Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Good Riddance, Joe Morgan; or, 'We Won't Really Be Safe Until We're Sure the Head Has Died'

On Monday, ESPN announced that it would not invite Jon Miller and Joe Morgan back for a 21st season as play-by-play and color-commentary men for their flagship baseball show, Sunday Night Baseball. Response across blogs and message boards ran the gamut from celebratory to orgasmic. Wishing that Joe Morgan would somehow please shut up has been common practice amongst fans for nearly a decade, to the extent that I'm sure some enterprising viewer has tried to deliver a pizza to the announce booth to contrive a way to at least temporarily stuff Morgan's word hole.

Morgan exemplifies old-school baseball thought. For intelligent and progressive fans, he's an antique impeding smart new approaches to understanding the game. For those afraid of change, for traditionalists, for the incurious, he's a relic that must be preserved, locked in the booth and left to talk until he dies. Even then his body should be encased in lucite, some tiny Easter Island head monument to calling the game the right way: gritty, devoid of senses, wrong. Naturally, it didn't take long for the defenders of the old school to lament his release. Because I have both cool friends and awesome readers, it also didn't take long for a guy named Nate to pass along a link to a truly disastrous piece of sports editorial.

The author in question is Milton Kent, one of those poor sorts saddled with two first names that could be read forward or backward and sound lame either way. Rounding out the bookishly forlorn picture his name conjures is the fact that under his byline he's listed as "National Reporter." It's just a sad distinction made on a major website, so unnecessary that it seems more like an affirmation than anything else. It brings to mind Wile E. Coyote holding out his business card labeled, "Super Genius," or those sorts of waterproofed pants that toddlers wear, the ones with names like "Big Boy Pants." Milton Kent is a big boy now. He's readed all over the America by grownups. If only he'd aimed his editorial at them as well.

When he sent in the link, Nate asked for only one thing: "Please go after this guy." With pleasure.

ESPN Makes Bad Call in Firing Legendary Jon Miller, Joe Morgan

Any day now, we should expect to hear that rubber-faced actor Jim Carrey
Not even a full sentence, and we've already got a pop-culture reference to help us gauge the level at which this person is capable of recognizing and understanding his surrounding reality. It's not a good sign. Carrey's career's burrowed so thoroughly into irrelevancy that I had to go to to figure out the last time he mattered to anybody. (It turns out it was 2004, for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). However, here the inclusion of the "rubber-faced" modifier shows that Milton Kent intends a specific "wacky comedy" reference. It only makes this worse.

If you want to talk about comedic goofballs, you could go with any of the Judd Apatow crew currently making millions of dollars in movies. Will Ferrell, Steve Carell or Seth Rogen will all be instantly recognizable and have some sort of comedic resonance for anything after the start of the second Bush administration. What you should not do is mention Jim Carrey in a funny context, since it's been at least nine years since he started making constipated bourgeois nostalgia schlock like The Majestic with the sibilant-obsessed actress Laurie "Hello, my name is Marita Covarubbiasssssssssshhh" Holden.

is behind all the decisions at ESPN, as they just seem to get dumb and dumber.
Whoops, my bad. Milton's taking us back to 1994. We're working off funny ha-ha from 16 years ago. In Milton Kent's world, Kurt Cobain is still alive for a few more months, Kurt Loder is still relevant, and we're still jammin' on Republicans Retake the House Classic™!

With the furor of "The Decision" having calmed to a low roar,
July 8, 2010. Milton Kent is talking about 122 days ago. Over half a baseball season ago. Milton Kent is lost in time; his columns are their own flux capacitor. (He just saw this movie, so it's cool.) If he has kids, I bet they can distract their dad at any given moment by throwing a bunch of slap-bracelets on the ground and saying, "Look, dad! Some hella fresh threads!" before running off in the opposite direction.

Although that feels unfair, a little wrong somehow. On second thought, his kids probably call him Milton, like his position is temporary. Milton is just some guy their mom knows.

the pooh-bahs at the Worldwide Leader stepped right into another mess Monday by bouncing "Sunday Night Baseball's" Jon Miller and Joe Morgan from the booth when the new season starts next spring.
The furor having died down, they stepped into some dog poop. Hoisted by their own wings of Icarus. Talk about out of the frying pan and into hot water! Who's to blame? Probably six of one or half dozen of the usual suspects.

Next we get two paragraphs of reasonable copy about ESPN's decision-maker) Norby Williamson. Really? Norby? "Milton, this is Norby. Norby, this is Milton. All of the rest of us are gonna have a cocktail over here and just watch the two of you hash this out. Here are a couple of paddleball paddles in case this shit gets violent. Also, please try not to use pronouns. Youtube thanks you in advance."

