Terry Francona, BroadcasterBy
If you’re like me, then you dislike very few things about postseason baseball. One series, and often one game, is all that stands between teams advancing and going home. Each at-bat, pitch, and managerial decision reflects this state of heightened tension. Yet, with every postseason comes one thing that bothers me, perhaps more than anything else about the playoffs. Watching the playoffs is fun, but having to listen to Fox’s broadcasting team isn’t.* Every postseason, Joe Buck and Tim McCarver “analyze” the games using baseball clichés and traditional baseball wisdom, forcing many fans to mute their televisions and watch in silence – easily a better alternative.
*By the way, next season I plan on listening to and reviewing as many broadcasting teams as possible, in terms of how they analyze the game and how entertaining they are to watch and listen to. Also, to read about McCarverisms, go here.
Before this year’s ALCS, it was announced that McCarver would be unable to call games one and two after undergoing a heart-related procedure, but would be ready to return for game three. In the meantime, Fox hired former Red Sox manager Terry Francona to broadcast alongside Buck for the first two games.
Francona, who shockingly resigned as the Red Sox’s skipper following his team’s historic collapse, had no previous broadcasting experience and thus was a surprising choice. Still, fans were eager to have the rare pleasure of hearing a former manager with such recent success behind the microphone during the playoffs. At the very least, Francona would be an upgrade over McCarver, and hopefully would make the playoffs more enjoyable to watch.
I watched the first game and, for the most part, “Tito” analyzed the game well and occasionally gave us information we wouldn’t otherwise have known, especially relating to tendencies exhibited by some of the batters and pitchers. He was never too critical of any player or manager, yet was opinionated in terms of strategy and managerial decisions. He was even funny at times.
Overall, the reception towards Francona as a broadcaster among writers, bloggers, and fans was positive. Even the great Joe Posnanski gave positive reviews. Yet, at times, even Tito fell susceptible to baseball clichés and speaking in platitudes.
Personally, I didn’t find this cross-section of Tito’s comments particularly annoying mainly because they were prefaced and followed by insightful analysis. In other words, he spoke in clichés only a handful of times. I, like many watchers, gave him a pass.
However, some writers, bloggers, and fans became quite annoyed with Francona’s commentary based on these few occasions when he probably could have been more articulate, to the point at which they quickly grew tired of him and were overly critical. This reaction towards Francona’s commentary was largely unfounded, and it has to do not just with Francona, but with the current broadcasting paradigm in general.
A particular comment by Francona that drew the ire of many fans and bloggers occurred when he was talking about Mike Napoli’s defense (I don’t remember which inning it was). He said: “When you hit 30 homers, your defense gets a lot better.” Admittedly, this was a somewhat sarcastic comment that didn’t pass as great analysis. However, he said this immediately after Buck spent several seconds raving about how Napoli’s defense had improved since joining the Rangers. After Napoli blocked a pitch in the dirt, Buck took advantage of the situation by explaining that Napoli’s limited playing time with the Angels was, in part, due to him being a bad defensive catcher and, since joining the Rangers, his defense had improved significantly.
Is Mike Napoli actually a better defensive catcher now than when he was with the Angels? Does Terry Francona believe Napoli is better? It’s difficult to say for sure, but both of these questions, especially the former, demand more time than the few seconds Francona was given to respond (before the next few pitches or batter). Had Francona been given ample opportunity to discuss Napoli’s catching ability, he may have disagreed with Buck and provided reasons as to why, but the situation demanded that Francona basically support the narrative that Buck had advanced.
In short, Francona’s response was dictated more by the demands of broadcasting than by his true beliefs. This is common in today’s broadcasting, as the current paradigm sacrifices substantive player analysis for quick commentary based on each play. Had, for example, Francona been in the booth with, say, Joe Maddon, instead of Buck, the broadcast would have happened very differently and perhaps they would have explained Napoli’s defense in more detail (or, perhaps, Napoli’s defense would have never been a topic because he probably isn’t a great defender).
The notion that broadcasting doesn’t allow for real analysis may be obvious, but is worth reiterating. In this case, and in many others, Francona and other broadcasters shouldn’t be heavily criticized for being inaccurate or inarticulate in terms of analysis. Creating narratives such as “Napoli has become a better defender since joining the Rangers” is a necessary shortcut that is regularly taken by many broadcasters in order to keep up with the pace of the action and fulfill the demands of the current broadcasting system. Attacking Francona in that situation isn’t necessarily in indictment of his analytic ability. This doesn’t mean that all clichéd commentary should be dismissed – but it should be noted that Francona provided much more useful than useless information throughout the game.