Friday, April 16, 2010

Opening Daze #2: First Games with the Rays... and with the Rays, Joe Buck and Tim McCarver

I realize after a while it might seem tiresome to target announcers when talking about baseball, but I think three things lend this space to that kind of attention. One, I like words, and, despite announcers having no more important tool than language, they manage to abuse it consistently. Sometimes just the act of lazily listening to a game is so disheartening and frankly weird that it provokes a sensation like the one I imagine I'd feel if I came upon a fire truck equipped only with colanders.

Two, nobody needs my play-by-play recap. There are some very good sports journalists out there and plenty more tolerable crafstman. Since it's in terms of broad opinion or player evaluation where these guys usually put a foot wrong, you're safe with recaps. Just check a local paper for a relevant game, and you'll find the thrills, setbacks, substitutions and dingers you need to know about. Granted, I can try to talk about an amazing baseball game I attended, but there's always the chance that you don't care about the teams that were there.

That brings up point number three: the announcer experience is universal. We all have to deal with them, and a few notable exceptions aside, we all have things we hate about them. While I think everyone in America loves the Dodgers' Vin Scully, I don't know a single Yankee fan who likes anyone who calls games for the Yankees. Even more universally, when it comes to FOX Saturday Baseball or ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball, we all have to deal with the same people, regardless of where we live. And they are all horrible.

Part of what makes this universally trying is that baseball really isn't that inaccessible. For one thing, it's the second-easiest major game to play, after basketball. Few of us can find 21 friends who are big and athletic enough, and with enough free time, to hit the shit out of each other while running plans and drilling in full pads. But finding 17 other people who don't mind standing or sitting around a great deal of the time is fairly easy. This is why we have softball leagues: it's a sport where the first baseman can keep an open tallboy of High Life just behind the bag.

Also unlike football, which has complex defensive schemes that even long-time fans probably need occasional help identifying, there isn't a whole of lot mediation necessary in baseball. A single person can tell you if a hitter tends to like pitches high or low, inside or outside, then explain if he's been "hot" against the pitcher, who likes to throw the ball high, low, inside or outside, and if his good pitches are the sorts the hitter likes. After that, you're good.

This is basically what I did during the Tampa Bay Rays' Opening Day game at Tropicana Field. I got hooked up with a free ticket courtesy of the St. Pete Times (thanks, Molly), and The Wife and some friends and I raced against traffic to a cheap parking garage, rode the free trolley to the stadium and got inside in time to grab some good draft beers and catch the last of the first inning.

As for the game? Look, you don't care. This was nine games ago. It's irrelevant. The Orioles hit a couple home runs — both of which were a bummer, but a fan threw one of the balls back — and the Rays' outstanding third baseman and strangely sort of sweetly jug-headed Evan Longoria absolutely crushed a home run that I know landed relatively soon afterward only because we were in a dome. In the bottom of the ninth, with two outs, men on second and third, and a one-run lead, the Orioles walked second baseman Sean Rodriguez to put a man on first and hopefully induce a double play. Instead, left fielder Carl Crawford belted a line drive into right field, scoring two, winning the game and sending the sold-out crowd into pandemonium. It was awesome. I screamed "yeeaaaaahhhhhh" in a ragged voice that got progressively more Tom Waitsean with each passing second. I had trouble hearing myself.

And again, you probably don't give a shit, because you didn't see it, and anyway that was nine games ago. But there are three things about my experience there that probably tap into something universal:

1. I ate a hot dog and felt gross. I didn't plan to. (I think we all have this experience: "Oh, sure, this'll be the hot dog from my childhood, one that I will not belch hot-doggy bits of, for the next six hours.") One of the cool things about the Trop is that they still allow you to bring in your own food and non-alcoholic beverages (as long as they're in sealed, plastic bottles). I brought sunflower seeds, a Boar's Head Italian sub and some water. That would have been fine — without the hot dog. But The Wife mentioned, "Oh, they got a new hot dog vendor, and the paper said the new hot dogs are really great, so we have to try one." Notice that she said, "We." Gamely, I bought one, ate half, told her it was pretty decent, then was told that she wasn't having any. So I ate the rest of the hot dog. The only problem was that sunflower seeds are basically 30% salt, and between the hot dog and the salami, ham and capicola, I'd just eaten enough nitrates to fuel a bombardment on the Somme. I instantly felt unbelievably disgusting and drank an entire liter of water until the sensation went away. Not that I didn't have help, because in front of me, offering a counterpoint, was this dude (below left):

