When the World Series begins tonight, it will signal the end of Tim McCarver's broadcasting career. The longtime color man for FOX's baseball coverage announced earlier this year that 2013 would be his last season in the booth. I'm sure there's more than a few readers of this site who popped champagne at that news. McCarver is not well liked on the interwebs, whether it's for an implied hostility toward newer metrics, the ever increasing frequency with which he misidentifies players, or his rambling word-salad digressions.
If baseball fans' feelings of animosity toward McCarver aren't entirely unmerited, they're nonetheless unfortunate. In all fairness, he wasn't always as awful as he is now, and Mets fans in particular have memories that can back up this claim. MLB has compiled a McCarver highlight reel of sorts, but this doesn't really do him justice. At the risk of sounding like That Guy who insists some cheesy band's early stuff is actually really deep, man, I believe there was a time when McCarver was a joy to listen to on a baseball broadcast.
Like Joe Morgan, the twilight of McCarver's broadcasting career has blotted out what he did on the field. McCarver wasn't in the same class as a Hall of Famer like Morgan, but he was a member of two championship teams with the Cardinals and finished second in MVP voting in 1967. Now, because we all grew to hate what they did on television, both players are bywords for clueless ex-jocks, their reps slain by the quick trigger fingers of the wanna-be FJM-ers out there who do not remember their exploits on the field.
McCarver and Morgan share something else. When Morgan first broke into broadcasting, he was considered one of baseball's better analysts by his peers in sports media. As crazy as that seems to us now, a few cursory digs into old issues of Sporting News and Sports Illustrated will bear this out.
So it was with McCarver. Before FOX came along, he was praised for his work on NBC and ABC's playoff coverage. Prior to that, McCarver received accolades for toiling on the Mets' local broadcasts on WOR-9. McCarver's work in New York coincided with the Mets' 1980s heyday, during which he had the privilege of relating a lot of exciting action to an enormous audience.
Here is where McCarver and Morgan begin to deviate. If you go back and watch Morgan's earlier TV work, despite the opinions of contemporary media types, there's not much to recommend it. For a readily available example, take the "grand slam single game" in the 1999 NLCS, when Morgan was in the booth for NBC alongside Bob Costas. During that game, he provides a few insights into approaches at the plate and field positioning, but nothing more than could be said by virtually any ex-player. Morgan's "analysis" was, at best, passable.
However, when I go back and watch some of McCarver's work for WOR, I have to admit he came by his reputation as a good broadcaster honestly. The biggest thing I discovered/remembered while rewatching him is that when Tim McCarver was a Mets broadcaster, he did as much play-by-play as commentary. In the mid-80s, the WOR booth would alternate these roles during the game between McCarver, Steve Zabriskie, and Ralph Kiner. His PBP work is what probably led to McCarver's rep as a quality TV man, because when he described in-game action he was very good, and occasionally great.
Take the Mets' 1986 highlight film (A Year to Remember). If you've never seen this before, I can't imagine what you've been doing with your life. A baseball fan who has not seen this is as clueless as a film student who has not seen Citizen Kane, because A Year to Remember has been empirically proven the best highlight film of all time. Find me another example of this genre that employs musical montages set to "Karn Evil #9," "Wild Boys," and "You Belong to the City." Go ahead, I defy you.
A Year to Remember contains tons of awesome footage from the 1986 season, most of which is described by Tim McCarver. And guess what? His calls are fantastic. Just check out this segment about the Mets' trip to St. Louis, when they swept a four-game series and crushed any chance the Cards had to catch New York that year. McCarver's description of the carnage is delightful.
Consider also this clip from the end of a wild game the Mets played that year in San Diego. New York's bullpen crumbled and allowed the Padres to score 4 runs in the bottom of the eighth to tie things up. The Mets proceeded to regain the lead in the top of the 11th, then almost coughed it up again before sealing the victory on a bizarre game-ending double play. McCarver does a great job of conveying the craziness. (SNY occasionally shows this game on Mets Classics.)
Here's another example of McCarver on PBP duty from August 27, 1985. During this game, Doc Gooden struck out 16 Giants, and it is a wonder to behold—not just for Dr. K's wizardry, but for a glimpse of what the Shea Stadium experience was like during the height of his powers. We pick up the action in the top of the eighth, when Doc found a brief bit of trouble thanks to a pair of two-out singles. Despite some odd distractions, on field and off, McCarver negotiates the inning well. Apart from McCarver, you will also see/hear:
- An ad for some long-forgotten show called Bizarre
- Home-made signs and t-shirts, courtesy of the artisanal skills of the tri-state area's finest mooks
- A gray cat sprinting onto the field and ducking into the bullpen; contrasting it with the appearance of a black cat, McCarver surmises, "I guess it means your luck will continue to be mediocre"
- An on-screen update of Pete Rose's pursuit of the all-time hit record
None of this is to say that McCarver was not without his flaws even then. Look no further than this excerpt from another electric Doc Gooden start (May 10, 1985 vs. the Phillies). Doc strikes out the side in the inning and Shea once again has a carnival atmosphere, but McCarver seems more interested in relating the roles of Tenneseans at The Alamo than describing anything happening in the game. (Stick around past the last out to catch an old Budweiser ad.)
Not as sharp as Gary Cohen, granted, but still miles better than the crimes against broadcasting he'd eventually commit for FOX. My theory is, when relegated to a straight color commentator role, as he was on FOX, McCarver had no choice but to give full vent to ramblings like you hear in this last clip. This was clearly not his strong suit.
Tim McCarver is well past his expiration date as a broadcaster, but I hope people will remember that he was not always terrible at his job. In fact, he brought Mets fans watching from the comfort of their living rooms some of the greatest moments in franchise history. Surely when our time comes, we would all wish to be judged by our best work. And who's to say what sort of psychic damage is wrought from 10+ years of working beside Joe Buck?