were the first person on the planet to ever think of using the phrase.

This type of broadcsting shorthand annoys me on a number of levels, the first one being that it's an insult to the the intelligence of fans watching the game. You can no more generalise about the 'average baseball fan' than you can about the 'average coffee-drinker', but I would venture to suggest that if somebody has decided to sit in front of their TV for at least 3 hours to watch a game, then they are at least moderately interested in what's going on. Not every person watching a game is a fan of stats or long-winded technical explanations, but I do think that most fans would appreciate a little real insight into the game, rather than observations which basically mean nothing more than "Manny is a space cadet" and which add zero value to the broadcast. I remember when Manny first had the wild hair going, and it was the same. Up at the plate, one of the greatest right-handed hitters in the game, a genius with a bat in his hand, and all we'd hear was announcers going on and on about his hair. Well, gee thanks, much obliged to y'all for adding such insightful commentary and increasing my enjoyment of the game.

I'm not that demanding a fan, but, to be honest, I do want more from my announcers than that. This style of announcing gets to me first and foremost because it's just damn lazy. We live in an age where anybody with a computer and two functioning index fingers can access pretty much any stat they want. On that basis alone I sometimes sit there and wonder if I couldn't do a better job of announcing than some of the crews out there. It's human nature to want to pigeonhole people and hang easy-to-identify labels on them, but baseball announcers see - what? - two or three out-of-town teams a week, and maybe twenty over the course of a six-month season. How hard can it be to put in some time really researching the other teams, rather than mailing in the "Manny being Manny" line (which, by the way, we've been getting for several years now, meaning it's both lazy and old news).

Beyond the stats, these guys have access to the players that we the fans can only dream about, and I would really like them to put that access to good use in their presentation of the game. Many of the announcers are former players, so when they get a chance to talk to players from opposing teams, I'd really appreciate them using their experience of the game to ask the relevant questions and present the answers within the context of the game. There are broadcast teams out there who manage to do that, so I know it's possible, but they seem to be the exception rather than the rule.

One thing that occurred to me whilst writing this is that I haven't really given NESN much thought in my musings on the subject. At the risk of sounding like a homer, my gut response would be that the NESN crew is less guilty of using this kind of shorthand, but that may well be because I'm not paying all that much attention. Not that I'm not listening, but Don and Jerry bring a lot of things to the table which increase my enjoyment of the game. They let rip with outrageous stuff when it's the right time to do so, but I find them to be well focused on the game unfolding in front of them. They know that, ultimately, we're here for the game, not for Don and Jerry.

As far as NESN goes, my view of their capabilities is coloured by the fact that I'm filling in any potential gaps in the information chain myself, with things I have learned from watching games broadcast by other networks. At the end of the day this is what frustrates me the most with the majority of broadcast teams: they can and do give insightful information on the home-team players, but seem incapable of putting in the same effort with visiting teams.

So, gentlemen of the broadcasting profession, the gauntlet is laid down. Feel free to pick it up and surprise me with something new.