What’s Wrong With TV Baseball? Learning From Red Barber and MLB Classics

We may never see a one-person announcer's booth ever again. (via Floatjon)

We may never see a one-person announcer’s booth ever again. (via Floatjon)

Of the major sports, I believe baseball is by far the least suited to television. It lacks the constant motion of hockey, soccer and basketball, and neither does it have the predictability of football. It covers an awkward and irregular area as opposed to the convenient rectangles of most sports. Combine all these awkward difficulties presented in broadcasting baseball, and the result is the widest gap between the televised game experience and the live game experience in sports.

This shouldn’t be considered a knock on baseball. Baseball was not created for television. It was originally created by and for newspapers, and later adapted seamlessly to radio. The dimensions and unpredictable action of baseball, no problem for a fan with full view from the stands, pose a dilemma for a fixed camera. Baseball remains a game best experienced in the stands, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Still, I believe the typical televised baseball broadcast is not squeezing as much as it can out of the medium. Perhaps part of the problem is the standardization of these broadcasts. Aside from Vin Scully’s Dodgers broadcast, every television broadcast is conducted with a two or three-person booth, plus sideline reporters. These broadcasts use similar broadcast angles, lean heavily on replays and constant cuts to multiple camera angles, and employ regular use of graphics and statistics. This standardization has come at the expense of experimentation, and creative attempts at a different kind of baseball broadcast are rare.

I wanted to dive into the archives to learn a little bit more about how we got to this point. Major League Baseball’s adaptation to the internet has been stunningly excellent across the board. Of course, MLB.TV is the league’s technological crown jewel, but MLB Advanced Media has also done excellent work with its selection of archived footage available for viewing at its MLB Classics YouTube page. Thanks to the magic of technology, the Yankees’ Game Seven victory over the Dodgers in the 1952 World Series is just a few clicks away, and presented in fantastic quality:

Games Six and Seven of the 1952 series are the oldest televised broadcasts of World Series game available, preserved by broadcast sponsor Gillette. It was just the second time the World Series had been broadcast coast to coast and the sixth time it had been broadcast on television in any market. Through this video and the others on the MLB Classics page, not only can we see the players and games who made baseball history, but also the evolution of the medium that presented it all.

The influence of radio on the earliest television baseball broadcasts is apparent in Gillette’s production of the 1952 World Series’ seventh game. The broadcast was conducted by two radio men, the Dodgers’ Red Barber and the Yankees’ Mel Allen. Due to the limitations — there were far fewer camera angles to choose from, there was no instant replay, and of course, no color — the voices of the announcers were critical to following the action, and as a result it could be argued the sound was the more crucial part of the broadcast to the fan than the sight. Their announcing style is far more reminiscent of the radio style than today’s typical two-person, play-by-play-and-color booths.

The broadcasters, however, did not overwhelm viewers with a wall of words. Barber and Allen both allowed the game to breathe, as the best radio announcers have always done. The audio was mixed so that the sounds of the park were always coming through, even to the point where the broadcast used the public address system to introduce batters. Because of the limited number of camera angles — the center field angle we’re so familiar with wasn’t popularized until the 1955 All-Star Game — and the lack of replays, the broadcast had a consistent flow televised baseball today can lack. Rather than constantly flipping between angles and replays and on-screen graphics, in the 1950s, we simply saw the field. And so even in grainy black and white, there was a remarkable feeling of being present at the stadium.

The similarity of the early televised baseball broadcast to its radio counterpart is part of the larger history of the two communication technologies. As Tim Wu details in his book The Master Switch, RCA, the nation’s largest manufacturer of radios and also the owner of NBC, one half (along with CBS) of the nation’s broadcasting duopoly, and perhaps most critically the owner of the nation’s broadcasting infrastructure, worked vigorously to ensure that television would not develop as its own technology but instead as a supplement to radio. Inventors like Charles Francis Jenkins and Philo Farnsworth found themselves frozen out of the market thanks to FCC rules — crafted by RCA — against television technology until RCA’s version of the television was ready to be unleashed.

