ESPN must allow announcers to keep eyes on the ball

As an uncoached kid athlete on neighborhood weedlots and playgrounds, I absorbed one piece of fatherly advice that guided all my efforts in sports: Keep your eye on the ball.

It served me so well as a player that I instinctively brought the same ground rule to my life as a spectator. Eye on the ball, I am in the game. Eyes astray, and I'm in the mental equivalent of channel surfing.

That's why announcers are so important. To a great extent, they control our experience of a game. The best ones allow us to see and understand more than we would unassisted. Others blindfold us. It's a shame last month's NBA Finals were the lowest rated ever, because they featured some of the best announcing I have experienced on ESPN.

Two precedents for an event telecast were set: I received not a single complaint about the ABC announcing team of Mike Breen, Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy. Nor did I have any complaints of my own. I watched every minute of all four games live, including the "Sopranos"-challenged Game 2, so I know better than most how uninspired this Cavaliers-Spurs Finals was, but that only increased the challenge of announcing.

Great games compel focus. Keeping your eye on the ball during so-so play is the true test of announcing mettle.

Breen's play-by-play remained crisp, alert, accurate. He didn't hype the play, but if there was something to get excited about, he got excited. Jackson was clearly hoping for a series-saving miracle from Cleveland's LeBron James, but when it didn't materialize, he did not fixate on what was not happening; he shifted his attention to real-time playmakers. Van Gundy, the former Houston Rockets coach, had joined the announcing team only three weeks earlier, but he didn't sound like the new guy in the booth -- and neither Breen nor Jackson treated him that way.

They made room, and Van Gundy slipped right in, adding a coach's strategic perspective to Jackson's more player-centered commentary. Each drew on his experience in the NBA, but neither dwelled on his personal past, which is a silence-filling tactic more self-absorbed announcers resort to routinely. Because Jackson, and especially Van Gundy, kept it pithy, often swapping insights in one-liners, the viewer was spared the kind of verbal overflow that can swamp a three-man booth.

The announcing team could not salvage a noncompetitive series, but the booth was never the cause of channel switching. If one did hit the mute button, it was not their voices but the arena's boosterish, blaring sound system one wanted to silence.

I asked Tim Corrigan, ESPN's senior coordinating producer for the NBA Finals, what made this new team mesh.

"When you add another person to your booth, everyone needs to be a little more unselfish," Corrigan said. "The fun thing with those guys is, they were really very ego-less in recognizing the value of the three of them doing the Finals. I think a lot of it came down to respect for one another and respect for the game."

Perhaps none of this should be a remarkable achievement for an announcing team, but it was. Too often, I think ESPN's announcers are not allowed to be as good as they could be. Whether it's MLB, college baseball or basketball, tennis or golf, they are too seldom allowed to keep their eyes on the ball.

"They do not tell us about the game or players unless there is dead air, because most of the time they are talking about themselves," a viewer said of ESPN's coverage of College World Series baseball.

One Wimbledon viewer complained of announcers chattering "on and on through a match, many times about other players and other matches, speculating about who is going to win." Another complained of "constant irrelevant factoids chatter" during Monday Night Baseball. "Do you want us to actually SEE sporting events, or just hear endless commentary about them?" asked another, going to the heart of the matter.

Too much talk, too little game is the quintessential complaint about ESPN's event telecasting. Some of these complaints arise from a simple mismatch of sensibility between viewer and announcer. What is insight to one viewer may be babble to another. More often, though, I think the complaint arises from a mismatch between what event producers think viewers want and what at least some of us viewers actually want.

"We talk about concentric circles," said Jed Drake, ESPN's senior vice president for remote productions, "where at the very center is the game itself. Our first obligation is to document the game, but as the game ebbs and flows and at times becomes less of a game, then we will go further out from the game to topics that may be germane to specific players, teams, divisions, the league, the sport -- and if you go further out, ultimately the culture."

Announcers are asked to be prepared to talk about topics near and far from the game at hand, but it is the producer who determines which ring on the target they should aim at.

"It is the producer's responsibility to dictate the flow of the telecast," Drake said.

