By In Stuff

Playing The Game

My buddy Doug Glanville has a piece up over at the New York Times that is partly about ESPN announcer Jessica Mendoza, but mostly is about women covering baseball, either as announcers or, in the case of Spink Award winner Claire Smith, as a writer.

The story is about sexism, plain and simple, but there is another smaller question in there too, one I thought about during Saturday’s award ceremony at the Baseball Hall of Fame.

As mentioned, pioneering writer and editor Claire Smith won the Hall’s J.G. Taylor Spink Award. Also the fantastic announcer Bill King won the Ford Frick. Most people shorten and call it the “Frick Award,” which I find funny because my sense of humor has not evolved yet.

In any case, Claire came to baseball writing — as she told the story — because of her deep love of the game and because her father told her to do what she wanted to do in life. She stood up to the game to cover it, enduring sexism, enduring racism (once she was physically removed from a locker room) and she did it all because of her love for baseball and for writing and because her father had told her to do what she wanted to do in life. She has changed the way baseball is covered in the best of ways.

Bill King’s daughter Kathleen, meanwhile, told us about her father’s deep love for the game. Bill King was a master of the microphone. He was a fantastic football announcer; his call of the Holy Roller play might just be the greatest in NFL history. Susan Slusser, who has been covering baseball almost exactly as long as I have — sorry Susan, we ain’t kids anymore — says that Bill’s real talent was broadcasting basketball, where he was so good that she has never quite loved the game since his death in 2005.

But Kathleen, in accepting the award on behalf of her father, also told us that Bill King was impossibly diverse in his interests. He was en expert sailor. He loved opera and he loved jazz. He helped found a ballet company. He grew so fascinated with Russian history that he actually learned Russian so he could study it more closely. He read everything.

What does any of this have to do with Doug’s story about Jessica Mendoza and women baseball broadcasters and analysts. Well, it’s my just my opinion, but here goes: I think the ability to play baseball exceedingly well and the ability to offer real insight into the game have absolutely nothing to do with each other. In a Venn diagram, they are two circles that would not touch at all. I think Bill King’s love of sailing was every bit as important to baseball broadcasting — perhaps even more important — than having played Major League Baseball.

I suspect most people would howl at this, and I get it. Most people think that broadcasting or writing has to do with knowledge, especially innate knowledge, and you really can’t KNOW what it feels like to come up with the bases loaded in a tie game or what it’s like to pitch the ninth inning on the road at Fenway Park unless you’ve actually done it. That’s true, by the way. You can’t KNOW the feeling unless you’ve felt it.

But, in my view, KNOWING is not what great writing or broadcasting is about. Let’s stick with announcing: What do we want from a baseball announcer? We want him or her to be the background music to the game. We want them to be, at different times, funny, thoughtful, perceptive, scientific. We want to them to see things we might have missed, explain things that are curious, give us a historical context when something unusual happens. Sometimes we’d just like to hear the excitment in their voices. We’d love to hear some good stories. We might want to know a little bit more about a player’s background. We want them to tell us the score every now and again, reset the situation at precisely the right time, build the drama. We might want to know about the time Henry Aaron did this or Pedro Martinez did that. And if, every now and again, they can predict that what pitch will be thrown or that a suicide squeeze is coming, hey, that’s fun too.

Well, how do you deliver these things? Well, it sounds silly, but it takes a bit of magic. Sure, you have to know stuff. But you also have to imagine stuff. You also have to have great timing. It doesn’t hurt to have a bit of a poet in you. Great book critics know better than anyone what makes for great literature; but that doesn’t mean they can write a great novel (and vice versa, great novelists are rarely great critics). Great singers can break your heart or melt it, but that doesn’t mean they can write the words they are singing. And there are great songwriters who can’t sing a lick.

Yes, of course, there are those rare people who have multiple talents — and there are some great athletes who are also great broadcasters. But they are not great broadcasters BECAUSE they were great players; Joe Montana should have ended that nonsense years ago. Their ability in the booth is born of something entirely different from their ability to play baseball; they are natural communicators, born storytellers, they are self-aware in ways that few people are.

 

A sportswriter or play-by-play broadcasters gets used to the “What do you know, you never played the game,” jabs every time we write or say something that people disagree with. The only real response to this is to nod and shrug. Robert Caro was never a U.S. Senator, J.K. Rowling was never a magician, Stephen Spielberg wasn’t at D-Day, Lin-Manuel Miranda didn’t fight in the Revolutionary War and Vin Scully never played an inning for the Dodgers.

