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Baseball Runs Off at Mouth : Alternative Is Needed for Chatty Announcers Who Drive Us Batty

July 08, 1999|STEVE EMMONS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It isn't often you can cure a social ill easily--and for free.

But I can. That is, broadcasters can, if they will only listen to me.

The social ill, of course, is television baseball announcers. Nowadays they are interchangeable parts stamped out at some broadcast academy.

The problem? They never stop talking.

I admit it: My old-grouch rating is in double digits nowadays. What's more, I'm one of those guys the networks and baseball owners despise: the so-called baseball purist.

We are the people who love baseball for what it was and do not think it should be juiced up for the short-attention-span crowd.

We dislike the idea of a second-place team being admitted to the World Series. We dislike baseball being played on a carpet as an indoor sport. We dislike the designated hitter, interleague play and other merchandising gimmicks.

We suspect today's keepers of baseball--the owners and TV executives--don't really like baseball. Its rhythm is too slow for them. Its main attraction--slowly built and sustained suspense--is lost on the sports fans accustomed to more-or-less constant violence and scoring.

We purists have nightmares about what the next change in baseball will be.

Celebrities are hot, so how about celebrity pinch runners? Or the stars of the next Fox sitcom umpiring an inning or two?

Action is really hot, so how about nine bases spread all over the field that you don't have to touch in any particular order. Put a little fun into the game.

The weird idea that baseball must be made different from baseball to attract fans who don't like baseball has been inculcated in today's announcers.

Their prime directive: Hold viewers' attention by talking and talking and talking, especially when there's nothing to say. Kid, joke, giggle, gripe, second-guess, speculate, interview somebody, complain about your rental car--anything but silence.

Los Angeles baseball fans have been spoiled by growing up with Vin Scully, the Dodgers' venerable announcer. When he calls TV games, he steps back and defers to the image on the screen. He knows the value of silence. He knows that if you can see what's happening, you don't need to be told what's happening.

He's the exception, sad to say. The current crop of network announcers has been ordered to take control of the game and keep things moving. No lulls allowed.

Their blathering is not so bad at first. During the first three innings when batters are coming to the plate for the first time, there is plenty on the announcers' research sheets that they can relate. So at least most of the constant commentary has something to do with the game.

But it doesn't take long to degenerate.

Here are examples of the information the announcers imparted during one recent half-inning:

* The player who was thrown out stealing should not have tried to steal.

* When a player is hurt, he doesn't play as well as when he is not hurt.

* This player is not playing well, "and that's something the team is going to have to deal with."

* After a nice save by the catcher: "That was a nice save."

By the seventh inning, they'd reverted to kidding one another and complaining about the air-conditioning at the hotel.

I promised you a quick, easy, cheap solution for this social blight, and here it is:

With each game, broadcast a second sound channel that includes everything but the announcers.

Your TV is already equipped for it. It's called SAP for "second audio program." You push the button and the alternate audio channel comes up.

ESPN doesn't use this audio channel. FOX uses it to broadcast Spanish-language announcers.

Why not convert it to the universal language--that is, no language at all?

Think about it for a minute: an audio channel with all the ballpark sounds, including the public address announcer. Broadcast in stereo--better yet in Surround Sound--it would feel like a baseball game, not a TV talk show. (Commercials would have their usual soundtracks, but that's a small price to pay.)

Imagine watching on big-screen TV in a home theater with stadium sounds all around you and a couple of friends chomping hot dogs. This would feel like being at the game, a fan's dream. But try it now and there would be two motor-mouth guys called announcers sitting in the seats behind you.

NBC tried a no-announcer football broadcast in 1980 and considered it a failure. But for football you really need an announcer for all the information you can't pick up by watching. If they'd try baseball now, it would work.

This is a rare case in which everyone gains and no one loses. Broadcasters are after the young viewers who, they think, want the juiced-up broadcast. They don't want to lose the older, traditional fan, but they are willing to risk it. With a second, no-announcer sound channel, they can have both.

Here's the good news: It's technically feasible right now. ESPN is already doing it--sort of. It broadcasts a second audio channel without announcers, but only to foreign broadcasters so they can add their own commentators. And Fox is equipped to broadcast SAP during every baseball game.

The bad news? Neither has any intention of depriving us of their announcers. Fox: "We have no plans to do it." ESPN: "We have a great deal of time and money invested in our announcers."

But there is hope. The conversion to digital broadcasting, now underway, will allow for many more channels, including audio channels.

"What you're suggesting is not far off," said Tim Scanlan, ESPN's coordinating producer of baseball.

"I think it will be an option in the future. As digital service increases, the options are going to increase, and then [no-announcer channels] might even become a selling point."

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