Fox Sports president Eric Shanks described it the biggest decision of his professional career: Who would replace Tim McCarver on his network's Major League Baseball broadcasts?
"The people calling the World Series have a unique relationship with the game and a special responsibility to baseball," Shanks said. "The broadcasting side of baseball is kind of placed on a mantle, and with someone doing it for 30 years like Tim, it was the biggest decision in my time here."
On Monday, Fox Sports officially announced that longtime lead announcer Joe Buck will be joined by veteran baseball analyst Harold Reynolds and Sports Illustrated senior writer Tom Verducci. The trio will call a number of regular-season games on Fox and Fox Sports 1, as well as the All-Star Game, playoffs and World Series. The new booth debuts Apr. 5 on Fox Sports 1 for a 4:00 p.m. ET telecast of Giants-Dodgers. (Their regular-season assignments are still being worked out beyond the opening game.) Fox will have a second national broadcast team that will include some combination of Kenny Albert, Thom Brennaman, Eric Karros, regional broadcasters and potentially John Smoltz, with whom Fox Sports is currently in discussions to be an in-game analyst.
Fox Sports management said it has known that Buck, Reynolds and Verducci would be its lead MLB team for a couple of months after the three had a practice broadcast together in St. Louis late last year. Rehearsal games often do not go well in sports broadcasting, but management said it was particularly impressed by the chemistry between the three men. Said Shanks: "The thing you look for in television is, do the guys like each other? Do they respect each other? Do they work hard to make the guy next to them look good? That's what we found. It was surprising right off the bat that it was there, so we have high hopes."
Network executives said they did not enter the search with a preconceived notion about using a two-person or three-person booth. John Entz, the executive producer for Fox Sports, said that he was impressed by the hundreds of hours Verducci and Reynolds worked together in the studio at MLB Network.
"It would be a heavy decision in any case but when you have someone taking the mantle from Tim McCarver, I think we all felt an extra layer of pressure," Entz said. "We had several meetings on it and it was the topic of conversation over dinner, hallway conversations. This was not a simple one and done meeting where we decided it."
Buck said he was nervous during the practice broadcasts because he had developed such an innate feel with McCarver over 18 years together. But he came away feeling very positive.
"I can tell you literally, within five minutes, this was going to be the combination if my opinion had anything to do with it," Buck said. "This felt very easy, and three-man booths are not easy. But I think the three-man booth can work when the two guys come at it from different perspectives and they can debate something or they look at different parts of the game or different parts of a pitching sequence or whatever it might be. I told anyone I knew: We found it and this is going to be really, really special.
Verducci might seem like a non-conventional choice for the broadcast given that he is not a former player or manager, though the idea that only an ex-player or coach can serve as an television sports analyst is an archaic one. Verducci has done a schedule of games for Fox over the last two seasons and said he thought he could bring an "institutional history" to the booth on the game. "This is my 33rd year covering Major League Baseball," said Verducci, who will continue to work at Sports Illustrated and MLB Network. "I have done it as a beat writer, a columnist, a feature writer, an author, a sideline reporter, a studio analyst, a game analyst. All those things to me come into play at some point when you are in the booth."
"Putting Tom in the booth, some people had some questions because he was not the typical person that you would have in there," Entz said. "I can tell you everyone who worked with Tom doing the games the last few years was unbelievably impressed by his preparation, knowledge and what he brings to do the telecast."
Reynolds said that having to offer commentary during live look-ins on MLB Network helped sharpen his mindset from studio to game work. "I'm looking forward to bringing some studio takes to the booth where you are able to breakdown things," said Reynolds, who will also continue as an MLB Network studio analyst.
Buck predicted the broadcast would be more conversational than analytics-driven. "[Analytics] still take explanation, and if it takes something to be explained over the course of multiple pitches, or in some cases multiple at-bats, it is a tough thing to carry through a half-inning," Buck said. "That said, you cannot ignore it."
As SI.com first reported on Sunday night, Fox also formally announced that Kevin Burkhardt will be the lead host for Fox and Fox Sports 1's MLB pregame show, an assignment that includes the regular season, All-Star Game, playoffs and World Series. Burkhardt will work with Baseball Hall of Famer Frank Thomas (who signed last month with Fox Sports), Fox Sports 1's Gabe Kapler, and a rotation of other analysts including Fox Sports regular Karros and former major-league pitcher C.J. Nitkowski. This group will also appear on Fox Sports Live and a new Fox Sports 1 show, "MLB Whiparound." Entz said Fox Sports management said it was still looking to add additional staffers for shoulder programming.
But the World Series booth will draw the biggest source of interest among viewers given the tune-in for that game. Fairly or not, Buck and McCarver earned plenty of scorn from fans over the years, especially on social media.
"I don't think there is any more criticized or picked-apart role in major television sports than doing a World Series on network television," Buck said. "I have not experienced that anywhere else in the day-to-day or night after night. But I think these guys can handle it."
Sports broadcasters value continuity for booth talent, so expect the new trio to be given a couple of years to make it work. "This is something we think can be strong from the get-go and we think there is a ton of upside here," Entz said. "I hope that people give this booth a chance before they make a judgment and know that there will be some growing pains. But there is a lot of potential here."