Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Having a McCarver Moment: ALCS Games 1 & 2

It was not a day well-planned. When you spend about four hours watching DVDs of The A-Team looking for godawful effects shots that you can rip off and insert in a deliberately godawful promotional video and then feel too wiped out to watch playoff baseball, you have gravely miscalculated.

But I had fun. I was with good people, and I think I strained something laughing when I saw the guy who played Rasczak in Starship Troopers guest starring as an evil taxi company mastermind who wore skin-tight nylon pants with no zippers or buttons up front, a prominent dong-bulge and a 1980s-sized cell phone improbably jammed in a pocket.

Still, when you wind up falling asleep in your chair after one inning of the first game of the American League Championship Series, you have managed your time poorly. You've done worse when you wake up and realize you didn't set the DVR to record the game. Consider this my McCarver Moment of the 2009 playoffs. Because of it, the Game One recap is going to be awfully short.


We are live from the FOX Sports studios with Chris Rose (left), Eric Karros (center) and Mark Grace (right). I can't think of anyone who'd object if a bunch of men in masks kidnaped the first two and left Gracie there to just talk about whatever interested him.

KARROS: "The game of baseball is explosive movements." Someone took the governor off, because the empty punditry roars right out of the gate. Baseball's a lot of things, but the most common adjective when trying to capture the attitude and pace of the game is usually "pastoral." You can go with "bucolic," if you want, and most people won't argue with you there. Something about the serenity of the empty ballfield, tucked away in the middle of a city, tends to bring this out in writers.

In fact, aside from home runs and the occasional screaming liner, there's not a lot that's explosive in baseball. Sure, there's 90+ mph heat in the form of fastballs, but since this is the standard element of the game — "pitcher throws ball" — it's hard to really single it out as noteworthy. It's what happens in the game. Calling baseball "explosive" because pitchers pitch balls fast is like saying, "Football is pushy," because of offensive and defensive lineman. At that point, you're a half-step from water-wetness observations.

He's not even talking that long, and I just want someone to tell Eric Karros that it's okay if he doesn't try to come up with something instantly quotable in the booth, here. Eric, bubbe, just tell me the weather, who's pitching, the lineups and if anyone's injured. You're not Updike, and this ain't "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu." Your job is not "poet," and no one expects it of you. Also, for Christ's sake, you look like what happened after someone crossed Tim Geithner and Buster Poindexter in the lab.

Speaking of men in masks kidnaping people, the camera cuts to Kendry Morales wearing a red head covering, and my filmmaker buddy (who's on his way out the door) starts laughing and yells: "Is that fucking Stormshadow???"

And here's your welcome to the American League Championship Series: the band Switchfoot performing their track "Free" from the album Hello Hurricane. Annnnd... they suck! There's some white guy wearing a white fedora and suspenders looking like an unfortunate cross between Kid Rock being an American Badass and Tom Petty being louche and weird. Kid Petty is a unique flower of douchebag, and the lyrics he's singing are the same melodic pattern as "War Pigs." Well done: mediocre aping on three levels.

JOE BUCK: "Tim McCarver will be along shortly," and as usual Tim McCarver is already there, standing two feet to the left. I can picture Joe Buck trying to scare his kids by leaning halfway around a doorway. "Annnnnd good evening, Natalie and Trudie. The lower half of my body will be along shortly, brought to you by Budweiser. Budweiser: the official beer that this check with all these zeroes on it has convinced me my dad's dead body would like poured in it."

They're not just Keys to the Game. True to form, FOX is willing to sell just about any feature of the broadcast to anything, and tonight we turn our attention to THE NINJA ASSASSIN KEYS TO THE GAME. Ninja Assassin is a movie, and, whoa, Tim, not at all a surprise here to say this film looks like it's gonna be a good one! Anyway, the NINJA ASSASSIN KEYS TO THE GAME ARE "score first" and "you are playing in your own stadium." I'm kidding. They're actually:
ANGELS: PUNCH 1 run across early.

