[Note: It's been a heavy past couple of days, with bombings in Boston and Baghdad, and some aggravations at work. (Nothing big, just aggravating.) In that spirit, I thought I'd talk about baseball, my mindless indulgence for six months out of the year.]
There is perhaps no sport where the announcer matters more than baseball. Let's face it, baseball does not translate well to television, since the screen cannot capture all that's going on around the field. It's a slower paced game, one that's great to see in person on a long summer afternoon, but perhaps not the most exciting in an air-conditioned living room. The announcer is crucial, because she or he gives the game life for the audience at home that can't hear the low hum of ballpark noise or smell the beer and hot dogs.
The best announcers are engaged in a kind of conversation with their audience. They can be either erudite narrators of the game (like Vin Scully) or entertaining characters (like Harry Caray), but regardless of style, the great announcers are like an old companion you look forward to spending a few hours with.
Conversely, the worst announcers are like the bad houseguest who won't leave, or your Tea Party uncle. You just want them to shut up and go away, but for reasons of family or friendship ties, you have to grit your teeth and bear it. A lot of baseball fans seem to have these feelings about Ken "Hawk" Harrelson, the longtime play-by-play man for the Chicago White Sox, which also happens to be my team.
The fans I talk to can't stand his blatant homerism, exemplified by his terms "good guys" for the Sox, and "bad guys" for whoever they're playing. They find his "you can put it on the board, yes!" signature home run call to be excessively annoying. Even worse, they blanch at his many catchphrases and their never-ending repetition: "can of corn," "duck snort," "grab some bench" etc. Overall, they think he's a boring announcer with multiple irritating tendencies. Most telling, if you google him, the first website you'll find is dedicated to getting him fired.
Despite this seeming consensus regarding Harrelson's incompetence, I've spent years defending the man, and not because I am a Harrelson-sized homer. Certainly, you could never mistake him for one of the greats, but I do think that Hawk has a nice, easy delivery, reflecting his Southern roots. That same background is shared by greater play-callers of the past like Russ Hodges, Red Barber, and Mel Allen, who may have softened their twang, but kept the laconic country cadence so suited to baseball. When I have a game on in the background, that's exactly what I need. Hawk may be a homer, but hey, I'm a Sox fan, so what's not to like?
Best of all, I think one of his supposed weaknesses, his economy of words, is a strength. There are stretches where he will leave a lot of dead air, but I'd rather an announcer not say anything than just blather on incessantly (see: Joe Buck and Tim McCarver). With the great Steve Stone as his color man, that just leaves more room for a real scholar of the game to do his thing.
Now that I have a subscription to mlb.tv, I have heard announcers from all over the major leagues. Many of them are good, many are just okay. However, even the good ones have little individual character, as if they all graduated from the same baseball announcer finishing school. Sure Hawk might be a blatant homer and prone to repeating himself, but at least he has his own individual character, unlike most sports announcers in our corporate, homogenized times. Hawk is distinctive and different enough to annoy people, and that alone is a reason to defend the guy.