With all due respect to Williamson, Miller and Morgan contributed greatly to the success of "Sunday Night Baseball" in the same way that Alan Alda and Wayne Rogers contributed greatly to the success of the sitcom "M*A*S*H."
For those scoring at home, our TV reference for this column dates back to when Wayne Rogers left the show: 35 years ago. I'm afraid to keep reading this column and risk having it turn me into a fetus and age all my books backwards so they revert to being trees.

Anyhow, the point Milton makes here is completely wrongheaded, mistaking the packaging and presentation for the content. By this logic, every year Milton determines which is his favorite Christmas present before unwrapping it. What's in the box is inconsequential. (A guess: an I.O.U. from his wife and children written on a torn scrap of notebook paper and reading, "Redeem this gift certificate for me to leave the room whenever you enter it, so I don't have to listen to you talk about baseball.")

Meanwhile, back in the real world, here is a handy list of things that contributed greatly to the success of Sunday Night Baseball:
The Rays, Red Sox, Yankees, Jays, Orioles, White Sox, Royals, Indians, Tigers, Twins, A's, Angels, Mariners, Rangers, Mets, Phillies, Braves, Nationals, Marlins, Cubs, Reds, Astros, Brewers, Cardinals, Pirates, Diamondbacks, Dodgers, Padres, Rockies and Giants.
That people like sports.
That people need to avoid their family.
The fact Major League Baseball's broadcasting agreements ensure that no other baseball games are on, on Sunday nights, than the Sunday Night Baseball broadcast, and that at least three and a half months of that broadcast do not compete against football games or first-run television shows.
When people turn on the television to watch baseball, they say, "Hey, baseball's on." Not, "Hey, announcers are talking!" With the exception of Vin Scully, nobody turns on a baseball game with the expectation that their primary interest will be the guy technically there only to supplement or explain the primary content.

This is where the abysmal M*A*S*H analogy breaks down. No television show can function as merely a script filmed in close-up and slowly having its pages turned. Actors are needed not only to voice the dialogue but also to interpret it, to amplify the emotions of characters and instill feelings in the audience by shaping the moments on the page. It's a cooperative and building exercise in which different artists interacting with each other and with the page, which itself was created by other different artists, band together to create an irreducible and indivisible artistic singular. There's a reason why actors don't stand in public and just act at you in the absence of a story and why TV scripts aren't available in bookstores and libraries. A scripted TV show can't be broken into its individual parts and still function.

Announcing, though, is a predatory practice. While announcers might create a sense of atmosphere for listeners, might provide context, they literally only offer commentary on a wholly self-contained creation. Announcers can't exist without a ballgame going on, but a ballgame can exist without announcers. Baseball proves this 2,430 times each year to the tens of thousands of people who watch the game in the ballpark. And people like Joe Morgan have helped millions of people watching at home realize this as well when they mute the fucking TV.

Sure, someone else could do the job, but certainly not better.
Another way in which this godawful M*A*S*H analogy breaks down is this: going by millions of fans of the show, someone else did do Wayne Rogers' job and do it better. He even did it longer. His name was Mike Farrell. Milton could only have used a more self-defeating example by saying, "Nobody else could have stepped into the role of Darrin on Bewitched!"

Miller, who received the Ford C. Frick Award this summer from the Baseball Hall of Fame for a brilliant career that has included stops in Boston, Texas, Baltimore and San Francisco, is at the top of virtually any list for best play-by-play man in any sport. His deft blend of knowledge and humor combined with a sublime ability to immediately get to the essence of a play are legendary.
Full disclosure: the main problem with Milton's column has nothing to do with Jon Miller. I personally think Jon Miller is great, and so do a lot of people. That said, Milton's effusion is a little ridiculous here too. Put simply, Miller won't stop talking. He's got a richly pleasant voice, and he seems to call a game with the fear that he will be fired if he's not constantly using it. This presents a textbook case of how announcing often destroys the art its intended to enhance: Miller won't get out of the way and let the game sell itself. That he's so high on everyone's list speaks far more to the fact that most baseball announcers are fucking terrible. A perfect example is his partner, who not only won't shut the fuck up but actively seems to want to avoid talking about whatever game is happening at the time.

