Since Rob Manfred took over as commissioner of baseball in 2015, one of his main initiatives has been trying to change the game to better cater to the viewing audience. Earlier this month, a new batch of proposed changes was reportedly submitted by the player’s union to the league. Whether you agree or disagree with the necessity of these initiatives, it’s clear baseball is trying to attract new fans by improving the aesthetics of the game.
One area that seems to go overlooked in these conversations, however, is improving the very broadcasts of these games themselves. More specifically, the commentators who present the game to the audience. Commentators hold as much responsibility to provide entertainment and interest viewers as anyone and can have a legitimate effect on the fans’ enjoyment of games, but MLB and the networks that broadcast the game don’t seem to focus too much on this aspect. I’ve written about this before, but that was more about play-by-play commentators, who do remain a problem. This time, I want to focus more in on color commentators.
For an example of what color commentary should be like, you don’t have to look any further back than last week’s Super Bowl. For the biggest stage in sports, CBS put Tony Romo in the booth. For those who do not follow football, Romo has received critical acclaim from all over for his style of broadcasting games. Not only is he extremely enthusiastic about the game, channeling his passion and excitement in huge moments, but his in-depth analysis and knowledge of all facets of the game is a fresh, different view of the game that better informs the viewer of what they’re seeing.
Meanwhile, in the World Series, baseball fans were treated to the commentary of Joe Buck and John Smoltz, neither of whom display much enthusiasm about the sport, and who both spent most of the postseason openly complaining about the way the game is played now. Smoltz, in particular, would drone on about the way pitchers are handled now in rants that occasionally lasted multiple innings.
None of this is exactly breaking new ground; Smoltz’s disdain for the current game has been well-documented and written about quite a bit in recent months. Unfortunately though, the problem goes much deeper than just Smoltz or any one national commentator. It extends all the way down to the local broadcasts, even in our own beloved SNY booth. While we all love Gary, Keith, and Ron on SNY, any regular viewer could tell you that their patience in today’s game has worn particularly thin in recent years, and they spend much more time complaining about things now than they used to.
Of course, Gary, Keith, and Ron make up for it with their ability to be entertaining and engage viewers in other ways. Their personalities and chemistry alone are infectious and greatly enhance the broadcast. The systemic problem I’m talking about stems more from the other booths, both national and local, that do not have this ability, and cannot make up for their complaining with endearing personalities.
While it’s true that today’s iteration of the game may not be for everyone and does have its faults, this is still the most talent-rich era that baseball has ever seen. The amount of exciting young players that make up nearly every 25-man roster is historic, and we are seeing players do things that we have never seen done before. Simply put, baseball is pretty dang awesome right now, and the people who broadcast these games to wide audiences should enjoy this current iteration of the game and highlight its strengths instead of harping on its weaknesses.
Basically, baseball should be presented by people who enjoy watching baseball, but it instead feels like those who cover it fundamentally do not enjoy it, have more complaints than positive things to say, and do not fluently understand the current analytics and methods of the game. While baseball isn’t exactly “dying,” it is true that the game is not as popular among younger fans as it once was. There are many reasons for this, basically none of which MLB has ever properly or fully addressed, but the fact that nearly every local or national broadcast has an overall negative outlook on the game is certainly not helping. No impressionable 8-year-old child wants to hear about how much better the sport was 30 years before they were born; they’d rather hear about what a special time this is in the game’s history.
In addition, it would be beneficial if there were more commentators who also understood the newer machinations of the game, and could articulate them better to the viewer. Many color commentators don’t know enough about current methods to be able to speak definitively on them, but do so anyway, and are usually off-base or misleading when they do. ESPN’s SaberCast of the NL Wild Card game last year was a great step in the right direction on this front, but more focus need to be put on the main broadcasts of these games as well.
This is a major problem that all baseball networks need to be more conscious of and make an effort to change. So how do they go about this change? Well, it’s not that easy to just say “find former players who know what they’re talking about and love the game.” Most former players probably share the same sentiments as Smoltz and hate the way the game is played now, and even those that don’t might not have any interest in getting into broadcasting. Considering the demographics of baseball players, it’s not as easy as it sounds to just find baseball’s version of Tony Romo for the big games. However, it’s not a total lost cause.
Dennis Eckersley has called postseason games on TBS for a few years now, and he’s been a boon to postseason broadcasts. His fanaticism and love for the game is palpable in the broadcast whenever there is a big moment, like Kyle Schwarber’s monster home run in the 2015 NLDS, or the Blue Jays’ ALDS series-clinching walk off in 2017, and it shined through again last year.
There are other broadcasters like Eckersley out there, too. David Cone and Alex Rodriguez have both received much praise for their broadcasting styles in recent years, and if you’re looking for more personality, David Ortiz already works for FOX. Look, I don’t know whether Ortiz would actually make for a good color commentator or not, but I’m not saying I’m against giving it a shot. He is at least guaranteed to be more exciting than Smoltz.
The point is, there are former players already commentating who can be interesting and entertaining, and won’t complain about the game every night for nine innings, so there has to be more. There have to be better options than Smoltz. Obviously, nobody is saying all commentators should agree with everything happening or can’t express their true opinions, but those who harp on the negatives and don’t know when to reel it in are actively counter-productive to the growth of the game, and are endearing to precisely nobody. The networks need to do a better job of finding less negative commentators and putting them on their broadcasts.
Having commentators who are knowledgeable, interesting, enthusiastic, and promote the game well seems like it should be one of the main priorities networks would have for their baseball commentators, but it has not been. Throughout the history of broadcasting, announcers have always been seen as reporters, not promoters. But in truth, the broadcasters might have as much power to sell the game and attract viewers as anything else. If they truly want to grow the game, more focus should be put on getting passionate commentators into the booth.