In 1939, RCA president David Sarnoff ushered in the television at the 1939 World’s Fair. The centerpiece of an exhibit called “The Radio Living Room of Tomorrow” was RCA’s electronic television. Standing at a podium next to rows of television sets covered with drapes, Sarnoff announced, “society. Television is an art which shines like a torch of hope to a troubled world. It is a creative force which we must learn to utilize for the benefit of mankind.… Now, ladies and gentlemen, we add sight to sound!”

The drapes were removed and the rows of televisions broadcasting Sarnoff’s own image at the podium were revealed. It captivated the newsmen in attendance and outlets like The New York Times and The New Yorker proclaimed it “the birth of television.” But in reality, what we had seen was the extension of Sarnoff and RCA’s radio empire to television as well. As Wu writes, “When TV reached consumers after the war, it was, as prophesied, a replica of radio in all respects. The programming was sponsored by advertisers, most of the shows simply adaptations of existing radio programs.” And the World Series, brought to you by Gillette, was no different.

Sight remained secondary to sound in baseball broadcasts for years to come. The 1965 World Series, Game Seven of which can be seen here, looks and sounds much the same as the 1952 version, broadcast by Vin Scully instead of Red Barber. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, television technology improved greatly. Color became standard. Electronic character systems made on-screen graphics much easier, beginning with the characteristic yellow text overlays. Broadcasts began carrying four cameras or more with regularity, and the center field camera overtook the overhead home plate camera as the default shot.

1965vs1977

Slowly but surely, as television’s ability to display (and then replay) the action with more and more precision from more and more angles improved, the visual part of the broadcast became the centerpiece. The result was a significant change in the job of the announcers. The play-by-play man’s duty was no longer to describe the action; the visuals did that job well enough themselves.

Len Kasper, television play-by-play announcer for the Cubs, talked to Carson Cistulli for FanGraphs Audio about the difference between radio and television play-by-play styles. Although Kasper said he found the radio job more difficult, it’s also more straightforward for the play-by-play man. “On television, you have a blank canvas,” Kasper said. “So it becomes an analyst’s medium.” The job of the announcers underwent a shift from describing to explaining or supplementing. And with each new cut or new graphic shown on the screen, there was something else to explain or analyze. You can see this showing up in broadcasts as early as the 1980s, as broadcast crews began bringing in baseball men like Earl Weaver to offer their wisdom in dead times.

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Red Barber, the announcer of the oldest televised World Series in the archive, issued his displeasure with this new form of televised baseball. “I think it’s a mistake to televise baseball the way they’re doing it today,” TRUE magazine quoted Barber in its July 1971 issue. “All the instant replays and stop-action shots and slow-motion effects drive you to distraction. The continuity of the contest is destroyed. When I watch a baseball game on TV these days I get restless and irritated and pretty soon I turn it off. I don’t have to take that kind of punishment.”

Rather than follow Barber’s advice, television broadcasts instead doubled down on technological advances. NBC used 13 cameras at the 1983 All-Star Game, triple the typical camera load circa 1970. That number doubled again by 2006, when Fox used 28 cameras. Every network has introduced its own version of slow-motion cameras, from ABC’s “Super Slo Mo” to NBC’s “Super Duper Slo Mo” to Fox’s “FOXMO” and on and on. Most recently, strike zone overlays powered by PITCHf/x have become ubiquitous, and the power of StatCast promises to add more in the near future.

In the top of the fifth inning of 1990 World Series Game Four, for instance, an inning that took just over five minutes of real time, the broadcast changed cameras 48 times and displayed eight different graphics. The top of the fifth inning of Game Seven of the 2001 World Series, just under eight minutes long, included a whopping 96 camera changes by my count. It puts into perspective how little attention I usually pay to the broadcast when I watch baseball—I’m either talking to someone or checking a second screen in the dead time, and I don’t notice the frantic way the camera tries to pull our attention this way and that. It’s difficult to stay present with the action when the camera is continually presenting a new thing to focus on.

