Last week, I wrote about how the Cardinals front office could likely benefit from an infusion of outside voices. The same is even more true for the broadcast booth.
A similar dynamic is at play in both areas: The Cardinals are a franchise with a long history, which values loyalty and keeping things within the family. I don’t take that for granted. It’s a great pleasure of following this particular sports team to see Jim Edmonds and Ozzie Smith continue to be connected to the Cardinals broadcasts.
But while minor changes are made to the broadcast booth each season, the new hires come almost exclusively from one pool: White, male, middle-aged, ex-Cardinals players. Couple that with the same slate of play-by-play broadcasters year-after-year, and you get a bland, homogeneous product.
This is not a problem that is unique to the Cardinals - it exists in broadcast booths all across baseball, both in the Regional Sports Networks and at the network level. But this is a Cardinals blog, so let’s start there.
If you tune in to a FSMW TV broadcast, you’re going to get Dan McLaughlin in the play-by-play seat, with a rotating cast of color commentators. But you won’t find much variation in color in those commentators, as last year you got one of: Al Hrabosky, Rick Horton, Tim McCarver, Jim Edmonds, Rick Ankiel or Brad Thompson.
Why go to the trouble of rotating six different commentators and then hire basically six versions of the same dude?
I’m not going to get into individual gripes about any one broadcaster. I have mine. I’m sure you have yours. Some are substantive. Some are probably petty. But whatever you think of these guys individually, collectively they are all presenting exactly the same point-of-view.
To some extent, of course, that’s by design. Fox Sports Midwest is at least as much a branch of the St. Louis Cardinals as it is an independent broadcasting entity. That’s true of all the RSNs, and under the new partnership deal with the Cardinals - with the team literally owning 30% of the network - it’s more true than ever.
So it’s easy to understand why we get Company Men serving up the Company Line. In fact, many of the same ex-players who make their way through the broadcast booth also work stints as roving coaches or “special assistants.” All of these guys are swimming about in the same pool of “organizational men.”
And just as bringing in talent from outside of that pool could benefit the front office, it could absolutely benefit Cardinals broadcasts.
The easiest way to diversify the broadcasts would be through demographics. Across baseball, more than 30% of the players are Latin American, while more than 90% of the broadcasters are white.
As I wrote about during the 2017 World Baseball Classic, it is clear that the culture of baseball is rich and varied. Employing even one broadcaster from a Latin American heritage would go a long ways towards illuminating that variety. And on a purely technical level, as Jose de Jesus Ortiz at the P-D has illustrated, a journalist who speaks Spanish will drawer richer stories from the players who are native Spanish speakers.
Within the last couple years, the organization did finally begin a Spanish language broadcast. And that’s great. But why not expand that, and incorporate Polo Ascencio, Bengie Molina (and others) into the English language broadcasts as well? If Horton and Hrabosky and others can float from TV to Radio, why not the Latin American broadcasters?
For an organization that currently lists 14 broadcasters across its various TV and Radio iterations, it also seems like employing at least one woman would not be too much to ask. There may not be any female players on the (MLB) field, but there are plenty of female fans. Most estimates I’ve seen say 30-37% of self-identified baseball fans are women, and that number is growing.
Not only does a female broadcaster tell an entire gender and a third of your audience they are welcome, but because female broadcasters are not Ex Big Leaguers they necessarily do not come from that tired “this is the way we did it in my day” perspective.
And it’s that holier-than-thou, get-off-my-lawn attitude that is killing broadcasts across baseball, including in St. Louis. The Cardinals may not have anybody as egregious as John Smoltz, who hates baseball with the fire of a thousand suns. But every single one of them compares the game to how it looked when they played, be that in the 2000s or the 70s or before. And because analytics are changing the game at an ever-increasing speed, even the guys who played 10-years-ago are out-of-date.
An ex-player could stay up-to-date by doing something as simple as, you know, reading an article every now and then. But few of them do. In the last week of the season, Ricky Horton noted on a pregame that Baseball Prospectus or Fangraphs had the Cardinals playoff chances down to, I don’t remember, 30% or something. And I thought to myself, “good for Ricky for researching and presenting that interesting data for listeners.”
But then of course he added, “I don’t know how they can calculate that.” Funny thing: I’d just written about the team’s playoff odds the past two weeks. You know how I learned how they calculate that? I clicked on a link at the top of the page that says More Information, and I read four paragraphs of explanation.
But the cadre of ex-ballplayer broadcasters are, almost to a man, unwilling to learn even the basics of the analytics which are now driving how the game is actually played. And despite what these network execs seem to imagine their audience to be, people watching the games are hungry for that.
How absurd is it that ESPN and MLB Network have flirted with actual alternate broadcasts which feature an “analytic” perspective? ESPN’s recent Statcast-heavy broadcast of the NL Wild Card Game drew rave reviews, and I’m grateful for it... but why isn’t that perspective present in the booth all the time?
There’s no time to change like the present.
After seeing his number of games in the booth (mercifully) diminish the last few years, there are reports that Al Hrabosky will be out of the analysts chair altogether next year. Rick Ankiel, though he was mostly in the studio this season, will presumably be absent as well as he tries to go back to being an actual ballplayer.
Those are two openings in the current staff, to say nothing of whatever other churn and turnover might be going on. Let’s hope the decision makers at the helm of the FSMW/St. Louis Cardinals fill those openings with some more diverse voices.