September 27, 2012

The Thing About Ken Harrelson

The Wall Street Journal published a review of all the baseball team announcers and Ken Harrelson, our man there in the White Sox booth, was rated as the worst offender in the category that went something like "least objective, most biased, biggest homer cheerleader" or something like that. And, to be real honest, they got that right. But I'm not sure it matters.

First of all it appears to me from listening to him all these years, and from local tales told and repeated, plus "I know a guy who knows a guy" and stuff like that, Ken Harrelson has one great big "fault" in his character, which is that he is loyal to people he says he is loyal to and - from my understanding - is one of these guys who skids around in the background doing great things for people without fanfare or the desire for being noticed. When he says you are a friend - that's it. You're a friend. And you're going to have to be convicted of killing scores of innocent children before he cuts you loose. In other words he is a guy with some solid old-fashioned virtues; the cream of which would see to be loyalty, consistency, a value on friendship and a truly good heart. He has some good old-fashioned values that are, well, good old-fashioned values. And some of those values are in short supply in the general population.

 So on the one hand it is obvious that he would enact these traits in the broadcast booth for a team with which he travels and spends time with every day, working for an employer he has never been shy in expressing his respect for, and watching the backs of the people he works for and with. It seems natural - that's the kind of guy every piece of evidence I can find says he is. And, also from listening to him, I have no problem believing that this assessment is 100% spot on.

 Secondly, in baseball broadcasting, there are two distinct markets. There is the local market, where a broadcast crew presents the games of their home team. Then there is the national market, where it is not only expected that a broadcaster be fair and even-handed, but where that is accepted that this balanced approach should be the standard.

Placing these two thoughts together then, I believe, is a good enough slam-dunk defense of "The Hawk" and his style. The fact that he is an unabashed, self-avowed, wears-it-on-his-sleeve "homer" is no problem for me.

The only problem I have with Hawk is the other thing. Not being a "homer," but just not being a very good baseball announcer.

I mean, to be honest, if the WSJ called him the flat-out bottom of the worst technically, style-wise or insofar as his abilities are concerned I'd say - yep. You got that right.

The problem is, and it has become worse as the years have gone on, that Ken has developed a loooooooooong list of cliches that serve almost as the entire broadcast. From first pitch to last he says the same things in the same way every game. And it is down right boring as hell. Not to mention that during the current skid out of first place and the mounting losses the Sox are experiencing with frightening regularity lately he has sounded - quite literally - like a man who needs some medication for a severe depression which is so palpable I honestly can't watch him anymore without being incredibly uncomfortable. Paint that defeatism, which is becoming blatant to the point of missing calls because he ASSUMES the worst (twice in the last three or four games he got all deflated before the play was over, audibly, only to have to pump himself back into action - poorly - when the ball was muffed and instead of an out the Sox were still alive), over the skeleton of continual catch phrases over and over and over and you have a dull, boring, spiritless, unintelligent broadcast. The last thing it is is entertaining.

I would say it is entertaining if you enjoy watching a man become unraveled. But here's what you will invariably hear EVERY GAME, game after game, during the course of play.

 Chopper two-hopper - the ball has been hit and bounced twice to an infielder. Make it a chopper one hopper if it bounces once.

He gone -the opposition batter just struck out, or was thrown out trying to steal. If he struck out on a fast ball it'll be "He gone, GAS."

Stay fair - he's telling a flyball hit by a Sox player to land in the seats and be a home run. Or he is telling a popup hit by an opposing batter to stay in play so a Sox player can catch it. This is followed with It will or It won't, depending on what it does.

A flyball hit by a Sox player that has a chance to be a home run will be told to Stretch - stretch! and if it is a home run you will get the He looks up, you can put it on the booooooooooaaard... YES! Which is sometimes followed by Mercy.

Dad gum it - whatever happened didn't go well for the Sox.