Barber complained that some television announcers had “vocal diarrhea” and that they “have no respect for the emphasis that can be given by a moment of silence.” I think this idea can be extended to the visual aspect of the TV broadcast as well. A jumpy camera makes for a noisy broadcast. Instead of letting at-bats breathe in a 0-0 Game Seven, the camera cut haphazardly between faces in the Yankee dugout, batters pacing in the on-deck circle, or a choice of three glamorous low-angle shots of Curt Schilling’s chin.

schillingchinsallofem

Game Six of the 2013 World Series featured a similarly long fifth inning and 88 cuts, or basically the same thing but with John Lackey’s disgusting baseball chin replacing Schilling’s. The graphics look much sharper and high definition and widescreen format makes for a much prettier view. But even in HD, the haphazard cuts remain distracting. The awkwardness of capturing all of baseball’s action—what little action there actually is—hasn’t gone away with high definition. Just as in Barber’s time, baseball television broadcasts are trying to hammer a baseball field-shaped peg into a television-shaped hole, and we still haven’t found a good solution.

But I believe part of the problem is the way the baseball broadcast has become, as Kasper called it, an analyst’s medium. This can work well, in cases like Kasper’s own Cubs broadcast, a rare combination of a curious and knowledgeable analyst in Jim DeShaies and a studied play-by-play man in Kasper. But if one or both of the announcers lacks the inquisitiveness or intelligence the format demands, it can swiftly devolve into what Cistulli called a “masculine ethic, where if you don’t necessarily have an explanation, you invent one.”

Barber said, simply, “I think the viewer just wants to hear and see the ball game. Otherwise why did he turn it on?” Instead, we get overstuffed booths trying to explain a game the camera refuses to give us a chance to focus on. The action-analysis-repeat rhythm that makes so much sense for football only serves to call unneeded attention to baseball’s dead times.

The increase in the baseball broadcast’s technical capability was readily apparent as I progressed through the MLB Classics archives. Unfortunately, it feels like these technological advances haven’t created a more coherent presentation of the game. The sound aspect of the broadcast has been liberated from a pure narration role and turned into Kasper’s blank canvas. It can be anything we want it to be. And we’ve been given, until recently, almost nothing but old men talking at each other and trying to explain a game that has already happened right in front of our eyes.

So, I would offer two suggestions. First, dial back the cuts and camera changes. This is a far bigger issue with national broadcasts than local broadcasts. ESPN and the networks bring as many as four times more camera operators to their productions, and the temptation to use a new toy as many times as possible or as a vehicle for an advertisement in the playoffs can be too much for network executives to pass up. If these directorial choices are an attempt to distract people from “how boring baseball is”—or distract from “pace of play issues” to use the preferred language—it doesn’t work. People who already think baseball is boring will only have their attention called to the fact no game action is happening. And people who like baseball just want, as Barber said, to see and hear the game.

Second, dial back the announcers’ role significantly. MLB.TV’s park overlay audio feature, which pipes in the sound of the ballpark without any announcers at all, is a great way to watch a game. I think the ideal baseball broadcast is far from mute, but the park overlay feature has shown me the combination of a visual, the crack of the bat or the pound of the mitt, and the noise of the crowd tells a powerful story. It’s a story that doesn’t need to be drilled into and explained to microscopic levels by broadcasters. That’s what friendly banter and Baseball Twitter and sportswriters are for. Too much from the announcers can obstruct the story the raw feed is trying to tell.

I don’t expect either of these to happen any time soon. Televised baseball is first and foremost a vehicle for advertising, and silencing the announcers would be a significant problem on that front. Even if accommodating sponsors wasn’t an issue, the baseball broadcast as an analyst’s showcase has become a pervasive norm that won’t be changed easily. But I think it’s a mistake to treat viewers as if they need their hands held throughout the whole game. Baseball captures us because the stories it creates on its own are gripping and need no explanation. And because of that, I believe a television broadcast that simply did less, stayed out of the way, and let the events of the game tell those stories would be more enjoyable for fans and casual viewers alike.

