JON MILLER BROADCASTER OF THE YEAR
In a movie, "The Way We Were," Robert Redford and a friend are lounging in a boat. They begin a game many of us have played. Best month? Redford asks. Best song? Best year? Label the year 2005. Who rates baseball’s broadcast hits, runs, and errors?
Before we talk, said Plato, "let us first define our terms." Picking 2005′s best and worst can be dicey, like throwing darts in the fog. Under nothing ventured, nothing gained, read below. From a rhubarb, baseball seldom wanders far away.
BEST OVERALL BROADCASTER: The Giants’ and ESPN TV "Sunday Night Baseball"’s Jon Miller. Increasingly, he leaves the field like Manny, going deep. Some announcers make you want to throw up. Jon is a throwback, personality, and hoot. "Baseball entertains you and you care about it," he said. "What I like is the company of baseball." The viewer enjoys Miller’s company — in English, Spanish, or Japanese.
BEST OVERALL ANALYST: The Yankees’ Jim Kaat. On another network, Fox TV’s Tim McCarver might flaunt skill, not attitude. ESPN’s Joe Morgan is maddeningly inside. Kaat takes his game, not himself, seriously. "I won’t be regarded as one of the all-time greats," said the ex-pitcher, "maybe not even one of the all-time goods. But I’m one of the all-time survivors." The Yankees Entertainment and Sports (YES) Network analyst speaks like he quick-pitched, keeping us on our toes.
BEST A.L. ANNOUNCER: Seattle’s Dave Niehaus, shunning muted tints for bold pastels. As the ’05 Mariners tanked, he kept interest afloat: throaty, bubbly, the franchise’s Northwest Opening. "My, oh my!" he cries. "It will fly away!" punctuates a homer. Sans fielder "loping," runner "lumbering," or ball "belted! Deep to right field! Upper deck time — yes!" would there even be a team for Safeco Field to house? Contenders: Boston’s Joe Castiglione, Chicago’s Ken Harrelson, and Kansas City’s Denny Matthews.
BEST N.L. ANNOUNCER: Miller. At nine, playing the board game Strat-O-Matic, Jon mimed the public address Voice, organist ("dum-dum-dum," in key), crowd (blowing, like wind), and Vin Scully or Russ Hodges. "Friends’d say, ‘Let’s go surfing.’ I’d say, ‘I got a big series coming up — first place up for grabs.”" Today, he grabs the Bay Area on the beach, in McCovey’s Cove, or in traffic. Each day is Miller Time — well-fed, read, and spoken. Contenders: Mets’ Gary Cohen, Phillies’ Harry Kalas, and as always, Dodgers’ Scully.
BEST NETWORK: ESPN Television, starring the incomparable "Baseball Tonight." By contrast, Fox’s studio cast flags. Play-by-play’s Joe Buck foolishly regards a big-band sport as urban rap. McCarver often seems a straight man. The "Game of the Week" is regional, begins in late May, and often vanishes in September. "None of this would happen," said a friend, "if Bud Selig were still alive."
BEST LOCAL NETWORK: The Yanks’ TV YES cable, domineering New York. Former Daily Newsman Michael Kay knows strategy; spurs dialogue; and is provocative and fair. "Yankee Magazine," "Yankeeography," and post- and pre-game ubiquity form a publicist’s dream. The Mets’ new 2006 cable network stems as much from desperation as choice.
BEST HIRING: Charley Steiner, by the Dodgers. As a child, the Flatbusher inhaled Scully and played fungo softball a block from home. "The first time I played Donnie Sorensen, eight or nine," said to hit the ball, then run to first base (elm tree), second (towel), third (another elm), and home (cardboard). Steiner was nothing if not literal, racing for the tree, towel, tree, and "home. I mean home. All the way to my house. I couldn’t figure why everyone was chasing after me, laughing, screaming, and telling me I was running the wrong way." Last year he became the Dodgers’ radio duce, heaping new connotation on coming home.
BEST HIRING (2): Fluent and literate, Gary Cohen to lead 2006 Mets cable. In 1962, Casey Stengel eyed the future. "Can’t anybody here play this game?" he asked of the Amazins’. No one asks if the Shea-Hey Kid can announce it.
WORST FIRING: The Cardinals, dumping spiring 50,000-watt KMOX for tiny KTRS. "We had the chance to own half-interest in the station," a Redbirds exec explained. How much interest will buoy a nightly station so weak that much of St. Louis can’t hear? "In the years when baseball stopped at the Mississippi, the KMOX network brought baseball into every little burb," Bill James wrote, "forging a tie between the Cardinals and the Midwest that remains to this day." Bad news: The Swifties’ flagship will no longer be heard in Webster, Iowa, and Cleveland, Tennessee, and Lawton, Oklahoma. Good: Mike Shannon won’t be, either.
WORST FIRING (2): Wayne Hagin, by the — Cardinals. The worthy successor to Harry Caray, Jack Buck, Dizzy Dean, and Bud Blattner was axed in November for the leaving-the-White Sox John Rooney. Rooney is bright and clear: He and Wayne would have clicked. Inexplicably, Shannon survived the housecleaning. He remains the Cardinals’ radio Voice: inept, dull, and coarse.
WORST DAY: Any day that Fran Healy broadcast the Mets. Some deficiencies weren’t his fault: a gutteral voice; no DNA poetry; word-picture ineptitude. Some were: limited knowledge and a prostitute approach. Shakespeare wrote, "Devoutly to be wished." Devoutly to be thankful for: Healy won’t do Mets 2006 TV.
GREATEST DAY: Jerry Coleman entered the Hall of Fame July 31, 2005. Jesus Alou is "in the on-deck circus." Cy Younger Randy Jones was "the left-hander with the Karl Marx hairdo." Recall "[Dave] Winfield going back … back … he hits his his head against the wall. It’s rolling toward second base!" Hail the man "sliding into second with a stand-up double." On Induction Day, baseball stood for the man who once said, "Sometimes big trees grow out of acorns. I think I heard that from a squirrel."
You don’t awake at 35 and suddenly become, say, a Pirates fan. Said Jon Miller: "You have to follow it from childhood" — a small boy’s link to the outside. Baseball’s rhythm exposes a Voice’s ignorance: a fraud, a poseur! A lifetime of study lets you chat around a fire. Again in 2006, for better or worse, the viewer and listener can tell.