YANKEES: Hey, you're at Yankee stadium!
So, there you go. I've got a nagging feeling they chained Bill James to a radiator in a room with no windows and fed him a steady diet of pharmaceutical-grade amphetamine until "the Angels will do better if they take an early lead" and "the Yankees could have home-field advantage" came out of his shattered teeth.

8:19 p.m. — Aybar and Figgins, aarrrrrrgggghhhhhhh.

This is pretty much where I nodded off. Let's move on!


KARROS: "You talk about Chone Figgins, this is a guy...." Thanks for the tip! Maybe a little sooner next time, brah? Already kicking myself for sending iPhone-snapped nudes of my junk to him because every time the camera cut to him I was all, "Look at the BOMB ASS titties on that baseball-lady."

GROSS: "This is a great guy for manager Mike Scioscia to go with: Saunders, 22-6, following a Halo loss." Oh, well, obviously that will make him good against this team, since you've found the one pitcher in the whole of recorded history whose improved ability to throw a ball is directly related to his start's proximity to other people failing to pitch or hit well.

Top of the 2nd: McCarver reveals that FOX's pitch-tracking program can peg the speed of the ball as it leaves the pitcher's hand and also as it crosses the plate. To illustrate this, FOX puts up a graphic showing that AJ Burnett's fastball departed his hand at 93 miles per hour, then crossed the plate at 86 miles per hour. McCarver walks the audience through this, then expresses his mystification at how it works and how players perceive this.

Now, not only have the the FOX crew spent the pregame and the first inning commenting on how the high wind and dense cold air will swat down home runs and shorten the length of hits, but within about 20 seconds of McCarver's open ponderings on pitch speed, Buck says, "And bear in mind that pitch had a lot of movement on it!" And, much as you'd expect, McCarver hears that, ignores it and resumes wondering how that pitch speed-change thing happens without anyone saying the words "wind resistance."

Robbie Cano hits a liner that rolls all the way to the right-centerfield wall; Nick Swisher scores from first. At least a full 20 seconds after the play is over, McCarver summarizes play on the field this way:
McCARVER: Control is not only throwing strikes, but throwing balls off the plate when you have to. An aggressive hitter, this ball too much on the plate, a breaking ball that just hangs. Cano puts the Yankees on the board. I think it's gonna be a double. It IS a triple, my partner says.
Bear in mind that Robinson Cano has been standing on third fucking base during this entire monologue.

Timmy just starts editorializing out of nowhere, confirming — as many started to suspect back in 2004 — that any time the Red Sox do something good it's a blot on Tim McCarver's escutcheon (despite the fact that he played for the team). Take it away:
McCARVER: First, uh, man who ever mentioned that was Gene Mauch, the ex-Angels manager, manager of the team in 1986. The Angels were up three games to one against the Red Sox, and the Red Sox came back and beat them. A horrible horrible series, remembered to this day.
I'm sorry your team didn't win, Tim. Truly, horrible.

Jeter pops a homerun to right field, where the wind has been carrying all year. Really, it doesn't look like a home run off the bat, so much as a really high bloop. It makes it a couple feet over the wall. This is the story of the new Yankee Stadium all year. Just don't tell Tim McCarver, because it's not his job to watch baseball and know these things.
McCARVER: Jeter with 18 home runs, during the regular season. A two-seam fastball on the outside part and up, and Jeter makes it two-nothing.
BUCK: The 18 home runs for Jeter this year, his best total since 2005, when he hit 19. And he took advantage of that wall in right and how the ball carried here, the first year of the new Yankee Stadium.
McCARVER: About six-and-a-half months ago when the season started there were people talking about how Derek Jeter is finished. Can't play anymore. Looking at a pile of headlines from the 2008 Series, "Worst Fielder in Majors," "Jeter Apologists Continue to Try to Justify Their Overrated Shortstop," and "Study Claims Jeter Worst Fielding Shortstop in Baseball." Most of those people are silent now, hiding under a rock in a cave somewhere. I don't think after the year Jeter has had, those people are saying still the same things they have said in the past year and a half.
Tim McCarver speeches like this are just a bounteous salad bar of ignorance — only without the rhetorical equivalent of a sneezeguard to prevent assorted germs from accumulating and festering.