References & Resources


Jack Moore's work can be seen at VICE Sports and anywhere else you're willing to pay him to write. Buy his e-book.
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Bill Burck
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Bill Burck
I really welcome this analysis and hope you have spurred a dialogue that gathers steam rather than remains a voice in the wilderness. I couldn’t agree more about the many cuts. It definitely interrupts the game’s flow, as you say. But there is another, perhaps even more dismal effect. The directors of these broadcasts cannot help themselves; they produce and serve up close up after close up after close up. We go from one player’s face to a manager’s face to another player’s face to a fan’s face to a shot of the pitcher on the mound to perhaps a… Read more »
Dave Cornutt
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Dave Cornutt
This is one of the things that has disappointed me about the adoption of HDTV… I had hoped that wider perspectives and more resolution would allow us to see more of what goes on in the field in sports broadcasts. As Bill point out, in a baseball game you don’t have the complete picture if you can’t see how the defense is positioned, especially now that shifts are being used so often. (An analogy from another sport: in football you don’t have the whole defensive picture if you can’t see how the defensive backfield is lined up, and without that… Read more »
Only GLove, No Love
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Only GLove, No Love

Excellent point. I hadn’t realized the extent of this until you mentioned it. And I think it is why I can almost not watch televised sports any more. The endless and pointless closeups on the players faces is really offputting and invasive.

Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider
Great article. When MLB network started, they showed Don Larsen’s perfect game that was announced by Mel Allen and Vin Scully. It was a classic of minimalism. Obviously, there wasn’t the overabundance of technology that Jack describes, but there was also not the logorrhea of announcers thinking that they had to say something to fill time. And the modern announcer appears to feel that he has to provide enthusiasm to fill the void. Watching the MLB telecasts of the division series, you would think that this was the first time home runs had ever been hit, judged by the hysteria… Read more »
senpaisanto
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senpaisanto
great article! i’ve found my preferred home-viewing set-up to be the radio call (off a laptop running MLB.tv) w/ the telly on mute. there does seem to be a dearth of context and continuity in television broadcasts relative to radio calls. it’s great you’ve provided a historic overview of these broadcasts that modulate the game for so many fans, and i reckon the “evolution” shall continue relentlessly. collectively, i gather we’re only scratching the surface of this technological moment – big data and baseball ought to go together like chocolate and peanut butter! but yeah, shiny new toys (in whatever… Read more »
Only GLove, No Love
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Only GLove, No Love

I am one step further than you down the road. I watched the last half of the season with only the “ballpark sound” option via MLB.tv through my ROKU. It was fantastic.

ShinyThing
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ShinyThing

The 1952 World Series game you have linked is fascinating. I think it draws your attention much more than the constant explaining and many different camera angles of games nowadays.

Rob Curtis
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Rob Curtis

I also agree wholeheartedly with the article. Let the game itself tell the story as much as possible. Networks would get a clue about this if they took a poll on how fans rated the announcers– I’m confident that you would find a direct correlation between fans dislike of the announcer and the amount of inane blabbering done by said announcer. I love Red’s term, “vocal diarrhea.”

Michael (Hysterical & Useless)
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Michael (Hysterical & Useless)

“the modern announcer appears to feel that he has to provide enthusiasm to fill the void”

If that’s a problem for you Marc, we’ve got a Joe Buck you can have real cheap!

Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider

I understand your point, but there should be a middle ground between hysteria and death. 🙂

Mr Punch
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Mr Punch
Great article. I saw my first TV WS in 1954, and I agree with much of this, but not all. The ’55 broadcasts you link to are pretty much what regular-season games were like into the ’70s (adding the CF camera, as you note). But the Series telecasts were great, in the ’60s and ’70s, precisely because there were more cameras and more analysis, and viewers could learn more about baseball than they could watching or attending other games. But there’s a cost, and it has become prohibitive. In postseason baseball, when many viewers are not regular fans of the… Read more »
Eric
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Eric

I only read the first sentence, but I believe you are insanely wrong.

