Alek Manoah and the Future of Baseball TV
When Toronto’s Alek Manoah stepped to the mound to pitch the second inning of the All-Star Game, I must admit, my heart sank. Fox had miked him up. And, well, let me show you the instant reaction from the never-ending group chat that I have with Michael Schur and Brandon McCarthy:
“I could not hate this more.” I felt those words thoroughly. The Fox crew of John Smoltz and Joe Davis were trying to joke around with Manoah a bit, he did not seem the least bit interested in joking around with them … or talking to them at all.
“Alek, how you doing?” the announcers said to him.
“I’m good, I’m doing good, here we go,” he said abruptly.
To me, it sounded like: “Would you guys shut the #*$&# up? I’m trying to pitch here.”
Ever since the dawn of television and film, there have been countless efforts to bring the fans closer to the game. I was just watching a documentary about Ayrton Senna … and some of the camera work from inside the race car is simply mind-blowing. Most of the time, cameras inside race cars leave me cold. I don’t feel the speed. I get that the wall is close and things are moving fast and much is a blur, but it doesn’t do anything for me.
But a couple of times during Senna, I actually did feel it.
And I think that more or less sums up my overall feeling about such efforts — I rarely like them. I rarely get anything at all from them putting microphones on players or cameras on helmets or any of that stuff. It’s usually just some blurry shots that don’t amount to much or players shouting out “Whoo!” and “Yeah!” And the only in-game interviews I’ve ever really loved are those Gregg Popovich chats between quarters. They are masterpieces in the theater of the absurd — Pop never lets you forget just how incredibly pointless these interviews usually are.
“I gotta honestly tell you,” he said to the late and great Craig Sager after Sager returned from cancer treatments, “this is the first time I’ve enjoyed doing this ridiculous interview we’re required to do. And it’s because you’re here and you’re back with us. … Now ask me a couple of inane questions.”
Baseball’s efforts to get fans closer to the game have been particularly cringey. The dugout interviews with managers and players during games in almost every case have been worse than pointless; they’ve been unbearably boring. Different camera angles have felt off. A few weeks ago, Peacock tried a game without announcers but with enhanced sounds; that didn’t work at all for me. The on-screen strikeout boxes have probably done about as much harm as good.
A few days ago, I watched the Pedro Martinez classic 1999 game against the New York Yankees from first pitch to last … and I have to say that the experience of watching that game was, if anything, more enjoyable than watching a game now. I went back to watch Len Barker’s perfect game in 1981 — same thing.* Of course, the quality of the picture is way better now, the graphics are way better, the information is way easier to access.
But the game itself on television? No, it’s no better. If anything, for me, it’s worse.
*I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this, but I’m writing a book called Why We Love Baseball, which will be, among other things, a countdown of the greatest moments in baseball history. This is why I’m watching this stuff … and it’s WONDERFUL.
In many ways, I suspect that this failure to update the television baseball experience in any meaningful way speaks to baseball’s difficulty in engaging new fans. How do you update a venerable game like baseball, considering that one of its most stubborn and beloved charms is that it’s the game that DOESN’T change?*
*You might remember that recently MLB eliminated the four-pitch intentional walk. That was, like, a huge change for baseball. The new automatic walk has been around now for five years, believe it or not, and it’s so utterly minor (pitchers used to have to throw the four pitches to walk someone intentionally, now the manager just points to first base) that I imagine most people have never given it a second thought, and why should they? It’s nothing.
But — I’m thoroughly embarrassed to admit this, though it’s simply a fact — every single time a manager points to first base, I am reminded how much I hate this change. I try not to be some yelling-at-clouds baseball traditionalist; I’m actually very open to radical changes to the game including Joe Sheehan’s suggestion to make the games seven innings long (more on this soon). At least that’s what I tell myself. But then I see something as trifling as the elimination of four pointless pitches to intentionally walk someone, and think: Eh, the game is worse without those pitches. The continuity of the game is broken. The fans don’t get a chance to boo. You don’t get a few seconds to fully appreciate the magnitude of what’s happening. It breaks from the history of baseball. It removes the once-in-a-decade thrill of seeing someone reach out, Kelly Leak style, and hit an intentional ball.
The big idea was to save time … but how much time does this really save? And whatever time it DOES save … does it make the game more fun? More interesting? No. Again, I’m embarrassed by how much I care about this, but I’m hoping that the new pitcher’s clock speeds up the game to the point where they bring back the intentional walk.
OK, so, back to Manoah. The inning began with the announcers poking at Manoah for some insight into what he was doing, and he mumbled words that I took to mean, “Leave me alone,” and they kept prodding, and it felt like someone had missed a meeting or that they had miked up Manoah without his knowledge. It was awful.
“You really love baseball, don’t you?” he was asked.
“Yeah, it’s great,” he said quickly, and to cut off any more blather, said, “OK here we go.”
But then, weirdly, something began to happen.
