The local baseball play-by-play man used to distinguish his city, especially back when one might hear the ball game on a half dozen radios as he wandered about town. They used to call him "The Voice," but in a good baseball town he was more like "The Air."
Some teams reached well beyond the bounds of their cities if they sold their broadcast rights to a local radio station with 50,000 watts. If you lived straight in the middle of America, you could hear Jack Buck do the St. Louis Cardinals on KMOX, Herb Carneal call the Minnesota Twins on WCCO, Marty Brennaman with the Reds on WLW, Merle Harmon with the Milwaukee Brewers on WTMJ and several others.
But you missed something for not being in the town where the broadcast originated, because the broadcast was irreducibly part of the life in that town. That's still largely true, but the world has changed quite a bit in the 21st century.
Following developments in satellite and Internet communications, today's local broadcaster is, in effect, a national broadcaster. Admittedly, his nation emigrated from the dorky side of town. Missing their homelands, the immigrants subscribe to satellite radio and television packages enabling them to watch or listen to every major league baseball game just so they can follow the games they want.
As it turns out, they watch more than the games they want, because every other game is available.
And whenever one game is pretty much like the other, the broadcasters for each club make the difference in deciding which game to engage.
If, for example, the Arizona Diamondbacks and Chicago Cubs face each other and both are in first place, you wouldn't watch that game ahead of the Kansas City Royals and Minnesota Twins because the Cubs-Diamondbacks telecast will be insufferable, whichever feed Extra Innings chooses, while the Royals-Twins broadcast might actually feel like a ball game, whether the broadcast emanates from Kansas City or Minneapolis.
When a baseball game becomes a TV show, the broadcasters become the performers. More to the point, when the broadcasters become the performers, the baseball game becomes a TV show. And it's usually a pretty bad TV show, which is a terrible waste of a good ball game.
Here's what the best baseball broadcasters understand and what separates them from the worst: The baseball game is never a television show; it's always a baseball game. Thus, the broadcaster's job is not to put on a show but to engage the baseball game.
All this is a rather long-winded way of saying, once again, how good Reds fans have it when they turn on the television or radio. Especially the television.
Just try watching some of these other broadcasts. One never loses his sense of aggravation at how easy it is to distract a baseball announcer from a baseball game. That's never a problem when watching the Reds.
Watching every major league team's television broadcasts during the last several years, one states with great confidence that the Reds' effort belongs in the very top tier. One doesn't know from day to day which combination will show up, but any grouping that involves George Grande, Chris Welsh, Jeff Brantley, Marty Brennaman and Thom Brennaman will describe a baseball game, watch it closely and talk through it intelligently.
Joining the Reds television broadcast among the elite are the broadcasts for the New York Yankees, New York Mets and Los Angeles Dodgers. On the bottom tier are the television broadcasts for the San Diego Padres, Texas Rangers, the Cubs and especially the Diamondbacks.
The top tier has in common an understanding that the audience has tuned into a baseball game. The bottom tier has in common a bizarre assumption that the audience wants maudlin sentiments, cheerleading, pop culture references that are overextended by a mile and poorly played "humorous" asides.
After watching the Yankees game called by Michael Kay and some combination of Paul O'Neil, John Flaherty and Ken Singleton, one feels like he's taken in a great, continuing drama. Almost never does their conversation veer from baseball.
Watching the Rangers game with Josh Lewin on the play-by-play, one is just relieved that Lewin doesn't spend three hours talking about how he used to wear suspenders but now he wears a belt. It's almost sad listening to color commentator Tom Grieve try to tactfully steer the conversation to some sequence of pitches while Lewin is asking him about his favorite restaurants in Baltimore.
Those hours when Vin Scully calls the Dodgers game by himself are among the most welcomed of any summer. Without the burden of a commentator in his booth, Scully comes straight to the audience with the most calming call and the most engaging stories.
Then you flip over to the Diamondbacks game with Daron Sutton and Mark Grace, only to bless the next commercial as a rescue from their complete lack of interest in any aspect of the game other than the fact that their team is winning. One finds himself pulling against the Diamondbacks, who are an otherwise very likeable club, just to snap the broadcasters out of their crush.
No broadcast is absolutely perfect, and the Reds are no exception. The next time Thom Brennaman says some ball player is such a fine young man that you would want your daughter to marry him, a television set is going to switch to the Lifetime Channel all by itself.
That said, no one beats Thom Brennaman when it comes to voicing such outrage over an event on the field that his commentator has to say something smart, whether he agrees or not. Even when he's wrong, Brennaman stimulates conversation about the game, which is more than we can say about two-third of the guys doing play-by-play on television.
Welsh still does the fine job he's done for years. Brantley is a natural, a former ball player who sticks to the subject, uses as few words as possible and says them in that gravely, southern voice that works so well with baseball, especially on the radio.
It's hard to understand why Reds fans are hard on Grande. If you listen to what he says, instead of how he says it, you realize he develops a lot good information. You might say he's a poor man's Vin Scully, which makes him an excellent baseball broadcaster.
You might tire of Marty Brennaman grousing about the Reds, but he has to watch them every day, and you don't. Regardless, Marty in a bad mood is good radio, which makes him fun for eavesdroppers from other parts of the country. It matters to Marty Brennaman if the Reds are good or not, and that gives him a local flavor.
Brennaman, in a way, is the last of that purely local breed. But he still comes across in this new age of national broadcasts with local origination. And he's one reason why the national audience would tune in the Reds, even if it's really just interested in baseball.
CONTACT BILL PETERSON: [email protected]