Here is a truism for any network baseball broadcaster who works for a local team during the regular season:
The majority of viewers think you are biased for your team.
To wit: Turner Sports broadcaster Ron Darling recalled a memorable incident during the 2010 American League Championship Series while calling the Rangers-Yankees in Arlington, Texas.
“There was an older lady in the crowd who was a big fan of the Rangers and she got my attention,” Darling said. "She said, 'I’m so sick of you. You hate the Texas Rangers.' I said, 'I don’t hate the Texas Rangers.' She said, 'You do. I can tell.' I said, 'Well, I was drafted by the Texas Rangers.' She said, 'Well then you are a New York guy and you love the Yankees and you are only about them. I can hear it in your voice. Yankee this. Yankee that.' I said, 'Honestly, I do the Mets game. I don’t call the Yankees games.' Finally, she sat down.”
During the regular season Darling is part of an excellent regional broadcast on SportsNet New York with Gary Cohen and Keith Hernandez. This week he is working the Mets-Dodgers series [with Ernie Johnson and Cal Ripken] for Turner. His assignment brings up a number questions for viewers: Can a broadcaster such as Darling be impartial or objective calling games that involves a team that pays him a salary? Should he be assigned those games because of the optics? There’s also the possibility that in an effort to be overly neutral, an announcer will be too flat, robbing the audience of emotion.
“This is how I view it, right or wrong: I have been a national broadcaster for a long time and I know how to do my job,” Darling said. “It doesn’t matter what team I am doing. Certainly people will have their opinions that I want one team over another and I say the same thing every time: I want a five- or seven-game series and I want to do historical games. I want to do games that when I’m old and gray and grandkids sitting on me, I can tell them I did this game in 2015. Literally, that’s what I think about. I want the athletes to have their due. I know there will be some backlash. I do the Mets games. I totally get that. But most people have not been booed off a Shea Stadium mound and I have. I have big shoulders.”
If you think Turner Sports management sees any conflicts, think the opposite.
“Virtually everyone in sports broadcasting has some form of relationship with a team, athlete or league,” said Craig Barry, the chief content officer for Turner Sports. “As the media landscape evolves and becomes more fragmented, we see this across every sports category. We believe in the professional abilities of our commentators to provide a balanced broadcast, regardless of what game they are assigned to, and we feel we have a proven track record of fulfilling that commitment to our viewers.”
Local or regional baseball announcers calling their teams for a national network in the postseason has occurred many times before. For instance, Turner’s Brian Anderson – the excellent television voice of the Brewers – called Milwaukee’s postseason games for Turner in 2011, while Fox’s Joe Buck was a local Cardinals broadcaster through 2008. In watching the first two games of the series, Darling came off very even-handed and his knowledge of the Mets amplified the broadcast. An example of one small touch: Letting viewers know that Mets outfielder Yoenis Cespedes rarely swings at the first pitch. Darling said as a local announcer, you are always thinking of larger themes within the game itself. He said it’s like doing a game with two close friends after an enjoyable dinner. One of the differences working for a national outlet in the postseason, Darling said, is that you are micro-focused on the little things in each game, including manager moves and lineups. The booth has a much more serious feel than it would for a local broadcast.
“You want to stay out of the way of the athletes and great teams,” Darling said. “Cal is the master of what he did - playing hard, playing every day and playing shortstop and the mental acumen of how to hit a baseball. My job is to talk about pitching and how lonely or great it can be. I think we spend as much time as we can giving you the nets and bolts of the games but not getting in the way of the athletic ability.”
Of course many fans will always think different. When I typed “Darling and homer” into Twitter Search, here’s what came up. That was amplified on the Chase Utley-Ruben Tejada play in Game 2 of the Dodgers-Mets series. Darling said that the play "looked as bad as it was" so if you thought Utley’s slide into second base was clean, you were likely calling him a Mets shill. Why did Turner assign Darling to this particular series as opposed to say the Cubs-Cardinals?
“Ron is one of the best analysts in the game and we knew he would be able to add some compelling insights to this series,” Barry said. “He’s obviously someone who has covered the National League and the Mets, in particular, very closely throughout the entire season and we consider him uniquely qualified and value those perspectives. With that said, he’s the consummate professional and we are confident in his abilities to analyze the series from all vantage points.”
THE NOISE REPORT
SI.com examines some of the most notable sports media stories of the week
1. Charles de Gaulle once opined that politics is too serious a matter to be left to the politicians. Apparently, the same goes for college basketball reporters and Outside The Lines hosts.
