The downside of witnessing your team advance deep into the playoffs is that national broadcasts seem to get worse as the postseason progresses, with Fox and TBS crews resorting to tepid, dated, and sometimes flat-out wrong analysis to spoon-feed casual viewers who don’t know any better. Bigger audiences typically lead to more pandering, and perhaps research shows that a healthy dose of vanilla in the booth is best business decision. But at some point that becomes self fulfilling prophecy, with a corny team being not only accepted but expected.
(For the record, I think often picked-on Joe Buck is a very good play-by-play guy. He’s prone to a confusing observation every now and then, but mechanically I think the way he calls the action is smooth and solid. I hope you’ll keep reading.)
Ron Darling and Cal Ripken, Jr. sound passable to fans who aren’t paying close attention to their cheesy, cliché-riddled commentary. Harold Reynolds (said to be a nice guy, for what it’s worth) and Tom Verducci (a rather uninspired choice of all the writers out there) can be Siragusa-esque at their worst, occasionally offering such vapid critiques that it warrants a 15-second rewind on your DVR to confirm what you just heard. Most people, however, don’t ask much of their viewing experience, so that’s the A-Team that Fox rolls out for the World Freaking Series. Mediocre national crews tend to do their mediocre national thing.
The drop-off is noticeable to many, but it’s especially drastic for Cubs fans who are accustomed to the make-it-look-easy calls of Len Kasper and Jim Deshaies.
A great broadcast crew is something to be cherished and never taken for granted, with many local pairings across the country simply content to mirror the feelings of the viewer rather than share their knowledge of the game. And with some broadcasters, they’re better off keeping that knowledge to themselves.
Since taking over for Chip Caray in 2005, Kasper has been one of the sharpest, most progressive play-by-play men in baseball while still driving a light, breathable broadcast. As one of the few sports media members who has an opinion on pop culture worth listening to, Kasper knows that watchability over 162 games is dependent on not making every inning too basebally, not cramming too much SABR discussion into a David Ross at bat in the eighth with the Cubs down six runs. Sometimes a brief movie review or an obscure Cheap Trick anecdote helps move the game along. No one understands this better than Kasper, and it’s on display time and time again with his awareness of the score, the standings, and the season.
When Bob Brenly chose to return to the Arizona Diamondbacks as a color analyst, many Chicago fans bemoaned losing the man whose baseball sensibilities were easily and frequently offended. While Brenly (a very good analyst, no doubt) is best remembered for his curmudgeonly criticisms of Starlin Castro or Alfonso Soriano, Deshaies finds a better balance between objective commentary and, you know, fun.
Peak Deshaies is entertaining, engaging, and light-hearted on a level that Brenly seemingly couldn’t reach. Just as importantly, Deshaies will cite esoteric metrics such as Win Probability Added while also knowing the ins and outs of game strategy as much as either his predecessor or his crosstown counterpart.
There’s a tendency for the advanced stats crowd (myself absolutely included) to look down on the fans or media who don’t understand or value new metrics, leading to a weird elitism among writers, bloggers, and broadcasters in the baseball world. Kasper and Deshaies find ways to maintain the right balance of information, education, and entertainment, never displaying an air of pretentiousness or coming off as the smug “I know more about baseball than you” guys that are easy to find. Plus, both guys will often respond to fans’ tweets in real time during a game, either verbally on the air or via Twitter. That level of accessibility is disarming in the best possible way.
The contracts of both Kasper and Deshaies are up at the end of 2016, so it’s possible (probable?) that we’ll hear that both have been extended for another four or five years sometime this winter. We’re all busy reading the tea leaves in hopes of getting a jump on signings, trades, and acquisitions because good baseball makes our viewing experience more enjoyable. Hopefully a pair of guys who won’t even wear a uniform will be two of the key pieces locked up for years to come.