The dreaded lead-off walk - this is when the Sox walk the lead-off batter in an inning. It is said with ever-increasing frustration the more it happens, even if it is happening over the course of several games.

Grab some bench - A secondary term to he gone.

We got a man there - One of the Sox caught a fly ball.

They got a man there - one of the other guys catches a fly ball. The problem with this is that every once in a while this is how an absolutely fantastic catch will be reported. Something like that just happened a few days ago. The opposing center fielder made a marvelous catch, and that had to be stressed by Steve Stone because all Hawk said was They got a man there.

That's a hang whiffle - I'm not totally sure what that means. It's an easy line drive or play for the fielder, from the look of things. I think it has something to do with a wiffle ball? Who knows.

Come on, ball four base hit - another enigma, always said when a Sox batter has three balls in the count. It is probably an exhortation to either have the next pitch be ball four or a hit. Or something like that.

He had a cookie there - the batter missed hitting a presumably hittable pitch. Sometimes followed by He just missed it.

Don't stop now boys - the Sox have had two hits in a row, or are in the midst of a rally.

In all my years of baseball going on to the better part of five decades - self-explanatory.

He's in the cat bird seat - the Sox batter has two or more balls than he has strikes in the count.

Take your time - the Sox are about to complete a fielding double play

(When this ball comes down) or, by itself stand-alone, This ball game is o-vah - which he's had to amend to This ball game is o... a booble. We got a man on first. Mercy twice in the last three days. Technically the other day we had a full-fledged When this ball comes down this ball game will be o... HE DROPPED IT!

Now in and of themselves these are all kind of cute. You pepper them into the regular broadcast and you have a touch of famed broadcasters like Red Barber or Dizzy Dean. Colorful. No problem. Except what I just gave you is 90% of the broadcast. Every day. day after day after day.


And in the last week this script has been punctuated by deep sighs, crest-fallen moans and long, dead. silences.

By all personal accounts Ken Harrelson is a truly good man. A great guy. A supremely loyal friend. Somebody you can count on to have your back. A man of time-tested virtues and personal honor. And I forgive him for rooting for the home team when he broadcasts a game - that's what a home market does. But he's just not a very good announcer.

It's too push-button. And when you marry clinical depression with push-button play-by=play, you get zero interest and TVs getting turned off left and right.

And that's a hang wiffle.

You be the judge... This is a pro-Hawk video, obviously. And it can be cute. Unless you hear it every damn day.  Then it's impossible to live with. But you tell me. If I'm lyin' I'm dyin'. Mercy...


B.E. Earl said...

I've only had the "pleasure" of hearing Hawk announce a game a handful of times. I didn't think he was very good, but I also didn't come away thinking he was awful. A blessing of not hearing the man every single game. I have a similar problem with Michael Kay and the Yankees. His daily schtick (one of his favorite things to say when, for example, the LFer makes all three outs in an inning is "And he ties a record held by many"...ugh) is lessened because of the personalities that sit next to him. David Cone, Paul O'Neill, Al Leiter and even Ken Singleton are generally fun to listen to. And they spend much of their time making fun of Kay, so I'm on board with that.

The national broadcasts on FOX are something that I can't even listen to. I think Joe Buck and Tim McCarver are the two worst announcers in the game. Buck is only in it because of a legacy thing. His contempt for the game itself (he'd rather be announcing football) is obvious. And when they are covering a Yankees game? Fuggetaboutit. They become homers for whomever the Yanks are playing. Compounds how bad they are at calling a game for a fan like myself.

Gimme Vin Scully doing every game for every team every day. That's what I want.

Jeff Fessler said... think you forgot:
1) "That's a can of corn," (easy pop fly)
2) "Look...out!" (warning for potential collision or injury)
3) "Ate him up" (pitch located in a hard to hit location and caused a soft grounder or pop up)
4) "You can cancel the postgame show." (base hit=no chance at a no-hitter=no need for a post-game pitcher best guess)

There may be more, of course...