First of all, why are there a pile of headlines from the 2008 Series about Derek Jeter? The Yankees did not make the playoffs in 2008. The Series involved two teams that were not the Yankees. This is just clue number one that McCarver is probably confused and talking about something else. Clue number two on that account: the fact that the beginning of his story starts out six months ago and ends 18 months ago, as if he's not even sure when he's talking about. So you have either a random three- or four-game series to which he's referring, or perhaps you have the 2008 World Series capping off a Yankees-free postseason — or you have the beginning of this season, or you have April of 2008. Where in Time Is James Timothy McCarver?

Now, I would love to ascribe the "hiding under a rock in a cave somewhere" as a wry bitchy McCarver dig at bloggers and online trolls, but I'm pretty sure he's the sort of guy who thinks the cathode-ray-tube monitor is the computer, and occasionally holds up the mouse to talk into it like Scotty in Star Trek IV. It's best not to give Tim credit for any kind of web-related subtlety. But regardless of his knowledge of online terms, he is aware of sabermetrics, and this is a pretty obvious dig at them. Because sabermetricians have been leading the "Jeter Is Good, But He's Really Overrated" charge for years, usually stressing his fielding.

There's a reason why the eggheads at Baseball Prospectus took time away from explaining fielding statistics in Mind Game to make the joke that there are probably thousands of foreigners who think Derek Jeter's first name is "Pastadiving," because the only time they hear it is when another ground ball goes "Past a diving Jeter!" Jokes like this don't get written for a general audience without there being a great likelihood that the average reader will recognize them as true. McCarver's crowing here about how the statheads were wrong, celebrating another factual victory of how to play the game right, old school: you just keep playing veterans because they're veterans, and it'll turn out that anyone critical of them was wrong somehow. The biggest problem with his thesis — apart from the fact that it's been gainsaid by analysis grounded in objective reality — is that it's been pretty effectively gainsaid by one person: Derek Jeter.

I don't expect a member of the sports media like Tim McCarver to have any exposure to the sports media or "facts about sports," but around ten days ago someone published a nice little article about how Jeter himself recognized his diminishing skills and hired a personal trainer to craft an agility- and speed-training regimen to correct them. McCarver's calling bullshit on criticisms of a hero that the hero himself conceded were legitimate by the actions he took to answer them. He's coming to an irritable and ignorant defense of someone whose own training regimen passively tells McCarver that the premise of his defense is wrong. In McCarver's world, taking steps to alleviate or turn around problems not only fails to prove that problems exist, but the corrective measures themselves constitute dispositive proof of the nonexistence of problems.

McCarver's world is a place without object permanence. Patch a hole in the roof, and there was never a hole in the first place. Empty the garbage can; the garbage was never there. He could take the wheel of an SUV and yank it hard to the right, plunging the vehicle off the highway and over miles of scree as it jostled up and down, threatening to tip over, women and children screaming in the backseat; and so long as he eventually returned to the paved roadway, someone could say, "You nearly killed us off-roading," and McCarver could say, "No I didn't. I'm an excellent driver."

Meanwhile, just as he's attributing Jeter's defensive resurgence to something—guttiness? grittiness? calm eyes???—his own broadcast partner and his network's pregame staff has just explained Jeter's power resurgence. We've spent the pregame of both ALCS broadcasts hearing about how the new stadium set the record for most home runs in a season by a Yankees team, has a short right field and wind that carries the ball out. Joe Buck has literally just said,"[Jeter] took advantage of that wall in right and how the ball carried here."

But should we pay attention to that? Fuck, no. Because Tim McCarver has the answer for why Derek Jeter is Derek Jeter and just Derek Jetered all the haters: it's because Derek Jeter.