Eric
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Eric

2 paragraphs in, I’m doubting my first impression and, the comment from which it resulted.

Eric
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Eric

Turns out I love you.

bucdaddy
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bucdaddy
I wish I had a nickel for every shot I’ve ever been shown of Joe Torre sitting arms crossed and stone-faced in the Yankees’ dugout, doing absolutely nothing. I believe that in large part the games have gotten much longer because, yeah, for one thing commercials. But I’m also certain that the players have learned to preen for the cameras. I have the DVD of Game 7 of the 1960 Series, and one thing that becomes obvious real quick is that the batters almost uniformly got in the batter’s box and stayed there (for one thing, they weren’t wearing batting… Read more »
sturock
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sturock

I wish someone would invent an app where the viewer could silence the announcers while still able to hear the ambient sounds of the game and the ballpark. There is way too much talking.

Jake Petersen
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Jake Petersen

If you have MLB TV you can switch the audio feed to “park audio” during any game. Give it a try!

Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider

It would also help if Fox wouldn’t use the post-season to market every damn show on its lineup by showing the stars in the stands pretending to like baseball.

bucdaddy
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bucdaddy
Oh, BTW, this is a really good piece. I agree 100%. I like baseball in the ballpark because I’m not limited to one view. I can look at the skyline of Pittsburgh from most seats in PNC, I can enjoy the sunshine, I can see which way the wind is blowing, and how hard (TV almost never shows this), I can see where all of the defense is positioned (TV almost never shows this), I can check out the good looking women or make gentle fun of some doofus in the next section, I can scoreboard-watch, and I never, EVER,… Read more »
Jake Petersen
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Jake Petersen

I personally enjoy the close up angles. Baseball is a game of inches and that is a beautiful thing. Seeing how close a play was in high definition slow motion is the best way to display the beauty of this game.

Sometimes I actually prefer to watch a baseball game on TV. When I go to the game there is nothing like being physically apart from the experience but at these big league parks it is hard to see what is even going on.

Pirates Hurdles
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Pirates Hurdles

I think the thing mostly lost here is that networks are not doing all those annoying things (I’ll add another, constant shots of the fans mugging about) for hardcore baseball fans that may read this site. It is intended (perhaps erroneously) to draw in casual viewers and make the game more attractive to youths who generally have the TV on while playing on an IPad with their phone beside them. Seems like this article is preaching to the choir, but the choir isn’t the marker MLB is trying to capture, our souls are already sold.

Jeff B.
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Jeff B.
Love this analysis. I too often watch with the TV broadcasters muted and the radio play by play call. Paints a much better picture. But allows one to see some stuff that can only be seen on TV. I am fine with the slo mo replays because sometimes the action happens so fast that it is nice to see it slowed down. But the frenzied cuts are crazy. I think the coverage should be more like Golf where we get a lot of wide angle shots. They could add a subtle tracer to the ball to make it easier to… Read more »
Blake
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Blake
Terrific analysis, though there is one point it skips. Why do national networks insist on giving us not only stupid announcers, but announcers who boast about their stupidity as a feature, not a bug? I live in the Bay Area and get to hear smart analyses from both teams. Then I turn on a playoff game and somebody is pronouncing, “I don’t understand these advanced statistics.” Then why are you doing a national broadcast? I don’t need — or want — you to talk about the pitchers’ xFIP, but you should understand it. Harold Reynolds: Why is he on every… Read more »
Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider

That’s exactly right and I totally agree about Harold Reynolds. Maybe in the Bay Area the local announcers are better, but, here in DC, the Nationals TV team is even worse. And, when the Braves were on TBS (not exactly local), and Jeff Francouer was on the team, some of the announcers would mock the notion that he really wasn’t that good-because, after all, he was a clutch performer who had a lot of RBIs.

