On the same day that the Mets hired Paul DePodesta to complete their Front Office Nerd Triforce, ESPN announced that Joe Morgan will not return to Sunday Night Baseball for the 2011 season. Ironically, it was the sabermetrically inclined who considered this a sign from above, while traditionalists would prefer to think of it as simply a coincidence.
Morgan was the white whale of the stat-minded even before the emergence of the site asking for his termination. He was one of the earliest, most prominent critics of Moneyball. He earned the ire of Billy Beane devotees not simply due to those opinions, but also by revealing that he had barely read the book, if at all, and implying that he didn't need to to read the book in order to blast it. He was, in other words, the perfect embodiment of the Dumb Jock archetype that every basement-dwelling blogger with a slide rule imagines he can topple with the power of math and logic.
I wonder, though, if this victory (if you can call it that) really means anything. Was Morgan really all that awful as a color commentator? To use a Morganism, my gut feeling is yes, though I think his reputation came to overshadow the reality. More than anything, his canning highlights just how terrible baseball announcing at the national level is these days.
If I may praise Morgan and not bury him for one moment, he didn't always drive me nuts. Personally, I found his insights into the nuts and bolts of hitting and fielding--at the very least--not terrible, and occasionally insightful. As a more than deserving member of the Hall of Fame (some of the numbers he put up in the 1970s were simply insane, especially for a second baseman), he obviously knew a thing or two about playing the game.
Unfortunately, he knew little about the individual players he was paid to critique. Much like the network he worked for, his interest seemed to wane for any team that wasn't the Red Sox or the Yankees. And while The Big Red Machine was undoubtedly one of the best teams of all time, his incessant mentions of them (and the fact that he played for them) were grating, to say the least. And then there were the tales he told from his playing days that were easily debunked by the flimsiest googling efforts.
Morgan's failings were even more pronounced in his online chats on ESPN.com, which became the most frequent targets for skewering on FireJoeMorgan.com. Those chats revealed him to be woefully unprepared to discuss 90 percent of major league rosters and not always good with words (though to be fair, I'm sure his remarks were transcribed by someone else). He was notorious for saying he hadn't seen certain players play too much, despite the fact that he worked only one game a week and presumably had tons of time in which to catch up on all the action across the league.
I don't believe he was always like this. I've seen a few "vintage" Morgan games over the past two years, as I worked on The 1999 Project and In the Year 2000. Morgan did color commentary for several Mets playoff games those years, for both ESPN (with Jon Miller) and NBC (with Bob Costas). While I can't say I heard anything special out of him, he did what a color commentator should do: interject a few salient points and get out of the way. He also seemed to have a much more firm grasp of all of the contemporary players than he did in more recent years. Although during the 1999 play-in game against the Reds, which he called for ESPN, he seemed to favor Cincinnati more than just a little bit; unprofessional, but at least understandable.
If you have the Essential Games of Shea Stadium DVD set, you can hear him during game five of the 1999 NLCS (aka The Grand Slam Single Game). He's not bad. He's not great, but he's also nowhere near as insufferable as he became on Sunday Night Baseball over the years. But of course, this was prior to the Moneyball-induced uproar.
Morgan's deterioration as a broadcaster is probably due to an equal amount of burnout and a defensive posture adopted when he began to receive so much criticism. I agree with Craig Calcaterra's assessment that Morgan was a contrarian. The more people slammed him for being number-phobic, the more he relished the role.
Over time, he became what people saw him as: an ossified, intractable paleo-conservative (in the baseball sense). It was almost as if he was trolling the collective baseball blogosphere, saying things just to get a rise out of the Ken Tremendouses of the world. Morgan was hounded because to do so became an ideological crusade in sabermetric circles, and he seemed glad to play the part of their villain.
While I can't say I'm all that sad to see Morgan out of the broadcast booth, he wouldn't be my first choice for a pink slip. If it were up to me, that dishonor would go to Joe Buck, whose continued employment baffles and infuriates me far more than anything Morgan ever did. Buck does not say anything or express any opinions that I disagree with, mostly because I don't believe he has any opinions or feelings or human emotions. He is an excruciatingly awful baseball announcer who can't summon the least amount of insight or enthusiasm for anything, and his "knowledge" of the current baseball landscape makes Morgan seem like Bill James.
In fact, Morgan wouldn't even be the first guy I'd pick to leave ESPN. In recent years, I've found Rick Sutcliffe far more intolerable. His color commentary makes heavy use of phrases like guts and grit and heart, to an extent that Morgan wouldn't even dream of. He is the perfect ESPN broadcaster because he is obsessed with stories behind the game and has precious little to say about the game itself. And the way he intones his words in a slow, measured monotone suggests he thinks he is dropping the heaviest of sciences right on your head with each syllable, even though it is usually no more profound than, "Derek Jeter knows how to play the game". Listening to him makes my skin crawl.
The scary thing is, scan the landscape of national baseball announcers, and you have a hard time pinpointing ones who are demonstrably better than Morgan. His now-ex-partner Jon Miller qualifies in my book (dumb comments about VORP in The Tenth Inning notwithstanding). If you consider Ron Darling a national announcer through his gigs with TBS, then I'd say he qualifies, and John Smoltz was okay during the playoffs this year.
That's the level baseball broadcasting is at right now--someone like Smoltz, who is simply not horrible, can be considered the cream of the crop. I don't know if baseball's declining ratings (particularly in the postseason) can be helped in any way by improvements in the announcing crews, but the fact that they're almost universally wretched can't help, either.
Think about this: When Joe Morgan began doing Sunday Night Baseball in 1990, the network baseball play-by-play guys included Al Michaels for ABC and Bob Costas and Vin Scully for NBC. Scully's reputation is unimpeachable, and Michaels and Costas--for whatever else you want to say about them--were excellent baseball announcers. By the time Morgan was finally kicked to the curb, he had actually become the median of baseball commentators. Maybe he won after all.