When you talk about what women broadcasters like Jessica Mendoza can add to the game, you are running squarely into the powerful myth that only people who played Major League Baseball can enchance the experience of watching it. I can name a dozen former ballplayers who I think are terrific announcers. And I think they’re terrific because they STOPPED BEING former ballplayers, because they stopped relying on their own tired stories and personal biases about the game, because they left the past behind, and they have worked on their craft, and they kept up to date and they are constantly learning all sorts of new things about baseball and life and how to tell a story. I think Jessica Mendoza does all these things. In other words: I think Jessica Mendoza is terrific.

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24 Responses to Playing The Game

  1. Kyle says:

    As always Joe, great writing. However, as I’m sure you’ll be told many times by internet needs like me: that’s not the way Venn diagrams work. That said, your point is spot on, Jessica Mendoza is terrific.

  2. Jeff says:

    Being a former broadcaster, or even a good person or having an excitable personality, does not make you a good sportscaster, e.g. Rex Hudler.

    • Tom says:

      I’m sure Sparky Anderson knew more about baseball than just about anyone. Sparky Anderson could not describe the action on the diamond from a TV booth if you handed him a script.

      • Brian says:

        I don’t know about Sparky, but Hudler is a nice guy who is an awful announcer. Joe’s description of a baseball announcer is perfect. Shows what is wrong with Hudler. It is incredible that he kept a job with the Angels for about 8 years or so and now Kansas City for about five years. It is interesting that local fans in Kansas City accept he is a nice guy, so they mostly tolerate him. The problem is that he makes an interesting observation only about 5% of the time. The rest is just dumb stuff that might be cute occasionally, but all the time it is just annoying.

        • Just Bob says:

          I kinda disagree with the “he’s a nice guy” narrative. I won’t repeat the story here, but I know first hand of an experience with the guy, that he wouldn’t even acknowledge a person doing their job, but gave them the “Don’t talk to me” hand in the face.

  3. Matt says:

    It’s hilarious how defensive those that criticize Mendoza get when you point out they are being sexist. Yea, sure. I bet you just loved the insight of Joe Morgan explaining why OBP is a stupid stat compared to BA.

  4. Brian says:

    Like I said above, Joe’s description of baseball announcer is perfect. Surprised that he took such a shot a Joe Montana.

    I’m a pretty big sports fan but aside from the hometown guys and appreciating good ones when I get away from home, I don’t pay a lot of attention. I did not know Bill King, but when I googled the Holly Roller play, I did think it was an excellent call. I’ve been cursed by Royals guy Denny Matthews for 40 years, so I have an appreciate for an announcer who enjoins the game and provides some input. Matthews drives many people crazy because he shows zero emotion and, now with age, is behind the play. His worst move is that when something big happens, he goes silent ON RADIO and just leaves you with crowd noise for as long as 30 to 45 seconds.

    Glanville’s column is superficial gender bias stuff. I have not listened to her, but I think most fans will like her if she is good. I listened a little bit to the woman on the Yankee broadcast and thought she was okay.

    Joes is wrong in the sense that being a former player does help, but not as important as the other skills.

  5. SDG says:

    This whole “You had to have played the game to write/broadcast about it” is a ridiculous red herring. No one actually thinks that for real. Vin Scully, Red Barber, Damon Runyon, Roger Angell never played an inning of pro baseball in their lives. Meanwhile, Jerry Coleman and Ralph Kiner did and while their cities loved them as announcers they were, we’ll just go with not the most articulate.

    This argument never comes up when discussing male sportswriters or broadcasters. I would bet money that Joe Posnanski and Michael Schur have never had anyone tell them their sports commentary is useless because they never played. It’s only when it’s a woman do we hear that. We don’t like to hear this in an era where credentials are everything and jobs are all specialized, but there is no appeal to authority when it comes to being good at this stuff. There is no “Of course they’re good. They went to Harvard” or “Of you’re he’s good, he’s Vin Scully’s son.” You either do a good job or you don’t.

    • Matt says:

      The funny thing is Mendoza is 1000x more qualified than 99.999% of MLB players. She’s got a gold and silver Olympic medal, has numerous records at Stanford as well as 2 masters degrees.

      Meanwhile, you got 45 year old fat ass Kenny that still lives at home calling up Mike Francesa complaining how she isn’t qualified.

      • invitro says:

        How in the world do Olympic medals and Master’s degrees make one more qualified than a baseball player?

        • Matt says:

          Oh hey, sexism in the thread! How does being a baseball player make you qualified to be a TV analysis?

          Unlike guys like Morgan and Schilling, Mendoza actually has a college education.

          But girls? Eww! She belongs in the kitchen right?

          • invitro says:

            So you can’t answer my question? I thought so.