Without warning, ESPN management last week pulled Andy Katz from co-hosting a SiriusXM program called "The Arena," featuring Katz and Rick Klein of ABC News interviewing subjects from the sports and political worlds on how sports-related topics can drive the agenda in Washington. The six-episode run debuted on October 2, and you can see here that Sirius XM promoted the show in a big way. The show aired on SiriusXM’s non-partisan political channel, P.O.T.U.S, and the first (and now only) guest was Florida governor and current GOP candidate Jeb Bush. That conversation produced some interesting news for SiriusXM, ESPN and ABC News, given all three were attached to the project.
Said Bush on whether the Washington football team should change its nickname: “I don’t think [the team] should change it. But again, I don’t think politicians ought to have any say in that to be honest with you. I don’t find it offensive. Native American tribes generally don’t find it offensive. We had a similar kind of flap with FSU if you recall, the Seminoles, and the Seminole tribe itself kind of came to the defense of the university and it subsided. It’s a sport for crying out loud.”
Last Thursday SiriusXM confirmed that “The Arena” is no longer airing on SiriusXM. The company declined comment beyond that. If you think it’s strange that a SiriusXM show ended after one episode and no one wants to talk about it, you’d be right. But the onus isn’t on SiriusXM here. It’s on ESPN.
Katz was clearly given an internal green light to do this – SiriusXM isn’t putting out a splashy announcement for a show that talent hasn’t signed on to do – so the question is: what happened? Sources told SI.com that Katz was pulled off the show in an effort to minimize Presidential candidate appearances on platforms connected to ESPN, and the sensitivity of such political identification. The supreme irony here is that Katz and Klein continue to host a politically-based (but ideologically neutral) podcast (Capital Games) on ESPN since 2014.
Klein declined comment via email.
When contacted by SI.com on Sunday, an ESPN spokesperson said, “Some internal miscommunication occurred, and we apologize. ESPN’s policy does not allow for full-time employees to create content for other outlets, so Andy could no longer appear on the show.”
I feel bad for Katz (who was not made available by ESPN for this query) and Klein. They forged something unique and interesting – and apolitical – and it was pulled for what appears to be a heavy-handed management decision. Perhaps there is some merit to ESPN’s public response (Stephen A. Smith’s show on SiriusXM is produced by ESPN) but ESPN has a history in this, well, arena . Readers can be the judge.
1a. For those of you who have become cynical with NFL pregame shows and their protection of league officials and owners, this Bill Cowher infomercial with Cowboys owner Jerry Jones on The NFL Today will only add to your nausea. CBS gets access to Jones and asks (or runs) one soft-pedaling question on Greg Hardy. Watch for yourself. This is PR, and little more
1b. On Friday writer James Andrew Miller tweeted that four members of Grantland’s staff have departed and will go to work for Bill Simmons. He did not name names. Based on my reporting, those staffers are Sean Fennessey, Juliet Litman, Mallory Rubin and Chris Ryan. I do not know the specific jobs they will have with Simmons. An ESPN spokesperson declined comment on any staff defections.
Miller also received a statement from an ESPN spokesperson that said the company had re-signed seven staffers in recent weeks. Asked who those staffers were by SI.com, an ESPN spokesperson declined comment. According to a Grantland source, the number ESPN PR put out regarding re-signings at this time was overstated.
1c. Late on Sunday night, SI.com learned that Dan Fierman, the founding editorial director of Grantland and one of its key behind the scenes executives, has left ESPN for a job as the Vice President and Editorial Director of MTV News. Fierman had worked for Grantland since the site was founded in 2011 and was a close confidant of Bill Simmons. Prior to Grantland, Fierman oversaw culture coverage and special packages at GQ. This is a big loss for that site.
2. Richard Sandomir of the New York Times reported last week that Jessica Mendoza is likely to become a permanent part of ESPN Sunday Night Baseball. Having spoken with Mendoza, her producers, announcer Dan Shulman, and other ESPN colleagues about Mendoza’a work ethic and preparation, it’s great to see her hard work rewarded. If I were in charge of ESPN’s MLB game assignments, I’d put Mendoza on ESPN’s No. 2 MLB team next year with Jon Sciambi and Aaron Boone; a trio that showed immediate chemistry. That would give Mendoza significant reps but without the spotlight of the being on the showcase game weekly. If ESPN assigns her fulltime to Sunday Night Baseball first time, I’d do it with Shulman and Schilling given that the audience will benefit from one announcer who is pitching-centric (Schilling) and one who is hitting-centric (Mendoza, a former U.S. Olympic softball player). Kruk is versatile enough to do studio or game work. There’s enough reps for everyone between the studio and game broadcast if ESPN management plays this right.
2b. On the other hand, here’s one sports radio bro who disagrees with Mendoza appearing on MLB games.