2. Heavy people have a hard time in the south. It's always hot, and they're hot to begin with. But this guy poached the seats in front when the usher wasn't looking, and I almost wanted to go bust him because, mother of God, the man was not pleasant. He was bold in every sense but taste and touch, and we weren't going to figure out those last two. I don't know if there's a practical solution to the odor issue — besides the impatient and maybe unsympathetic idea that carrying less weight results in less odiferous labor — but the absence of one doesn't make the pigpen-like cloud following a guy like this any less of a problem. And I realize that this photo can't prove it, but he had this really loud grating voice and looked almost exactly like L.A. Lakers coach Phil Jackson. I tried to get a photo of at least his Phil Jacksonness, but no dice. In any case, one thing I definitely couldn't photograph was his noisily whingeing about his fantasy baseball teams and using his G1 to check stats online. But this brings up the third thing....

3. I was there with a guy named Jon, who doesn't really follow baseball and all and didn't know details about most of the guys on the field. Despite my not really watching spring training, I was able to bring him up to speed with who was doing what and why, and whether it was important. All without broadcaster interference. Granted, there was also a drunk guy behind us yelling things like, "YOU'RE BRINGING WHEELER IN? DAN FUCKING WHEELER??? ARE YOU NUTS, MADDON? I'VE SEEN HIM PITCH," but he was right about pretty much everything, so who really cares?

The thing is, between the drunk and me, Jon learned what he needed to know or wanted to know, and he had a good time. No one had to pour historic narratives into his ear or harp on hyperbolic hero's-journey stuff about struggling players. If people groaned about something — like when Pat Burrell came up to bat — I could say, "The Rays picked him up for his hitting after 2008. In Philly he was known as 'Pat the Bat,' but he really did poorly last year and was injured a lot." All of a sudden, it was cool when Pat laced a double, and it made sense when he struck out later and I said, "It's awesome to see the corpse of Pat Burrell regressing toward the mean." Jon started out a little out of place, but with friends, seat neighbors and the atmosphere of the crowd, he was into the game. This is all anyone needs.

Contrast the above experience with the following Saturday, and FOX's telecast of Saturday Baseball, hosted by my old friends Joe Buck and Tim McCarver. Joe Buck has a big head capped off with a kind of exploding brow, like if a horse made love to a toadstool and they had a child together. Tim McCarver meanwhile seems like a warm guy and someone's beloved grampa, but I firmly believe that his body is operated by a cranium-ensconced pneumatic-lever-working creature named Scraps the Baseball Fundamentals Mouse. This is the nicest way I can picture the origins of McCarver's increasing insanity.

Buck and McCarver represent universals that baseball fans loathe. First of all, they're national broadcasters who often cover different teams from week to week. As such, they're not very familiar with the people actually on the field at any given time. I don't know many fans who wouldn't prefer kicking Buck and McCarver out of the booth and just having weekly games called by the broadcast team for whomever happens to be based in the home stadium. They might be homers, but at least they'd know who they're talking about.

Second of all, Buck and McCarver's strengths lie in everything incidental to what is actually happening on the fucking field. Buck shines whenever selling FOX's prime-time lineup or — in commercials featuring his dead did-not-consent-to-this dad — Budweiser. McCarver is really good at folksy anecdotes related without context or truncated and never returned to, and stuff about people who are dead or retired. Both are really good at the big-picture "narrative" stuff about heroes or teams of destiny, often in ways completely irrespective of how the game is actually going and divorced from objective goddamn reality.

Third of all, both of them seem to think they're employed by the New York Yankees and that one of those middle Constitutional amendments — you know, one of those ones that don't mean shit to middle America, like the Fourteenth — says,
The Yankees are the only champion of baseball and their only Prophet is Jeter. The Yankees are the only champion of baseball and their only Prophet is Jeter. The Yankees are the only champion of baseball and their only Prophet is Jeter.
Even this gets relayed too strongly and unnaturally, this seemingly clumsy and inexpert display that has so much relentlessness behind it that it must have some method, though God knows what. Most of the time it's like uncomfortably forceful oral sex in porn.

What's weird about Buck and McCarver is that they start off the game in good form, not too theatrical, almost eerily on-topic... like maybe someone has kidnaped on of their children and issued a list of demands as a baseball fan. Yet despite this, it only takes about five minutes for a more benign than usual outing from them to achieve a total antithesis of our experience at Opening Day.