          • Karyn says:

            Olympic medals: she’s a former top-level athlete
            Graduate degrees (from Stanford): she’s intelligent, with a strong vocabulary, and has experience in explaining her thoughts to a lay audience.

      • Carl says:

        I hate Mendoza as an announcer, not because she’s a woman but because she tries too hard and always refers to “when I was in college”, or “I know what he’s thinking because when I played…”

        Would love a good announcer, whether male or female, whether former player or not on ESPN telecasts. The current team, combined with the annoying square box tracker makes the telecast unwatchable.

        Joe is quite correct that being a former player gives a small advantage that can be overcome by others who have “the magic.” David Cone is one former player who brings a BABIP, and many other newer SABER stats and analysis to the fans,

    • invitro says:

      “I would bet money that Joe Posnanski and Michael Schur have never had anyone tell them their sports commentary is useless because they never played.” — I’ll take that bet. How much are we betting?

      P.S. Read the article first, and note this part: ‘A sportswriter or play-by-play broadcasters gets used to the “What do you know, you never played the game,” jabs every time we write or say something that people disagree with.’

      • SDG says:

        People say that to them as a weapon after they say something the listener doesn’t agree with. With women, they are told their opinions are invalid before they’ve had a chance to say anything. That’s the difference.

  6. Years ago, Lindsey Nelson said something that I will badly paraphrase. He grew up entranced by the romance of baseball and believing Grantland Rice’s depictions of ballplayers. Those who played the game cannot and do not feel the same romance because they are in the trenches, and they really do know what it is like. But the announcer who hasn’t played the way they have can more fully appreciate what they accomplish.

    It also helps to have an education. Bill King never graduated from college, but he read voraciously (I believe Jon Miller never graduated, either). As a kid, I wrote to Vin Scully to ask how to become a baseball broadcaster, and one of his suggestions was to major in English. Educations come in different ways, but the great broadcasters have in common a love for the language and the game they are broadcasting.

  7. invitro says:

    I sat and watched all three players’ HoF speeches today, for I think the first time ever. I thought all three were moving and interesting. And Bagwell and Raines both have some adorable-looking daughters. It was lots of fun to watch, and I’ll look forward to watching Chipper’s and (hopefully) Thome’s speeches next year.

  8. MikeN says:

    Hall of Famer Jack Morris,”The only time I want to be naked around a woman is if I’m on top of her or she’s on top of me.”

    • SDG says:

      He’s not a Hall of Famer (nor does he deserve to be, which is why the people that want him in fall back on one good postseason appearance and the fact that he sort of looks like a cowboy in an old movie). And after hearing he’s said shit like that I don’t want him to be involved in baseball in any capacity.

      Besides, Claire Smith just became the first woman to win the Spink Award and all the attention on her focused on how wrong it was back in the 80s that NL teams could kick her out of the locker room and highlighted Garvey and Mattingly and the other ballplayers who treated her like any other beat writer. As far as I know, the baseball community is pretty ashamed of how they treated woman journalists in the old days. (Not to mention the shit Keith Hernandez rightly got when he criticised the Padres for having a female PT in the clubhouse).

  9. Mort says:

    My respect for a good baseball broadcaster is total. It’s said that public speaking is feared more than death by many people. Well, imagine your task tonight is to spend three hours or more telling a story to several million people, and you have no idea what the story is. And guess what? Tomorrow you’re going to have to do it again, but it will be an entirely different story!

  10. BAM says:

    I don’t care what her qualifications are or what her gender is. She sucks.

  11. bryan jones says:

    Jessica Mendoza’s problem is not that she doesn’t know baseball it’s that once she’s opened the file in her head and begins expounding she stops paying attention to the game on the field. And goes on and on and on. I do not blame her, I blame the ESPN producers, who have no love for the game and always lose interest around the 7th inning and begin showing interminable shots of the broadcast crew yucking it up or Buster Olney interviewing a hot dog salesman in the stands, all while a baseball game is being played somewhere out of sight. To her credit, Mendoza’s comments, unlike those of her fellow broadcasters, are usually relevant and informative.

  12. shagster says:

    SF is crying. “Whot … hoppnd”

    An all-star catcher. An all-star pitcher. A ‘former’ all-star closer. An amazing short -second defensive combo. And … and …

    Ok. Don’t get any clutcher than Pence. That said, game has to be competitive for that spark to show. Admittedly after that it is significant fall off.

    Yet we’ve launched three WS championships with some combination of rubber bands, paper clips, and above.

    Hard to believe it’s same problem this time as last year. After supposedly ‘fixing’ the mess 2016 EOY and off-season. How can it still be THE SAME ISSUES.

    And not a single promising prospect. To speak of.

    SF is screwed.

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