After a succession of disappointing seasons that moored the Toronto Blue Jays in the centre of the pack of the American League East, this season’s early flirtations with the rarefied air atop the division’s standings provided a little excitement for diehard fans of Canada’s only remaining Major League Baseball team. The thrill and adrenalin were short-lived, however, as injuries decimated the pitching staff and marquee players failed to match their stratospheric salaries. Now, at the all-star break, the Jays are a losing team, at 44-46.
It’s difficult for broadcasters to make that kind of performance look and sound good. Which is one of the reasons veteran sports journalist Bruce Dowbiggin‘s analytical piece on the Blue Jays broadcasts in today’s Globe and Mail feels slightly, well, off-base.
The main target of Dowbiggin’s thumbs-down review of the team’s TV broadcasts is Jamie Campbell, the Sportsnet play-by-play announcer whose perpetually youthful appearance suggests he’s probably headed out to the senior prom right after the game. Dowbiggin tells us Campbell’s on-air work lacks flair and insight; that his delivery is more akin to at TTC subway announcement than the authoritative verbiage of Vin Scully; that his interaction with a rotating trio of colour commentators is “painful.”
Unfortunately, Dowbiggin’s critique carries the tone of off-air broadcast-booth catty chat among sports announcers. To use a political cliché, it feels like inside-the-Beltway stuff that’s carrying some undeclared personal freight. Readers of today’s piece are left wondering as much about the back story here as they are the quality of the Jays announcers. Is there some kind of unspoken grudge or some score to be settled between Campbell and Dowbiggin? Is Dowbiggin making a pitch to audition for Campbell’s job?
Dowbiggin is right on at least one point: the use of former Jays players as broadcast analysts leaves some things to be desired. Rance Mulliniks tries a little too hard and too often to get inside the heads of hitters and pitchers, and his out-on-a-limb predictions about how the seconds ahead will unfold frequently turn out to be dead wrong. Darrin Fletcher‘s uncertainty makes each game sound like it is, perhaps, his first. Pat Tabler, on the other hand, has matured nicely as a broadcaster and speaks to the game at large, educating novice fans along the way and delivering his insights in a pleasant cadence that makes him salient and unobtrusive — a difficult combination to master.
Dowbiggin correctly observes that Campbell is no Vin Scully or Red Barber. But as a student of baseball and average fan, I don’t need or want the megaphonic, self-important bluster of a Harry Caray or Mel Allen — broadcasters whose personalities often cast shadows over the games they called. I don’t need an Ethel Merman or Bruce Springsteen to belt out the game; I’m quite content with a Norah Jones or Michael Bublé. I’m looking for dependable reportage and cogent analysis in a baseball broadcast; it doesn’t have to be loud or self-aggrandizing. And on solid reporting, Campbell seems competent enough.
On a related note, the best discovery I’ve made this baseball season, as a fan of the game, is the Major League Baseball app for the iPhone and iPod Touch. For less than the cost of a beer and a hotdog, the gizmo offers season-long access (to the end of the World Series) to real-time scores, standings, pitch-by-pitch action and boxscores. Video highlights accompany each game, and live streaming of radio broadcasts, from either the home or visiting team’s announcers, are available at one’s fingertips. Most recently, the app has added a “condensed game” video feature. Yesterday’s Toronto-Baltimore game, for example, took two hours and 44 minutes to play. The condensed game video lasts 12 minutes and six seconds — and viewers catch every highlight, scored run and out.
Update (Dec. 11): Blue Jays brass apparently agree with Dowbiggin’s view on Campbell. It’ll be veteran player and coach Buck Martinez in the broadcast booth for the 2010 Blue Jays campaign. See Dowbiggin’s story on the move here.