People in Baltimore still marvel at how Miller, from his perch in the visiting radio booth in Yankee Stadium, could spot that a fan, later identified as a 12-year-old boy named Jeffrey Meier, reached over and interfered with a Derek Jeter drive to right in Game 1 of the 1996 American League Championship Series, with the naked eye.
Jon Miller is an amazing announcer because he can actually see events happening within full view on the field of play. He is also an amazing announcer because he can see events happening on the field of play on the bank of monitors supplied for him. Jon Miller has a commendable 59-year track record of binocular vision.

Meanwhile, Morgan, the Hall of Fame second baseman on those Cincinnati Reds "Big Red Machine" teams of the 1970s, has, despite the carping of some bloggers,
If Milton soft-pedaled a piano this hard, he could hammer away at the keys and flawlessly perform John Cage's "4'33" anyway. Joe Morgan isn't merely carped about. Joe Morgan is reviled, and that attitude is now so dominant among serious baseball fans that the most popular sports website, Deadspin, caters to that revilement. Vilifying Joe Morgan isn't rare or even aberrant: it's now the normative condition of people who know a lot about the sport — i.e. the people with the greatest and most credible means to deem that Joe Morgan is an intolerable idiot.

Fairly or unfairly (there are plenty of loathsome announcers in baseball), he has become the avatar of the hidebound, smugly ignorant ex-jock who plugs his ears to reasonable argument just as he presumes access to some arcane and esoteric secrets that the rest of the world can not even recognize, let alone understand, thus proving that we can never be right about baseball. Joe Morgan has spent seven years feverishly castigating a book he has not read, a biographical profile that he stubbornly claimed was written by its subject. Joe Morgan refuses to entertain statistical analysis that compellingly indicates that he was the greatest person to play second base in the history of the game.

Finally, on the note of mere "carping": when a bunch of Harvard graduates got together to entertain themselves by bitching about bad baseball analysis — despite crushing daily deadlines writing for Jimmy Kimmel Live or crushing weekly deadlines at Saturday Night Live, The Office or Parks and Recreation — there was a reason why they called their website Fire Joe Morgan. It's because wanting Joe Morgan to shut up seemed like the perfectly reasonable desire of anybody who enjoys baseball.

been one of the best analysts in sports television, with a pair of Sports Emmys to his credit.
You know what else I bet he has? A Cable Ace and Teen Choice Award and a plastic medal on a ribbon from some corporate retreat's cooperative exercise, one that says, simply, "WINNER!" I've already gone into it here, here and here to the tune of about 8,000 words, but the Emmys are not only aggressively terrible but also a worthless metric for measuring anything other than "people who have won Emmy awards" and "people who have not won Emmy awards."

Even if you take the Emmys seriously — I assume this means that you are someone I hate — the fact that Morgan was honored twice doesn't mean that much. He had the same job for 20 years. Eventually, he was going to get something, by the unofficial Hollywood law that anyone who does something forever, regardless of quality, deserves token recognition at the expense of someone talented and much further away from death's door. More importantly, you know who's won an Emmy for Outstanding Sports Personality, Play-by-Play a total of six times and a whopping five years in a row? Joe Buck, a man who I have personally witnessed at least a dozen strangers, on at least a dozen different occasions, publicly express a desire to murder.

More importantly, as someone who writes professionally about baseball, Milton Kent should be well aware that the sport annually hands out honors without any mandatory performance-based criteria. Like Derek Jeter's Gold Glove award, for instance.

The pairing of Morgan and Miller was originally an odd one, as Miller's puckish sense of humor frequently went over the more strait-laced Morgan's head.
There's that soft-pedaling again. This is a really polite way of explaining that Joe Morgan is a humorless churl and a self-important prig. There is only one type of joke that Joe Morgan always laughs at and that's a joke that Joe Morgan has told. Otherwise he seems either congenitally incapable of detecting most humor or too busy being consumed with indignation that someone changed the subject from whatever he was talking about for what feels like the better part of a century.

However, over the years, the duo settled into a solid groove, and made the Sunday night telecast an entertaining one.
Here's the most entertaining part of the Miller/Morgan telecast, and a familiar groove that they've settled into, one that any repeat viewer of Sunday Night Baseball could outline on their own in similar terms:
1. Morgan starts off on a tangent that initially seems like it might relate to the current game until the realization slowly dawns on Miller that it will go on for five or ten minutes until Morgan exhausts whatever mental tantrum he's currently having.
2. Miller starts offering deadpanned replies that are clearly derisory and exhausted attempts to let the audience know that he is aware that this is a waste of time, but that he's not capable of actually forcing Morgan to shut up.
3. Miller gives in and indulges his desire to say something sarcastic about Morgan's comments, at which point:
4. Morgan deviates down a tangential response-tantrum until:
5. Miller outright asks to move on, to which Morgan asks,
6. "Why are we arguing?"/"What are we talking about?"/"How did we get to this point?" and
7. Miller's voice jumps a full octave when he barely manages to restrain himself from yelling, "You brought it up!"
Then there's the other groove where Morgan says something phenomenally fucking stupid, and Miller is so overcome with disgust at it that he sits back and lets the broadcast continue with at least ten seconds of dead air, ostensibly either because he's trying to compose himself or because he's giving the audience at home ten free seconds to hurl abuse at the television without any danger of missing a call.

