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What Do We Want From Baseball Announcers?

We all whine about Chris Wheeler. Many of us love Scott Franzke. Why? What makes one gag-worthy and the other a pleasure to listen to?

LA in LA.
LA in LA.

Here is the current Phillies broadcast team. All of us have our favorites and our whipping boys. Like Chris Wheeler, though I am loath to put "Chris Wheeler" and "whipping" and "boys" in the same paragraph. I'm sure he's a nice guy and all, but I digress.

I have listened to a fair amount of baseball in my time, mostly over the radio, and I have been spoiled. I listened to the Orioles as a kid and got large doses of Chuck Thompson at my grandparents' house in Severna Park. Later, I got to spend time listening to Jon Miller at my mother's house in Parkville, but not for long enough.

At my grandparents' house in western PA, my primary source of Phillies TV was the 8 foot satellite dish that brought in TBS and WGN. I loved the Cubs in the NL East, even though I had to deal with Harry Caray and a declining Phillies team getting whooped up on by the Cubs. Still, my baseball schedule was a prized possession, since it let me know when I could actually see a game on TV.

For actual Phillies-side coverage of games, we were all blessed with Harry Kalas and Richie Ashburn, especially during that magical 1993 season that brought me back from the baseball dead.

I can tell you that I loved Chuck Thompson, Jon Miller, and Harry Kalas. Scott Franzke is not in that league yet, but he is my current favorite of all the broadcasters who cover the Phillies.

What is that je ne sais quoi that makes us enjoy some announcers while we loathe others? That's what I'm after, but it is elusive. Mostly, I am looking for something that isn't there.

There is a restaurant on North Charles Street in Baltimore. It serves Indian food from a small basement space. You have to walk down from street level to get there. It has been a fixture on the Charles Street restaurant map for a long time. It is the Akbar. No, it is not a trap. They have great food, good prices, and excellent service. If you go there, things magically appear and disappear. Your water glass is empty, and then you turn around and it is full. You are not confronted with a toothsome, sassy, corn-fed teeny-bopper who thinks that smiling and chatting you up is good service. "No, I did not go on a date with *you*, Ms. Applebee's waitress -- my date is across the table from me. Now buzz off."

This illustrates something about my favorite announcers. Harry Kalas and Richie Ashburn. Can you hear that mike picking up nothing but stadium sounds for 5, 10, maybe 15 seconds sometimes? Remember that? That's my broadcast team right there. Lay off the caffeine and keep your mouth shut sometimes. It's the notes you don't play in jazz. Ashburn and Kalas were perfect.

Silence today is lost revenue. Why not work in "safe and secure at second" for a few bucks? Because it is aesthetically appalling. I can live with it though -- that sort of thing has been with the game for a long time, and it helps to pay the bills. How about filling that time with an inane and irrational anecdote that flies in the face of baseball research for the last 30 years? Wheeler.

Silence and letting through just the crowd and the ballpark -- that takes you there. It works leading up to a big pitch in the crunch or during the Sargasso Sea of middle innings where my recaps sometimes take a "Here there be (boring) monsters" turns.

This gives me my first and most-important rule for baseball announcers:

Rule #1: Be quiet once in a while. Push the envelope here.

Why do I loathe Chris Wheeler? He's violating Rule #1 by trying to say too much, and therefore he ends up saying nothing useful, but it is more than that. It is possible to be inane and be entertaining. That's the stock in trade of Gary Matthews, but he's kind of endearingly goofy. Wheeler is just annoying.

Larry Andersen used to annoy me more when he was new and he forced bits or small set pieces. The forced bits and set pieces were a war on silence, but he does them much less now, and he's better for it. Now, his interaction with the play-by-play (Franzke now) seems more natural. I like his grumpy homerism. He's still capable of being fun and going down some strange roads, but he's somehow not annoying. He'll also be quiet once in a while.

Rule #2 is more of a corollary or something. "If you have nothing to say, don't say something just because you have a mouth and you are still breathing through it."

Rule #3 is kind of my "Are you from Saber or are you from Venus" issue.

Newsflash: Readers of this site are not typical baseball fans. Whoa! Really? Yup. You pay extra for this kind of analysis, folks.

In his defense, Chris Wheeler is doing his "broadcasting" for baseball fans of all stripes. Imagine the financial reporter who is trying to reach an audience including you, your parents, and the now retired (I guess) Ben Bernanke. There are millions of listeners who have checking accounts, but maybe just one who reads the Beige Book. A commercial broadcast will skew toward less Bernankishness.

We all get this. But during games, I tend to forget it. My memories of Chuck Thompson, Ashburn and Kalas, and Jon Miller all predate my current baseball fandom, which is light years past my unenlightened understanding from 5+ years ago. #sabersince09, right?

Franzke and Andersen incurred my wrath at times last year for riffing on WAR, but we do hear more about OPS and OBP than we used to. Still, if I want heavy-lifting analysis, I am not relying on the announcers to give it to me. They are not Fangraphs or TGP. They can't do it on the fly anyway.

I need to learn to accept that I will not get a hard core stats team. It will not happen anytime soon, certainly not in Philadelphia.

Rule #3 is for me, and not the announcers: "Accept that traditionalism will rule the airwaves for at least another 10 years, so engage the past with equanimity."

A good, modern broadcast is ultimately one that is (1) cleanly narrated (2) without superfluous jibber-jabber and with (3) me being medicated with enough alcohol that I can dissipate my expectations for something better. There is definitely more to it, though, and I haven't sussed out all the Rules yet.

Part of the problem, is that I only recently started to think about this in a way that was more than "Damn, Wheeler annoys me" and I'm still trying to figure it out. In thinking about broadcasters right now, I feel a little like I did when I saw Falling Water the first time, and I tried to explain how much I loved it to someone a week later, and I realized that I lacked basic vocabulary and technical knowledge that could help to explain exactly what it was that made it aesthetically appealing to me.

When we hear "Vin Scully is great" or when silverbacks like me rhapsodize about Whitey and Harry, it's great, but it provides very little guidance to broadcasters as to what it is, exactly, that we want more of and less of. It's one thing to say, "That guy is great! Be more like him!" and it is another entirely to be able to explain exactly how to do that. It's definitely something I'm going to pay more attention to this year.