There's the rub, at least for me and many of the viewers who write to the ombudsman. Too often the dictated flow feels, well, dictated. When announcers and camera leave a baseball game for a 30x30 "SportsCenter" update, an in-game update on other teams, a dugout shot, a booth or sideline interview, or a screen-filling statistical graphic, the producer is looking at monitors that tell him or her what is happening in the game. But we viewers are in the dark, wondering what we are missing.

During the eighth scoreless inning of a recent Tigers-Twins Sunday night game on ESPN, Jon Miller and Joe Morgan were discussing the Excedrin Trivia Question when a home run was hit. We didn't know the batter was the Tigers' Marcus Thames till he was rounding first base en route to what proved the game-winning run.

You can't blame the announcers, who are doing what was asked. You can't blame the producer for not knowing the crucial at-bat would come at that moment in the eighth. Miller concentrated his divided attention and picked up the lost stitch as fast as humanly possible.

Still, you can't blame the viewer for feeling the game that night was an afterthought, secondary to discussion of All-Star Game selections, the resignation of Mariners manager Mike Hargrove or a two-inning interview with Hall of Fame broadcaster Ernie Harwell, who talked about Tigers seasons past while the camera helped sell CDs of his "Audio Scrapbook" of interviews with past players. At the beginning and end of the production, we were told this was a "big night for both ballclubs," but in between, surprisingly little attention was paid to the night's event.

This was an extreme, but not isolated, case of the concentric circles going so far out that the game was virtually lost. What is a baseball producer to do with all those slack moments between pitches, those quarter and half and full hours between hits? Can he trust a viewer raised on sound bites and peak-moment highlights to submit to the actual unpredictable flow of a game?

Honestly, I don't know. But I do know that game-avoiding strategies won't hold a restive viewer, either. And my hunch is that going deeper engages a viewer more than going wider. During the first game of a Tigers-Braves series in mid-June, ESPN analyst Dusty Baker talked about the sore, swollen, bruised hands of Atlanta third baseman Chipper Jones. The producer showed flashback footage of Jones landing on those hands after a high-flying leap over another player while baserunning the previous week.

Later in the game when Jones was at bat, announcers Rick Sutcliffe and Dave O'Brien were dutifully discussing the pre-scripted Hot Topic of unbreakable baseball records when Baker interrupted to say, "If anybody is paying attention, you can tell he [Jones] hurt his hands trying to check his swing."

The camera showed Jones releasing his hands from the bat, flexing them, wincing and returning grim-faced to the batter's box. Later still, Jones fielded a sizzling infield grounder with his bare right hand, and if anyone was paying attention, he or she could practically feel the seams of that ball press into swollen purple flesh. For a moment, we were inside the game, and for at least this viewer, that moment was worth a hundred Hot Topics.

I appreciate the concentric circles approach to sports coverage. That's what we expect of "SportsCenter" and of ESPN as a whole -- to place the event in the context of team, division, league, sport, culture. But our interest in the context is built upon our more primary interest in the game. If we rush too quickly and too far from the game, leaving it in the dust of our short attention spans, why should we then care about the mountain of analysis, commentary and gossip that is burying it alive?

"Those of us who oversee all of this are probably our own worst enemies," Drake said, "because we continually demand that our production teams are incredibly prepared to do a telecast that is rich in context, and at the same time have the discipline to be restrained enough to give the telecast some room to breathe. To some degree, these are conflicting agendas."

As the man responsible for all event production, what does Drake think about announcer silence?

"There's not enough of it," he said, "That's my opinion, and at times I feel a bit like Don Quixote. A little bit of natural sound would be a good thing."

Then why aren't there more moments of announcer silence, when viewers might rest their ears on the sound of bat hitting ball or the anticipatory hum of the ballpark crowd?

"It's one of those things that is hard to demand," Drake said, "because announcers are paid to talk, and they have prepared themselves to talk, and they have great insights, and they want to share all of it with you."

Perhaps the problem is one of announcers' being overprepared and games' being overproduced, resulting in live telecasts more scripted than spontaneous. Announcers should not have to multitask through every minute of a three- or four-hour event.

Many of us are forced to multitask away great swaths of our lives, and part of the reason we tune in to games is to be swept up in the natural flow of innings and quarters, sets and rounds.