Sports Nut

The Tao of Tim McCarver


It’s that time of year when newspaper columnists and radio talk show hosts start asking the question, “Does the World Series mean what it used to?” Of course, it doesn’t, or at least not what it meant when I was in grade school and the nuns switched on the World Series because they were all secretly in love with Sandy Koufax.

A large part of this is due to the phenomenon that none of us have completely come to terms with, namely the marginalization of American sports. We have more people watching more different sports, more overlapping seasons, and fewer young people watching any sports.

But with baseball, I think there’s another factor involved. Back when almost all the teams were in the northeastern part of the country with three or four in the Midwest, the World Series seemed to be more of a national sporting event. Most parts of the country didn’t have a major league team near them, and they selected a team to root for based sometimes on minor league affiliation or sometimes on a special association with a star player. For instance, when I was out in Texas and Oklahoma as a kid, I remember people in pickups glued to their truck radios because Mickey Mantle was in the World Series.

In the age of expansion, though, nearly everybody has a team near them, and they follow those teams in the playoffs, if they make the playoffs at all. It’s been my experience that a lot of fans lose interest as soon as their team loses. My friends in the Oakland area were devastated by the A’s loss to the Red Sox, and a lot of them simply stopped paying attention. I imagine it’s that way in New England, too. I know a lot of Red Sox fans will tune in just to see the Yankees lose, but it certainly can’t be as many people who would have tuned in to see the Red Sox win.

When I bring this subject up on a radio show or on television, someone always counters with, “Well, football and basketball have teams everywhere, and they have a lot of playoff games, more than baseball, and fans don’t lose national interest in their postseason finals.” True, but I think that is in large part because fans of pro basketball and football can follow their favorite teams more easily on television. For instance, I know Dallas Cowboys or L.A. Lakers fans all over the country who have no direct connection with their favorite team. Many of them have never seen the team play live or even been to the city in which the team plays. I think you know what I mean: the type of fan who started watching the Lakers because he saw Jack Nicholson sitting courtside, or the one who says he’s a Cowboy fan because he bought their cheerleaders’ calendar, or the one who attaches himself to the Bengals for some Godforsaken reason.

Baseball doesn’t market itself that way, nor could it ever really thrive on that level. Baseball is more like college football; its appeal is always going to be mostly regional. Or am I on the right track here? What’s the view from Boston?

I’m curious to know what you think of the announcers for the playoffs and the Series. I guess this is more of a question on what you think of modern commentators as a whole, who I guess are pretty much summed up by Tim McCarver. I’ve knocked him several times in the past, but I can’t deny that he’s the best at what he does. He’s absolutely brilliant at giving you a catcher’s-eye view of what is going on on the field and what’s about to happen—i.e., how the fielders should position themselves for a certain kind of pitcher, the relative virtues of pulling the infielders in to cut off a run or playing back at double-play depth. And there’s no one better when it comes to talking about base-running strategy (or in the current game, lack of base-running strategy).

I have to tell you, though, sometimes I wish he’d just shut up and let me watch the game. There’s so much to look at during a ball game, I often wish they’d just pan the cameras around and let us discover things for ourselves instead of trying to fill every on-the-air moment with some kind of analysis.

I have to admit, too, that I got some satisfaction out of hearing Bret Boone spar with him during the Yankees-Red Sox series. Boone got a lot of flak for his lack of professionalism, and sometimes he deserved it, but there were times when, frankly, I enjoyed his comments. Sometimes I get the impression that whoever is working with McCarver just lays down and lets him make too many blanket generalizations that go unchallenged. It’s like McCarver’s opinion is the “official” view of the network.

I’m thinking here of McCarver’s reaction to one of the most famous home runs in a recent World Series, Jim Leyritz’s home run off of Mark Wohlers that tied Game 4 back in the ‘96 Series. * (The Yankees went on to win and beat the Braves to take the Series in the sixth game.) McCarver kept screaming, “He didn’t throw a slider! He didn’t throw a slider! Why didn’t he [Wohlers] throw him [Leyritz] a slider?!” Then all during the replays and after the game he kept reminding us that Wohlers didn’t throw Leyritz a slider.

Well, dammit, shouldn’t someone have at least suggested that the reason Wohlers didn’t throw Leyritz another damn slider was because if Leyritz had hit a home run off of another damn slider, then McCarver would have been the first one to shove a mike in his face and ask, “Why did you keep throwing him the slider?”

Anyway, your thoughts …

Correction, Oct. 12, 2003:The original version of this article stated that Jim Leyritz hit a crucial homerun in Game 5 of the 1996 World Series. The home run came in Game 4. (Return to corrected item.)