Wednesday night marked the end of a lot of things. It was the end of a rather dreary baseball season (albeit one capped by a remarkable October). And it was the end of — as Fox would not stop insisting — the Red Sox’s 95-year streak of not clinching a World Series victory at Fenway Park. But more meaningfully it was the apparent end of the broadcasting career of Tim McCarver, the once-beloved analyst who forever changed the way we watch and think about the game, but who also happened to spend, oh, the past decade as the biggest internet punchline in baseball broadcasting (non-Joe-Morgan division).
Whenever a sports-media luminary who lost his fastball — and, yes, McCarver was a catcher, so please excuse the mixed baseball metaphor — finally calls it quits, there follows a flood of stories about how he was once really quite good, and how it’s a shame that he stopped preparing as extensively as he once did, and stopped seeing the game with the keenness he once had. Amazin’ Avenue recently dug up some old footage from McCarver’s early days on New York Mets broadcasts in the 1980s, and concluded that he was “miles better than the crimes against broadcasting he’d eventually commit for FOX.” Had he not wound up in his pure color-commentary-providing sidekick role, the author theorizes, we all might have found him less grating.
Audiences eventually tire of any voice, especially one like McCarver’s, which had a droning quality to it, his vowels stretching out longer than the late-afternoon shadows in every Saturday Fox game. But his voice was, in the same way Vin Scully’s still is, baseball. He came from western Tennessee and had an accordingly plainsy twang that represented the vast middle of the country — neither north nor south, east nor west — from where so many of baseball’s heroes emerged.
And McCarver, who started at Fox in 1996 when the network first picked up baseball, never stopped working hard. His colleague Ken Rosenthal noted that McCarver would arrive at the ballpark five hours before first pitch to pepper managers, producers and assistants with questions about the relevant teams. Among all the criticism of McCarver over the years, I hardly recall anyone accusing him of cluelessness about a particular ballclub.
No, the knock against McCarver was that he had frozen himself in a different era, spouting baseball wisdom uninfluenced by years of new sabermetric knowledge. That criticism was fair. (OK, all of that, and the fact that he loved dopey lines. Here is one of his dopiest, in all its glory.) He was the thinking fan’s announcer in the decade before Bill James and Baseball Prospectus redefined what it meant to be a thinking baseball fan. As we learned more about, say, how much a great defensive player could help his team, or about how many runs a leadoff walk would likely yield — which is to say, as outside researchers dynamited the gnosis that once belonged solely to ex-players and managers — McCarver’s insights started to seem hollower and hollower. The technocracy had no place for a mystic.
Whomever Fox chooses to replace him, he’ll be speaking to a shrinking, aging, pickier crowd, one that demands far more insight and wit than baseball announcers have historically provided. Good luck to him, especially on account of the annually increasing length of the games Fox tends to cover.
McCarver took a lot of flak for his digressions, for repeating himself, for stating the obvious — but I wonder if all that was his method of refusing to acknowledge the disappointing recent contraction of baseball in American culture. He carried on like there were legions of new or casual fans tuning in, when there weren’t.
He thought of himself as an ambassador for baseball, a friendly voice to play over the game. “Fairness, accuracy, and honesty have always been my goals, along with teaching you something you may not have known about this great game,” he said, in a short send-off after Boston’s celebration and all kinds of interviews and press conferences.
And despite all the grief McCarver got for his longwindedness, his last word on Fox, after Buck said he loved him and enjoyed working with him, was simply “Ditto.” Thanks, Tim. May you remain a real man.