It's been almost 10 years since I lived in LA, but in his final season, I've tried to catch at least a few more Vin Scully broadcasts. I wanted to pinpoint what made me enjoy his broadcasts so much and what aggravates me about the St. Louis booths.
Now, a few caveats up front: Familiarity breeds contempt, and I don't know many fans who aren't annoyed by their home broadcast crews. That said, a recent Fangraphs crowdsourced ranking placed the Cardinals TV booth 52nd out of 62 broadcast teams. The radio crew ranked just 24th. So I'm far from the only one who finds the broadcasts lacking, especially on the TV side.
Vin Scully's not perfect, either. When I regularly listened to Dodgers games, his folksy patter would occasionally wear on me. And yes, Scully is not immune to the occasional Drunk Uncle moment. But in a surprise to nobody, Scully's one-man-show ranked #1 in those Fangraphs rankings.
So this is all a little squishy, but in broad terms Vin Scully is very good and the Cardinals booths are fairly bad. But as I watched the Cardinals crew on the left and Vin Scully on the right, I started to put my finger on the reason why.
The defining moment of that Dodgers/Giants game was, of course, the Madison Bumgarner and Yasiel Puig Tough Guy Contest. (Sidebar: Don't look at me.)
It's easy to imagine how a Fox Sports Midwest crew (or most any other team of ex-ballplayers) would have covered the incident: An ongoing debate over which buffoon was in the wrong, who had violated which of baseball's unwritten rules, which other unwritten rules might in-fact trump the first set of unwritten rules, and so-on. And they would have continued to talk about it for THE REST OF THE GAME.
Scully simply described the altercation as it happened, then as they went to commercial, commented only "well, it's the Giants and the Dodgers. We'll be right back." When they returned, he provided a lip-reading of what was said between the players, then left it at that.
To give the incident context, and if you squint - maybe just a shade of commentary - Scully also briefly recounted the story of Sal Maglie, the Giants pitcher nicknamed "The Barber" for the close shaves he provided by way of throwing baseball's at batter's heads. Maglie was one of the most hated Giants ever, Scully remembered, but those same fans loved him once he became a Dodger...
That's a great historical parallel, and I think there's a pretty clear implied moral to that story. But Vin's just going to set it there and let you figure it out.
I spend a lot of time wringing my hands at the bad takes from the FSMW booth - but I think that's misguided. Don't get me wrong - the bad takes exist: Incessant towing of the company line, the caveman rage at advanced metrics, etc. But I don't think the solution is "good takes," a dream booth of sportscasters who share my every viewpoint. The solution is no take at all, being a reporter rather than a columnist.
That's what makes Scully such an expert broadcaster: He reports the game on the field rather than editorializing it.
Broadcasters are like coworkers or family members. We spend a lot of time together even though we never specifically chose each other. Just like it's polite not to run your mouth about politics or religion when you're in a staff meeting or at the Thanksgiving table, it would be polite for broadcasters not to run their mouths about "how the game ought to be played" when I'm trying to watch a ballgame.
But again, it's not the badness of the takes, it's just the constant running (and repetitive) analysis that's the problem. In last night's game, Matt Adams steps to the plate, and Dan and Al have the same conversation they've had 600 times about how the Cardinals want Adams to develop into a full-time player, they wonder what he could do in a full healthy season, etc. My gut instinct is I'm tired of hearing this same banal analysis again, but what I really want is not for them to freshen up their Matt Adams takes. I want them to focus on THIS baseball game and THIS Matt Adams at-bat.
There are plenty of outlets for sharing your takes on baseball, be they hot or cold. There are newspaper columns, ESPN shouting matches and even fine online publications such as the one you are reading now. The beauty of these outlets is you can engage or disengage as you see fit.
The game itself is sacred. It's where the Post-Dispatch Commenter and the Viva El Birdos Commenter have to come together to experience the raw material. Is it too much to ask for the broadcasters to set their agendas aside and just let the game be the game?
Here's one more example: It's been several years now that defensive shifting has been not just some egghead experiment, but the norm. And yet, every St. Louis based broadcast crew seems to have signed an agreement to grouse about "the shift" every time it factors into the outcome of a play (except for all the times it works.) Here's just one example of Ricky Horton predicting sabermatricians' computers are exploding.
Listen to this clip of Vin Scully discussing the shift. He never says whether he thinks it's a good thing or a bad thing. He recounts how and when he first saw it employed. Then he describes how he did ACTUAL RESEARCH and learned of many earlier incarnations he wasn't aware of. And he just leaves it there.
Again, that's just historical context, and again, there's probably a bit of an implication there as to how maybe Vin thinks folks should feel about "this newfangled defensive shifting." But it's subtle. It's artful. It doesn't interfere with your ability to enjoy the game.
It's not fair to criticize the FSMW booth for not being as good as probably the best ever. But I think if they would take a page out of Vin's playbook, and play more the role of the reporter, we'd all enjoy the games more.