Lee Ambolt
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Lee Ambolt
I strongly disagree with your initial premise. I find the qualities of baseball to be in fact the opposite – its perfect for television, but I Think thats coming from a european perspective, where in the UK we are treated to the luxury of sports without Commercial breaks (even on Commercial channels our sports are generally only interrupted at the half), I find sports like the NFL which I used to love, more and more insufferable for the Commercial and non sport related content to actual action ratio gets worse each year. When I look back fondly on the 80s… Read more »
james wilson
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james wilson

The great difference which a one man booth creates is a superior artist. The two and three man dog and pony shows exist to cover deficiencies. The one man booth requires more of the man and he develops his game because of that, or he does not belong in the booth.

If it can ever be done, tv baseball would be a great visual product in surround screen tv.

FrankDrakman
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FrankDrakman
This is amazing, as just last night I was considering writing an article on how modern TV has made baseball immensely more enjoyable to watch at home. First off, some tech/sociology comments. Back in the 60’s of black and white TV, Marshall McLuhan wrote that “TV is a mosaic; a collection of dots that the user must ‘fill in’ to complete, which is why TV is so absorbing” (all quotes approximate, but the gist is correct). He was talking about old 525-line TV’s, and in fact, predicting the rise of high-def TV, he noted that “when TV reaches the resolution… Read more »
Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider
I understand your point. I guess, though, the difference I find between watching a game on TV and in person is that I feel much more absorbed in the environment when I am at the game. On TV-especially during the playoffs-there is so much time between pitches that I get more absorbed in reading my book than in the game. I realize that the down time is the same at the ballpark but somehow I find other things to look at-the position of the fielders, the out-of-town scores, the bullpen, etc. At home, I find the time between pitches to… Read more »
John G.
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John G.
Spot-on with regard to the “analyist’s medium.” I call it “The Lazy Joe Buck Model” for creating a canned storyline. For any game, Step 1 is for the announcer to advocate forcefully for certain line-up move, often a pitching change, sometimes a pinch-hitter or pinch-runner, usually some form of armchair overmanaging. As Step 2, if the move is made and it turns out well, or if the move isn’t made but the situation still turns out well, the announcer spends the rest of the game repeatedly proclaiming the manager to be a genius for that one move or non-move; if… Read more »
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Michael Bacon
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Michael Bacon
The comments are almost as good as the article, maybe more entertaining. As a so-called, “Baby Boomer,” I am of the TV generation. I vividly recall when my favorite TV show of all-time, The Fugitive, was first broadcast in color in 1966. I regularly, and avidly, watched the Game of the Week on Saturdays with Ol’ Diz and Pee Wee. They did not need anyone else in the booth because the third man, or to be PC, woman, only serves to prove that, “Two’s company. Three’s a crowd.” As a boy I was taken to Ponce de Leon ballpark to… Read more »
Tony K
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Tony K
“Back in the day” baseball was for the masses. Now it is for the “well-heeled.” This change bodes ill for the future of MLB. Years ago people went to a baseball game to watch a baseball game. Turn on your TV and you see people-I purposefully did not use the word “fans”-doing everything, anything, other than watching the game. Could this be because of all the different delays? I was watching a game and yet another long ball was hit over the fence, into a swimming pool. A SWIMMING POOL, for crying out loud. The ball could have hit one… Read more »
edgar
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edgar
this article is amazing, i want tell you my history: i am from ecuador, i fell in love with the game in 2009, i see my first game in november in a holiday in my country, if was cc sabathia vs cliff lee in yankee stadium, you remember that day right? i enjoy viewing baseball, its true that i engage seeing it in that postseason, bu since that day a truly deepen in knowing almost everything i could about it, i primarly like the history that brought to knowing to the game of america this season i engage in this… Read more »
Richard Chester
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Richard Chester

The most annoying thing to me is the preponderance of the extraneous interviews during the game, some of which have nothing to do with the game. I watch TV to see the game, I can catch the interviews on talk shows.