2c. ESPN senior writer Ramona Shelburne played on the same Stanford University softball team as Mendoza from 1998 to 2001. Mendoza played centerfield; Shelburne played rightfield. The two remain close friends today – they live 30 minutes away from each other – and often have double dates with their husbands (who are also friends). Mendoza and Shelborne will be part of a panel this week at the espnW summit titled "Teammates for Life." I asked Shelburne, a former SI intern, to send over some thoughts on Mendoza’s rise to the ESPN booth, as well as the abuse Mendoza has taken on social media.
I have a hundred great stories about Jessica, but this is one of my favorites. She was very highly recruited out of high school. It was a real coup for Stanford to get her. And she was incredible during fall practice. But before her first game, she asks me, "Do you think I'm gonna play?" I'm like, "Um, Jess, you're going to start in centerfield and bat third. You're the best player on our team."
Obviously she had to know she was good. But I honestly think she had no idea how good she was yet. She's always just gone out and played. Which, of course, is why she's so damn good. She earns it every time. She takes nothing for granted.
A few years ago, my husband and I were having dinner over at her house and Jess and I got to talking shop. She told me how she wanted to color commentary on baseball games the same way that she has for years on college softball. At the time, she'd been doing sidelines on college football games too and we were weighing whether that was the right path. As soon as she mentioned doing color commentary on MLB games, I was like, "Yes, do that. You'd be amazing at it." She's just so damn likeable on air. You can feel how much she loves the game every time she's on air. That's always what gets me when I listen to her and why I think she connects so well with viewers. Baseball is a wonderful game. Her love for it shines through every broadcast. And obviously, she knows her stuff.
She is too modest to say this, so I will. Jessica Mendoza is arguably the best hitter ever in softball. She hit for power and average. She was killer fast. She was fearless. I've seen her hit balls over her head out of the yard. I've seen her hit balls out of the dirt out of the yard. Think Vlad Guerrero in his prime. In my book, the softball Mt Rushmore is Jessica Mendoza, Lisa Fernandez, Crystl Bustos, Dot Richardson and Stacey Nuveman.
So I laugh out loud when Internet trolls try to say she doesn't know the game. If they ever saw her play, they'd shut up and apologize. She was that good.
It's amazing watching her grow and embrace this role. I think every woman in the industry is rooting for her. She feels it. There's pressure there. But that's always been when she's at her best. We always wanted her up with the game on the line.
2d. TBS said its MLB postseason telecasts are averaging 5.4 million total viewers through Saturday, up 39 percent in total viewers over last year (3,875,000 total viewers in 2014).
2e. TBS said the Cubs–Cardinals series is averaging 4,608,000 viewers, which through two games is the most-watched Division Series game airing in the same television window since 2007. The Mets–Dodgers series has averaged 4,211,000 total viewers.
2f. The Cubs–Pirates wild-card game on TBS drew 8.3 million total viewers, the most viewed wild-card game ever and the largest audience for an MLB game telecast on cable television since 2011 (NLDS Game 5: Cardinals-Phillies). Turner said the game peaked at 9.7 million total viewers between 10-10:15 p.m. Locally, the telecast earned a 21.8 rating in Chicago to produce the best rating for any MLB game in the market since the decisive Game 4 between the Chicago White Sox and Houston Astros in the 2005 World Series.
2g. ESPN’s telecast of the AL wild-card game between the Astros and Yankees averaged 7,604,000 viewers, ESPN’s most-watched MLB game since 2003.
3. The 22nd episode of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast with Richard Deitsch features WWE performer and sports entertainment impresario Paul Heyman, who also is co-owner of the Looking4Larry Agency in New York City.
In the episode, which lasts 93 minutes, Heyman discusses why the position of WWE broadcaster is currently under-appreciated, the importance of the WWE getting mainstream media attention, how he creates his master promos and why much of what he says in the ring is ad-libbed, as opposed to scripted. He also talks about whether the private lives of wrestlers should be reported on by the press, the future of Hulk Hogan in the WWE, how he views the MMA quest of CM Punk, why he wants to interview Henry Kissinger, the best talkers in the history of wrestling, his favorite heels outside of wrestling, whether there is any tension left between he and Vince McMahon, his most dangerous ringside situation, why he's fascinated by Jesus and Vishnu and much more.
4. Sports pieces of note:
• ESPN’s Tim Keown had a great profile of Raiders owner Mark Davis.
• Read this from MMQB’s Jenny Vrentas -- and think good thoughts and positive energy for the family of ESPN’s Ed Werder:
• ESPNW’s Jane McManus says Greg Hardy and Jerry Jones are undermining the NFL's work.
• SB Nation’s Glenn Stout, in search of America's best sports writing
• Newsday published a seven-month look at head safety in Long Island high school football.
• Deadspin’s Greg Howard continued his reporting on former ESPN staffer Jason Whitlock.
