The problem with Steve Stewart on the Reds radio broadcasts touched not at all on his competence or dignity.
Stewart is a very pleasant listen who obviously works hard to be informative and manages to sound more like a professional broadcaster than some chirpy, fact-filled dork who fixed himself on baseball from the age of 8. Listen around to the major league radio broadcasts, and you won't likely stumble on many who can do better.
Measured competence is the standard. A distinguishing, confident voice fused with a feel for the game is all a broadcaster really needs. The signature turns of phrase need time and signature events. It's not that Stewart didn't have a chance so much as that his chance didn't give him time and signature events.
Stewart could have become the guy in Cincinnati when Marty Brennaman retires. A lot of the recorded response to Stewart's departure has noted that listeners are "used to" him. He didn't thrill the listeners, but he fit into their lives.
The inevitable detractors didn't feed much on Stewart's mistakes and, on the whole, people didn't like seeing this happen to him. But they won't miss him when he's gone, either.
The Reds informed Stewart last week that they won't renew his contract after three years in the radio booth. The radio broadcast is going in a different direction, which is the same direction it was going in when the Reds hired him in 2004.
The Marty and Joe chemistry is lost and gone except for those few days when Joe Nuxhall returns for old times' sake. Maybe we'll get some of that at the end of the year. Marty and Joe are 1976 in 2006's body, an airy defiance of time that makes you feel a little younger, no matter how old either of them sounds.
Stewart asked the Reds to tell him where he stands so he can begin setting up next year's gig. The Reds told him the gig wouldn't be with them.
A few days before, we heard again from Nuxhall. The state of Ohio even gave a day for him Aug. 18. The ol' lefthander casts a mighty long shadow as he rounds third heading for home. When he decided to cut way back and Stewart came in for the slack, something changed for all of us, and it told us the world was changing in a place where we least expected to hear it. But we accepted change, and we'll accept it again.
The old direction behind hiring Stewart came from the old regime that also hired Dan O'Brien as general manager. A certain closeness to the vest satisfied the old regime. But closeness to the vest stands to make a broadcaster invisible, which almost defeats his purpose.
Stewart gave the old regime pleasant and polite play-by-play, as it wanted. He neither enlarged nor overshadowed the game. Folks didn't tune in to hear what Steve Stewart had to say, but Stewart gave them what they wanted, the game.
The new regime wants something else, either a little more of the game or a little more of the broadcaster. The official statements point to the desire for a former player, but to what end? Here's the problem: If a former player simply delivers analysis by pleasing diction, he'll have the same general effect on the audience as Stewart. The ex-player could even be less entertaining by obsessing on technicalities beyond the grasp of most listeners.
Maybe the Reds want an ex-player who comes across on the broadcast as a large personality. In that case, the two obvious picks would be Chris Welsh and Tracy Jones.
Welsh already holds an important position, sharing the television broadcast with George Grande for the past 14 years. In these days of satellite television and expanding TV packages, the TV team is as visible as the radio broadcasters for reaching the distant marketplace. The TV team isn't a problem.
Jones has fallen out of favor with many fans for reasons that aren't mysterious. His postgame show, Extra Innings, used to be about baseball. Now it's too much about Jones.
One almost never punches on Jones' show without some caller kissing his butt because he "played the game." One wishes Jones would stop helping callers indulge him, but he too often sounds like a schoolgirl asking a suitor, "Tell me all the things you like about me."
That can be fixed, though, because Jones is a strong talent with a conscience. Put a ball game in front of him to focus his remarks, and he can be very good as a radio commentator. Jones is an ex-player who understands the fan's point of view, and he's been away from the field long enough to become detached from the present players.
Maybe Jones and Brennaman would bicker a little. Fine. Maybe they'd energize the broadcast by keeping each other in check. Listeners note that Stewart enabled Brennaman's "crankiness," as if there's something wrong with a baseball broadcaster being cranky. Actually, though, the best baseball broadcasts are a little cranky, just like the best people.
If it seems at times that Brennaman has never forgiven himself for homerish tendencies earlier in his career, so much the better for his audience. Stewart's folly consisted not in enabling Brennaman so much as not challenging him. Being fair to Stewart, he's not in position to do so.
But Jones has been around for a while and wouldn't be reticent about disagreeing with Brennaman. That would be healthy. Just keep him away from the banana phone.
The names of Thom Brennaman and Barry Larkin also are making the rounds. Either would be the right kind of choice. Both would be better.
The Reds aren't short good broadcast options if they seek familiarity. They weren't short that way in 2004, either, but they decided to go outside.
Now they've decided to go in a different direction. That probably means inside.