Their good start fizzles as their insistence that, "The Tampa Bay Rays could be the third best team in baseball," is forgotten in favor of Yankees adulation for innings at a time — like the preface, "Now, I'm not a homophobe, but..." leading into a fifteen-minute scatalogical rant about sodomy. The fact that the Yankees play spring training games in Tampa shifts the discussion until the Yankees are basically the home team and the Rays were selected because someone had to fulfill that pro-forma nastiness of involving a second team. Yankees starter CC Sabathia strikes out Carl Crawford, and you can hear McCarvers' pants' absorbency dangerously tested as he giddily yelps, "CC got CC!"

And of course there's just the general idiocy:

We start off mildly:
BUCK: And Zobrist, who has the ability to play a lot of defensive positions and not have it affect his offensive production...
I'm pretty sure this is all Buck knows about Zobrist, because during last year's All-Star Game, he didn't correct the FOX chyron when Tampa Bay shortstop Jason Bartlett was labeled, "Ben Zobrist." This is the innocuous part, because Buck really seems to think where someone stands when not batting changes how they bat. Like:
"Hey, Ben, you're playin' shortstop today, so bunt!"
"Ben, Peña's taking a day. We're gonna try you out at first. Remember, kiddo: you're a dead-pull slugger until the 27th out."
"Ben, we're putting you at third base so you hit triples. We don't know what the terrain is like out there. You've gotta reconnoitre by playing third base. Then you'll know where to run."
Look, I could see it if he were catching the ballgame: playing catcher destroys your knees, so maybe you don't get as much power from your legs or run to first base fast enough. But for most of the season he was bounding from right field to second base. They're both on the right side of the field, only separated by about 30 yards. Who gives a shit? Then again, you wouldn't faze me at all if you told me that Buck wears a porkpie hat and bottlebrush mustache on the road, styles himself "Guy Incognito," and thus considers whatever he does in his hotel room the work of another man and not adultery.

McCarver mentions having read a recent Newsday in which someone said that Sabathia, on the mound, had "the emotions of a toll collector." This is a good line, but what's more amazing is that McCarver reads. McCarver reads. This is even more unsettling than the time Bush got photographed because he was walking around with that Natan Sharansky book that begins, "All democracy is good because freedoms. All freedoms is good because democracy. America, but also Israel. Arabs! Communism!!! Think about it," and then just repeats, "All talk and no freedom make Natan... something, something..." and "Screw Flanders," for 351 pages.

Buck announces that he and McCarver will now answer questions on "The World Wide Web" and "The Information Superhighway." You think he's joking, but... it's Joe Buck. This is a guy who allegedly had a show on HBO (I don't know anyone who's seen it, and those clips could be anthropological fragments from anything) whose goal was to be comedic but evidently was edited by Soviet censors. Then he and McCarver acknowledge that they will not respond to complaints. They also acknowledge that people may use this service to "say things to [them] that you wouldn't say in person." No shit. I think Buck is becoming self-aware. I wonder what would happen now if he saw one of the Budweiser commercials he put his dead dad in.

McCarver goes on a mini-rant about recent complaints regarding length of Red Sox/Yankees games, which tend to last about 3.5 hours at a minimum and as many as five. He says, "It's a pastoral... languishing game.... If the game goes an extra five minutes, big deal. If the networks ask for another minute of commercial time between innings..." that's "also part of the game." It's unsettling to see McCarver be right about something, but it's reassuring to know that he's not all there. This is just the product of McCarver defending baseball. Baseball is the greatest thing ever, so, ipso facto, nothing is actually wrong. But while he's right about the pastoral aspect, there's nothing of either programming or hitting value to seeing a ballplayer do an autistic 12-part batting glove ritual, take a ball, then step out of the box and restart the ritual despite doing nothing whatsoever with his wrists and hands. Also, McCarver's probably being disingenuous if he thinks anyone could have pulled that shit off even 20 years ago without a pitcher getting annoyed and plunking the player in the ass with a 75-mph "fastball," and the umpire being so annoyed that he wouldn't issue a warning.