As if trying to one-up McCarver on incomprehensibility, Buck then jumps in with:
BUCK: Range being diminished or not, there's not one scout who goes to major league games who wouldn't say, at the end of a game, Game 7 World Series, "I don't want the ball hit to Derek Jeter."
Leaving aside the obvious problem that this is a really awkward and confusing construction from someone who ostensibly has his job because of an ability to make complex ideas simple and understandable for everybody, the only lesson here is that scouts are stupid.

I just realized I haven't had the urge to write anything for an hour, and I think I've figured it out. Buck and McCarver finally stumbled on a way to stymie all their critics: open up the broadcast with such a relentless fusillade of idiocy — like they're walking down some sort of rhetorical hallway and both unloading pump-action shotguns into the audience — that it leaves everyone so scarred overwhelmed and wounded that nothing for the rest of the game can possibly be worse. I know that they've said at least ten stupid things since the bottom of the second inning, but here it is in the top of the seventh, and not one of them has gotten to me. Whatever they are, they're incomparable to the tone established from the beginning. It's like walking into a party, standing near someone seated on a couch and farting in their face, dropping two jokes about Jews and following them with an obnoxious political opinion, then grabbing the hostess' tit. Nothing you can do later after getting drunk will seem anything other than quaint. Really, it's genius.

Awesome, Top of the 7th, 2 outs, and it's time for the guy the Yankees have had the privilege to underuse by putting him in the bullpen. I really dislike Joba Chamberlain. Nothing is going to be funnier to me than seeing a picture of Chamberlain ten years after his retirement when he's expanded to the size of three David Wells. I hate the parabolic sneer of his upper lip, this kind of petulant curl that you rarely see on boys older than eight. God, I think I really hate Joba Chamberlain. I hate the spastic tantrum-esque dance he does to celebrate getting a strikeout — the way he folds his arms and holds them effetely up like a T-Rex's, then starts flailing them about, as if he's beating his own chest and screaming, "Nyeeeuh! Nyeeeeuh!" like an autistic child whose printout of his favorite numbers someone has stolen and hidden. Oh, look, he's doing it now. Way to strike out a single player whose #1 Universally Recognized Trait is his willingness to SWING AT ANYTHING.

Ahahahaha it's the return of my old friend the "cement mixer." Last year during game one of the World Series, McCarver just dropped that bit of jargon into the middle of the broadcast. Here was the exchange:
McCARVER: They call sliders like that 'cement mixers'!
McCARVER: Stayed outside.
McCARVER: A mouse lives inside my skull and has adventures there.
I made up the last line, but I will defend until the end of time my contention that McCarver's brain is powered by a system of levers and pulleys operated by a mouse named Scraps, whose gutty knowledge of mouse and baseball fundamentals always keep Timmy Mac in the game. In any event, the rest of the exchange actually happened. McCarver offered that bit of knowledge and followed it up with nothing. Tonight he did the same thing again:
McCARVER: That's a cement mixer, and cement mixers are not good pitches. Cement mixers are sliders with a big high on them.
What the fuck is a "big high"? Thankfully Google cleared "cement mixer" up last year, explaining that a "cement mixer" is a slider that doesn't slide and instead flies in pretty much a straight line but with an axial spin that looks sort of like a cement mixer rotating. "Big high" is anyone's guess.

This is what's always a coin-flip between hilariously fun and infuriating about McCarver: he'll insert this genuinely interesting factoid or bit of jargon into the broadcast and then either refuse to acknowledge it in any way or define it in such vague terms that no one will ever learn anything. Usually it's infuriating because it starkly contrasts with his tendency to explain something that is self-evident to anyone who's watched even a single complete baseball broadcast. But sometimes the fun comes in just how bizarre the explanations are. Unless you know that a "cement mixer" is a failed slider, the explanation "stayed outside" is kind of a comedically brilliant bit of obscurantism. You can picture McCarver doing this with anything, and it's always funny:
McCARVER: Catchers call that The Crayola Rapecat.
McCARVER: Two legs.

McCARVER: Whitey Herzog used to say "Cancer Ball."
McCARVER: Full of cancer.
I want to try writing about 10 more of these things, but then again, I also just want to go to sleep.