• The New York Daily News sports writer Christian Red traveled to Campechuela, Granma, Cuba, the hometown of Mets outfielder Yoenis Cespedes.
• The MMQB’s Robert Klemko examines the multiple controversies converging on Daily Fantasy Football’s main competitors.
• Master class writing by Brian Phillips on Liverpool’s new manager, Jürgen Klopp.
• From SI’s Gabriel Baumgaertner: As 8-year-old Jay Ryon battles Leukemia, the Florida football team is there for support.
Non-sports pieces of note:
• Via Mother Jones: Inside The Race To Stop The Next Mass Shooter
• A fascinating piece by Katrin Bennhold on a London police officer with a gift for recognizing faces.
• Via an NYT special report: Just 158 families gave nearly half the early money in the presidential race. We reveal who they are.
• A biography reveals new details about the tragic life of Rosemary Kennedy. Fascinating and revolting to read.
• Via Wired: Online dating made this woman a pawn in a global crime plot.
• If you are fan of masterful writing, read this from Wesley Morris of the New York Times.
• Michael Lewis on "How Tom Wolfe Became... Tom Wolfe."
5. Darling was the subject of speculation last month when Boston-based WEEI Radio reported that he might join NESN in 2016 to call the Red Sox, replacing Jerry Remy on that TV broadcast. He denied those claims repeatedly and wanted to expand on it when I asked him about being the subject of transaction rumors. “People can just throw out things and the collateral damage is there are a lot of people whose feelings get hurt and makes them feel bad about themselves,” Darling said. “This time it was Jerry Remy. And this was after he found out he was losing his broadcast partner (Don Orsillo). Now he has answer questions about fu---- Ron Darling. Who wants to do that? I think that’s why I was so vigorous trying to throw cold water on it.
"This business is very competitive and you are always honored when anyone thinks you are good for a job. But this came from a different place. There is a lot of spit-balling in whatever business you are in and when somebody makes it a fact and then because it’s on social media there has to be some validity to it. Well, sometimes there is not. I thought to myself: “What if I was in Jerry Remy’s position and I just lost Keith Hernandez and Gary Cohen and someone was saying they are going to take my job?” I’d feel awful, my wife would feel awful, my parents would feel awful. The collateral damage of it is bad…Intelligence has to take over again. We can’t allow people who are throwing things out there to win just because they have a louder voice or they are more prolific on Twitter or Instagram. We have to make sure the people who put thought into things win this race because if they don’t then you will have stuff that happened to me. If I had been less sophisticated about it or let it out there because I had a huge ego and was feeling great about being mentioned, it would have hurt a lot of people’s feelings. I felt awful I was included. The only thing that was good was when I came into the booth that night, Keith and Gary asked me, 'What am I still doing here?'”
5a. If you are looking for an interesting interview from both sides – especially the questions from the interviewer – check out this interview by ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi of Texas football coach Charlie Strong.
5b. Darling described the production meetings Turner MLB broadcasters have with managers as “us trying to get stuff and them trying not to give us stuff.” Said Darling: “It’s just the opposite of football. I have a lot of friends who call football and they have told me stories where the coaches have scripted them the first 15 plays. It’s the opposite in baseball because until the game starts, they don’t know what the hell they will do either.”
5c. Sports Illustrated has a Super Bowl coffee-table book, Super Bowl Gold, hitting stores on Oct. 13. I did a piece on the history of Super Bowl Media and it’s a fun book.
5d. SI.com’s Rohan Nadkarni interviewed ESPN’s Jalen Rose on his new book, “Give The People What They Want.”
5e. Some inside baseball: The Fox Sports PR department has been sending near-daily releases on the highlights of that day’s Colin Cowherd radio show. That’s something that did not happen for Cowherd (or any other show) at ESPN Radio. What it says is that Fox is making a full court press to get Cowherd external press by all means possible given he is the centerpiece of their afternoon rebranding efforts on FS1. It’s also needed given Cowherd’s radio show does not have close to the clearance (number of over-the-air stations) he did at ESPN Radio. According to Douglas Pucci of TV Media Insights and Awful Announcing, here were the FS1 viewership numbers (up slightly from Sept.) for Cowherd’s show last week.
October 5: 54,000 viewers
October 6: 52,000
October 7: 51,000
October 8: 62,000
5f. Terry Bradshaw offered some emotional commentary Sunday on the Cowboys and Greg Hardy.
5g. Jason McIntyre of The Big Lead reported that there is tension between the two leads on the set of First Take.
5h. U.S. women’s national soccer team forward Christen Press has been hired as an on-air contributor for Fox Sports’ The Buzzer, a digitally-centric project that contributes to multiple Fox Sports platforms.
5i. This commentary from FS1’s Katie Nolan on Cowboys lineman Greg Hardy is really worth viewing.