Here's the money quote, this time about young Rays' would-be phenom David Price, and about the Yankees' famous "Joba Rules," designed to preserve the arms of younger pitchers (in the Yankees' case, Joba Chamberlain) by keeping them on tight pitch counts in their early seasons, before their bodies fully mature and can take repeated and prolonged stress:
McCARVER: My answer to that would be don't be indoctrinated by that pitch count nonsense. The idea is to win the game. Not only did the Rays win the game but Price won the game. Don't be cornered by that pitch count. We've got even fans emailing about pitch counts now. There has never been any proof that throwing more pitches is an indicator that a pitcher is gonna have arm problems, whether he's young or old.... I think—I think if you had medical proof, that after a certain amount [sic] of pitches an arm starts deteriorating, then that's fine. But until then, it's pure conjecture.
This is standard McCarver fare. First, there's the "even fans" line, like you have no business with this counting-higher nonsense unless you carry a stopwatch and clipboard. Second, despite the revelation that he's picked up a Newsday recently, it's probably pretty unlikely that he has ever looked at comparative data regarding pitcher's ages, number of innings pitched by specific ages, and how many seasons those pitchers have remained in the majors.

The thing isn't even that McCarver's wrong (even though it'll probably turn out that he is); it's that he's asserting a lack of evidence in a vacuum. Not only has he probably never looked for this statistics, he probably wouldn't know how to interpret them if they were there. For instance, a lot of baseball fans point to the famous cases of Cubs' pitching studs Mark Prior and Kerry Wood. Manager Dusty Baker couldn't have pitched their arms off more effectively if he'd thought he were stuck in a Saw movie. That said, a smart contrarian knows to ask whether it was poor mechanics and not mere innings that put stress on their arms. Maybe their motions were all wrong. Or maybe the number of pitches don't matter if they get full rest between outings. Or maybe it's the aggregate pitches per season, not the individual outings that do the most damage. It could be any of those things, but all we'll have is anecdotal evidence without testing it. Right now we can say all the guys who are out of the majors owe their failure to bad arm management, and we can say those in the majors owe it to good arm management. Or we can chalk it up to genetics and argue that some people are meant to be Nolan Ryans, and some people are meant to be Francisco Lirianos, and really really poor bastards are meant to be Dave Draveckys.

But what's really, really, really stupid is looking at people trying to test this stuff and saying that they're wrong. Like it or not, the Yankees, Rays and Red Sox organizations have all been keeping important prospects in their farm systems on tight pitch counts for a number of years. And that means that ten years from now, we can play the Where Are They Now? game and have controlled for another variable to give us a better idea if you can preserve a person's health for longer by taking certain steps. This would never happen in the McCarver universe, because repeated controlled observation is no match for "shit he remembers" because "that's how it was done at the time." McCarver has gazed out on the vast expanse of human possibility in toto and said, "Fuck this noise." If pressed, the answer could be anything: Yogi Berra, Whitey Herzog, John McGraw, David Eckstein, something. Or maybe not...

Buck throws the mic over to on-field reporter Ken Rosenthal and asks him his opinion on pitch counts for rookies. Rosenthal says, flat out, that more statistically minded organizations think that there is already enough data out there suggesting that "it's important to slow down the development" of these young pitchers.
McCARVER: Common sense would dictate that.
In the span of about 45 seconds, McCarver has gone from vilifying pitch counts because there is no statistical data to support that they contribute to keeping young athletes healthier in the long run. But as soon as Rosenthal advocates them because they slow athletes' development to preserve them from health problems, McCarver supports it because it's just plain common sense. I don't know if Scraps just accidentally threw the McCarver engine into reverse, or if this is a case of his running McCarver's default "baseball is always right" subroutine. I mean, the Yankees do this! Boston does it! Tradition! Pine tar! Grit! Hustle! Ad hoc decisions made by "common sense"! It must be right!

Then, ludicrously, mere seconds later:
McCARVER: The Joba rules were the wrong rules.
McCarver's gone 360º on the same issue in the span of a minute, gainsaying himself twice, to reinforce an initial argument made with neither substance nor reflection. It is because McCarver is. That is all ye know in this game, and all he's gonna tell you anyway.

Eventually I left and went to the store, keeping up with the games I could get on the radio. CC Sabathia carried a no-hitter through 8 innings, and the Rays lost 10-0. I'm glad I was spared McCarver's ecstasy that the Yankees had a no-hitter going, and his disappointment bordering on outrage that Kelly Shoppach displayed such apostasy as to get a hit. Shoppach is wrong because the Yankees are right. They're right because McCarver is right. McCarver likes the Yankees. McCarver is eternal and universal, because McCarver is horrible.