IF YOU HAPPENED to be in Cleveland last week (or shelled out the 10 bucks that Major League Baseball now demands for Internet broadcasts), you could have listened to WTAM, the flagship station for the Cleveland Indians, and heard broadcasters Tom Hamilton and Mike Egan chatting amiably, like two old friends, about the division series. In addition to the play-by-play, they offered smart, in-depth analysis of both teams, including, in the second game, a terrific observation about Jamie Moyer's trick of covering the pitching rubber with dirt to gain a distance advantage and a story about how Pete Vukovich did the same thing in the 1982 World Series. Their banter-a joy to listen to-was the essence of a fine baseball broadcast: an engaging and enriching conversation that unfolded and dramatized the game.
The Mariners' radio booth, by comparison, was a place of virtual estrangement. Dave Niehaus and Rick Rizzs, the two regular announcers-both booted off TV as the national networks took over televising the postseason-alternated duties every couple of innings calling the action but almost never had a conversation with the color commentator, Ron Fairly, who often didn't even seem to be there. When Rizzs was on, Fairly would flit in and out, dispensing, in his fatherly way, an occasional and obvious comment about the pitching ("Rick, all year long we've seen Lou go to the bullpen to try to shut down an inning, and that's what he's trying to do here"). Usually, he only spoke after Rizzs asked him a question directly. Rizzs himself, staying in the booth while Niehaus was doing play-by-play, wouldn't say a thing for long stretches of time, as if he were one of those shy kids the Mariners sometimes bring behind the mike as junior sportscaster. When he did speak, the words didn't enrich. Once, well into one inning of the second game, when you thought Niehaus was alone, Rizzs' voice suddenly emerged out of the radio dark, not to make a sharp comment on the game, but to sleepily mumble something about Crocodile Dundee.
If it hadn't become clear during the regular season, it was glaringly obvious by the end of the division series: The Mariners sorely lack a decent color commentator. At a time when strategies change and intensify, it's especially disappointing not to have someone who can enliven the play-by-play with insight and dialogue, who can see beyond the obvious to give us all the drama that lies behind the action. Much of the excitement of baseball, especially in the postseason, comes from anticipating the play.
The Mariners have tried. They've hired, in fact, four color guys-Ron Fairly, Dave Henderson, Dave Valle, and now Tom Paciorek, though only Fairly made it onto the playoff roster. All former players, they still sound as if they're in tryout camp. None, except maybe Paciorek, brings a smooth, relaxed style to the booth. Too often, comments simply hang in the air like deflating balloons. (To be fair, Rizzs, with his frequent puppy-dog idolization, rarely gives his partner a chance to shuck off the stiff "former player" status.)
Paciorek, once a broadcaster for the White Sox, holds a lot of promise. Though he appeared in only about 20 broadcasts this year, his cheerful, candid intelligence seemed to delight Niehaus, who emerged from the authoritative shell that can thicken around him when he's with less experienced partners. It was a hint of a possibly great pairing.
But the problem of color commentary on the Mariners is also one of format. Most teams assign two separate crews to radio and television broadcasts, making it possible for the play-by-play/color relationship to deepen over the course of a season. But for many years, the dominance and popularity of Niehaus' voice has forced an awkward game of musical chairs: Because the Seattle TV and radio ownerships each demand that Niehaus appear on their broadcasts, he and Rizzs twice swap positions during a game, while the color commentators stay put. Though trying to please fans, the arrangement actually works against them, interrupting their emotional bond with the announcer (like one actor replacing another halfway through a play), and making it impossible for booth partners to have an evolving conversation over the course of nine innings.
Baseball, after all, is a game of conversations, of consideration, strategy, and second-guessing. The best announcing teams give us all that in the booth, too. Take Bill King and Ray Fosse, the radio voices for the A's during the series with the Yankees. They genially work off each other, layering observations and analysis in a way that never sounds slight or didactic. They're a perfect example of what's missing on KIRO.
Maybe, with a team that doesn't need much improvement, the Mariners organization can forgo player deals this off-season and instead send the scouts out looking for a good commentator or two.