Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Voices of the games

As you can plainly tell if you’re a regular visitor to this space, I’m a big sports fan.  And along with that, I’m also a great fan of good sports announcing.  And when you watch a lot of sports on TV and listen to a good amount on the radio, you have the opportunity to form opinions about many announcers who do their thing at the local, regional and national levels.

I began to think about this a bit when it became apparent that Bob Costas was not going to be able to perform his customary duties in NBC’s coverage of the Winter Olympics in Sochi recently.  If you hadn’t heard, the poor guy came down with a pretty severe eye infection just about the time the games began, and though he toughed it out for two or three nights, squinting through the discomfort, he had to take some time off.  NBC visibly diminished the role of the “host” during those days, probably because it’s readily agreed that Bob is most likely the best big-sports-event host in the business.  Bob's also one of the best baseball play-by-play announcers around, but doesn't get to do much of that, since NBC hasn't had baseball among its properties in some time.

And the Olympics and the massive number of events puts NBC (or whatever network is covering the Games) in the position of employing people we may not hear all that often.  Some of the analysts are downright painful to listen to, as they devolve into jargon that casual fans might not get.   But it's a great chance to hear some voices we wouldn't otherwise, like the outstanding hockey announcer Mike Emerick, called "Doc" by nearly everyone in the business.  Really good at what he does.

But since baseball season is nearing (not soon enough, in my estimation) and I customarily watch the brilliant Ken Burns “Baseball” miniseries each winter and spring as a warmup to the coming season, I’ve been thinking more about how announcers make sports better and more enjoyable.  An added influence was a gift I received at Christmas, a compilation of four CDs of great baseball radio calls.  Always nice to hear some of the established greats plying their trade, guys like Mel Allen, Red Barber, Ernie Harwell, and a much younger and more easily understood Harry Caray.

So here’s a list of some of the active announcers I like best, and why.  In no particular order:

Marty Brennaman has been the radio “voice” of the Cincinnati Reds since the mid 1970’s.  Hard to imagine the Reds without him, but he’s reduced his work schedule slightly over the past few years.  Direct, opinionated, funny, irritating, but always fully descriptive of the action.  Marty’s an institution in Cincinnati and surrounding areas, and one local sportswriter often says that the people in Cincinnati don’t realize how lucky they are to have him (I do, as I listen occasionally to other teams’ broadcasts on SiriusXM satellite radio, and while these guys are OK, Marty’s really the best “team” announcer out there).

Vin Scully was an acquired taste to me, as I grew up HATING the Los Angeles Dodgers, for whom Vin has worked for MANY years.  But as I’ve grown older I’ve come to appreciate Scully for his preparation, his observations of the game and the melodic nature of his delivery.  Never too high or too low, and, despite my claims to the contrary twenty or more years ago, he is NOT a homer.  In fact, only his greater familiarity with the Dodgers gives him away as their announcer.  A real treasure and one you should hear if you have the chance.

I was always a big fan of Jon Miller, who for twenty-plus years was the voice of ESPN's Sunday night baseball broadcasts.  Informative, humorous, much like a friend who's sitting with you watching the game, but with a lot of information to share.  I was sorry to see him end his association with ESPN, but he still works for the San Francisco Giants, so he's another announcer you can hear on satellite radio.


Thom Brennaman is Marty's son, and like Joe Buck (of Fox television and the son of the late long-time voice of the St. Louis Cardinals, Jack Buck) has worked to establish himself as a good and versatile announcer outside of his father's considerable regional shadow, working for other baseball teams before returning to the Reds a few years ago.  Thom also does a nice job calling football for Fox and called the collegiate national championship game a couple of times, too.  In his own way he's actually more opinionated than his father, and on the rare occasions the two of them work together, they do very well, although I would never say that they readily agree on anything!

Speaking of fathers and sons, I always liked Skip Caray, son of Harry and father of Chip, who works for the Atlanta Braves.  Skip was always sardonic but direct in his estimation of the Braves, for whom he worked for many years, and I watched a lot of Braves baseball back when TBS and WGN were among the few sources of regular televised games on cable.

I personally also like Tom Hammond, who's handling the primary announcing on NBC's Olympic ice skating coverage.  Tom is from Lexington, and I well remember him as a local sports reporter before he got the chance to do SEC basketball play-by-play and did so for many years.  Tom's a very nice man who has not forgotten his beginnings in the business.

The last announcer I'm going to mention here is a very good and old friend of mine, Tom Leach, the Voice of the Kentucky Wildcats.  Full disclosure---I've known Tom since I was eight years old, and we've been friends for all of that time.  Tom always knew what he wanted to do as a career, and is one of the very few people who's actually made that aspiration a reality.  He's a solid, prepared and highly entertaining play-by-play announcer, doing radio work for Kentucky football and basketball for a number of years.  I had the privilege of working with Tom in the football booth for 13 years and can attest to his extreme professionalism and dedication to his craft.  To this day I remain astounded that he has not been discovered by a larger broadcasting entity.  Like Marty Brennaman with the Reds, he's well-known and -liked throughout Kentucky among the Big Blue Nation's many fans, and he's a local product who understands the connection between Kentucky sports (basketball in particular) and their fans.

I'm sure you have your favorites, too.  These are some of mine!




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