Remember how I said McCarver's sphinx-like "cement mixer" riddles only provoke anger because they contrast with his willingness to explain almost anything else? Just minutes later:
McCARVER: The 4th spot in the seventh inning is the catcher's spot, Bengie* Molina. So you can bet that Jorge Posada is getting a bat ready in the Yankee dugout. Or already in the cage, in the last half inning. (pause) The cage is the batting cage.

(* — Also, since I started recording Monday Night Football and the NLCS after typing this up, I had to delete my recording of this game to make room on the DVR, so I can't come back to this broadcast to doublecheck it. That said, I'm almost positive that's not a typo and that McCarver referred to Yankees' catcher José Molina as "Bengie," the name of his brother, who is also a catcher.)

Top of the 8th, Jeter boots a ball at short. Bad news for McCarver's universe. I'm picturing Scraps racing around the interior of McCarver's skull, trying to replace exploding vacuum tubes as tape flies off reel-to-reels, a printout of ones and zeroes comes spilling off a roller, and the chamber fills with smoke.

Awesome, my DVR fucked up, and I lost 11 minutes of the game, including the Yankees batting in the bottom of the 8th.

Top of the 9th: they keep showing this bearded guy in the stands rubbing his hands and making serious crazy eyes, and he looks just like Elliot Gould as Hawkeye Pierce in M*A*S*H.

Jesus Christ, Mariano Rivera is amazing. I think he just struck out the entire side on 10 pitches, but I can't tell you because MY DVR SUCKS.

Top of the 10th, one on, no outs:
BUCK: FISTED by Morales! Out at second. No chance to turn two.
McCARVER: Joe, how many times have you made that call, "Fisted by a hitter," against Mariano Rivera, since 1996?
BUCK: It's irrelevant. I apologize.

Bottom of the 10th, safe-at-second call on a double play when Eric Aybar made no effort to sweep the bag:
McCARVER: He may be straddling the bag, but he's straddled the bag all night. So I think Mike Scoscia's argument here is, "Why call it now? You haven't called it all night."
BUCK: That is typically a call that isn't made. They will give, as odd as that may seem to viewers or a casual baseball fan, they will give that play at second base...
McCARVER: Always.
BUCK: Always.
McCARVER: Always.
BUCK: But, technically speaking, Aybar never touched the base...
McCARVER: Well, they call that the "neighborhood" play because... so second basemen and shortstops will not be hurt with collisions down there. Usually umpires, second-base umpires, will give them, if it's not blatant. That did not appear to be blatant. The Yankees got the call, and that will be argued for a long, long time. I'm not too sure Aybar was on the bag for any double play tonight.

(about a minute passes)

McCARVER: Just to straighten out something I just said about not touching the bag on the other double plays tonight, I was wrong. Our crew went back and checked all the double plays, and on every double play, Aybar touched the bag.
And here's the insidiously frustrating thing about this man: just when you're about to write him off entirely, he does something like let out a grandfatherly chuckle in the booth to remind you he's a regular old guy with a voice tending toward rasping, or he admits that he made an error he could otherwise ignore.

I don't want to hate Tim McCarver; it's just something that begins as irritation and snowballs into loathing as he abandons much pretense of impartiality or focus during a game. Mostly I just want him to try harder and be more open-minded to different ways of looking at baseball. If I ever met the man and had the chance to talk to him, I suspect I'd have a great time. I know I'd probably feel a pang of guilt for mocking him — just as I do now, when he's done something I can see as at best redemptive and at worst just mature and responsible. And I'm sure I'll carry those mixed feelings until the next time he makes some indecipherably cryptic comment, or calls Bronson Arroyo "Brandon," shamelessly slobbers all over Derek Jeter or launches on some passive-aggressive sniping at mathematical analysis of baseball. And even after all that, it's nothing compared to the anger I feel when the Yankees win, especially when it happens because a good team basically threw another game away with stupid, stupid errors.

Goddamnit, Maicer Izturis.