Where was I? Ah, yeah, that shit's great. You know what it would suck to experience instead of that? Baseball.

Dan Shulman and Orel Hershiser, who joined Miller and Morgan in the television booth this year, are rumored to be first in line to replace them next spring, and they'll do fine. But that won't change the notion that ESPN made a colossal blunder by casting aside a talented team long before their run should have ended.
Even assuming that Morgan paired with anyone would result in good baseball commentary, 20 years is a pretty good run, long enough even for fans to get tired. Their tenure at ESPN is now old enough to qualify for being slain in an elective middle-eastern war. Over that time, the two have said all that they could possibly say. Apart from age and lost focus, this is why Americans got tired of probably the most beloved commentator pairing in history, John Madden and Pat Summerall. They were just there forever.

In a way, despite the cultural time machine, the mixed metaphors and the soft-pedaling, this might be the worst part of Milton's terrible editorial. Even if he were somehow correct about the vitality of Morgan's contribution to baseball, it's difficult to see how even a supporter wouldn't welcome some change after two decades. Even a fan could see this as a golden opportunity for two talented men to refresh their abilities by working with different partners or a different supporting cast.

It would have taken at most mere minutes to see a silver lining to this decision, to find possible positive outcomes. But this goes against the conventional wisdom of the baseball sentimentalist (a kind of wisdom that Morgan aggressively employs), which is that these men are national treasures and that this has to be bad. Expecting Milton to have come to anything other than the obvious conclusion is clearly a fool's errand as soon as one takes a glance at any of his other editorials. That's not to say that the obvious interpretation is always inferior, but it tends to be when you aren't the sort of person who can think of any other options.

Sure enough, when you need a conclusion that's been beaten into the ground for weeks or months already, he's there. When you need to read the obvious yet again, he's there. This editorial was doomed to be written exactly as it was the moment the event inspiring it occurred. It represents the inexorable determinism of intellectual laziness confronting the nettlesome reality that events keep happening.

Hello, TBS or MLB Network. There are a couple of pretty good announcers available on the free-agent market. Don't waste any time. Sign them up now.
Annnnnd there you go, the closer, the smart-money sales pitch made to people who aren't listening. The great thing about this is that Milton, consciously or unconsciously, first names the network with the worst commenting staff of all, one where:
people suggest that teams do better in the postseason after a previous trip to the playoffs teaches them how to make travel arrangements;
people talk incessantly over the celebration of a playoff no-hitter;
the announcing crew uncritically adopts the argument that the Seattle Mariners somehow owed the New York Yankees Cliff Lee;
studio analyst David Wells once appeared on set in an outfit that suggested he was dressed at a secondhand store on the stipend a public defender gets to clean up homeless people in preparation for their giving testimony in court.
Sending Joe Morgan to TBS is the announcing equivalent of shipping coals to Newcastle.

Maybe Milton's right. It's probably too early to write Morgan's full sports obituary. I actually have a long transcript of an unbelievably terrible harangue he subjected Orel Hersheiser and Miller during an early week of this season — an iconic Morgan-defining harangue — but I've been saving it for a special occasion. Until there's proof that he won't thrust a microphone out of the freshly packed earth like Sports Carrie, it's best to save the final comment. He's bound to emerge on some poor unsuspecting show and ruin it and baseball with a new partner who's done nothing to deserve the abuse.

When he does, you can avail yourself of an interesting piece of technology. Long ago, when their local teams were featured in big "Game of the Week" scenarios, fans discovered a way of avoiding the under-informed blowhards on national broadcasts. They muted the sound on Morgan, or Joe Buck and Tim McCarver, and turned up the radio to listen to their local guys. Nowadays you can download a piece of software that helps you to link a live stream of a baseball broadcast from anywhere in the country and the broadcast feed on your television, then synch the audio of the feed to the action on the screen. It's an amazing and ingenious creation from someone who is obviously a serious sports fan.

Unfortunately, I don't know who that person is. But, in a pinch, if you want to credit somebody for the creation of this wonderful program, it's probably safe to thank Joe Morgan.