“How hard am I throwing?” Manoah asked the announcers after throwing one by one of the Contreras brothers. They told him his fastball was 94 or 95. It was 93, but that’s OK because it was like a light turned on in Manoah’s head. It was like he suddenly knew how he could make this whole thing fun.
“I thought the adrenaline would give me a couple more,” he said. “All right.” And then he threw a 94-mph fastball on the outside corner, Contreras watched it go by for strike three.
“Here we goooooooooo!” Manoah shouted. “That’s one!”
And suddenly, I had to admit, that was kind of fun. One thing that’s hard to get across on television is how much FUN baseball is. Yes, of course, it’s a business, and these guys are not having “fun” in the same way that it’s fun to play in Little League or high school or even college. But they’re still having fun. They’re still grunting when they throw, and laughing when they come up with an unlikely catch, and pushing to beat the throw to first base.
I want to pause for a minute to describe what happened next because I think it comes closest to explaining the miracle that was happening on the mound.
After the strikeout, Smoltz began asking Manoah about his nerves. “Do you have enough saliva to spit? How’s your heart rate?” he asked. And if I had to describe exactly why these miked-up player things tend to fail so spectacularly, it’s in that question. WHO CARES IF HE HAD ENOUGH SALIVA TO SPIT? I mean, seriously, who cares? This isn’t specific to Smoltz; the questions so many people ask in such circumstances are, in Gregg Popovich’s choice word, “inane.” They don’t satisfy any curiosity at all.
We get that he might be nervous. It’s the All-Star Game.
We also get that he might not be nervous. He’s a professional pitcher.
It doesn’t matter to any of us which it is. Not at all.
And yet, so often, too often, pretty much all the time, these are exactly the sorts of pointless questions the players and managers get asked in the moment. Were you nervous? How were you feeling? Did you still have hope? What was going through your mind? It’s like there’s some sort of boring playbook out there that people have to use in such settings. When you mic up a player or manager and ask them on the spot, "Wow, looks like Walker Buehler is really dealing out there,” or “How confident were you stepping up to the plate?” or “How nervous are you?” well, what do you expect? You will get boring, silly, waste-of-time answers.
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But Manoah flipped the script. He didn’t answer the spit question.
Instead, he asked Smoltz: “Do you think he was sitting on a slider there?”
“I think he was,” Smoltz said.
Oh. Wow. Hold on — was this something INTERESTING actually happening here? Manoah was talking about the strikeout pitch to Contreras. And suddenly, this was insight — it was a 2-2 count, William Contreras crushes fastballs (particularly sinking fastballs) but is hitting .073 on sliders. So, yes, he had to be sitting on a slider.
And Manoah blew the fastball by him instead.
This is absorbing stuff. This truly takes us inside a little bit.
“It must be comforting having your battery mate back there,” the announcers asked him, another boring bomb. “He knows what I want,” Manoah said quickly and dug into pitching and moving on.
“Yeah, there’s the changeup,” Manoah said after throwing a beautiful one for a strike to Joc Pederson.
“You know Joc likes to swing the bat,” Smoltz said, and you kind of got the sense he was beginning to get the feel for what was happening here.
“I didn’t read the scouting report,” Manoah said. “I’m going to take it. You know any more info?”
“Uh, he’s probably swinging,” Smoltz said.
“All right,” Manoah said. “Let’s get something …”
And he fired a 95-mph fastball up in the zone for a strike.
“Wow,” Smoltz said.
“There is it,” Manoah said. “Ninety-five, huh?”
“You can go higher than high or bounce something,” Smoltz said.
“All right,” Manoah replied. “I think he’s looking slider. “We’re going to go heater.”
OK, now I was leaning forward toward the TV, hanging on every word. This was so completely awesome — Manoah was telling us exactly what was going on in his mind as he was pitching. He was taking us with him into the pitcher-hitter duel. He overthrew a fastball that jumped way above the strike zone. The announcers were now wisely staying silent, giving him the stage.
“I think we’re going to go heater again,” Manoah said. His catcher, Alejandro Kirk, flashed the fastball sign. “Yeah, look at Kirk,” Manoah said. “He knows what I want.”
He fired the 96-mph fastball. Pederson barely ticked it foul. “Oh, almost got him,” Manoah said. “Ninety-six! Here we go! Loosening up now.”
“All right,” he then said, “we’re going to back-foot slider.”
“Yeah,” Smoltz said. “Back foot. That’s a good choice right there.”
“Got a lot of options,” Manoah continued. “Front-foot sinker. He’s kind of seen that already, but … I think the slider here. Look at Kirk, he knows what I want.”
Manoah threw the slider … Pederson fouled it off again.
“You don’t have to shake off Kirk too often do you?” they asked him. He was uninterested in the question, so he halfheartedly answered it. When Manoah asked for a new ball, they asked him if knew right away when a ball felt right. He was bored by that question, so he didn’t answer it at all.
“What do you think Kirky calls here?” he asked instead. “I think he calls a front-hip sinker. Let’s see how close I am.”
I cannot tell you how mesmerized I was by this. I’ve so often tried to think with the pitcher; we all do, right? It’s one of the true joys of the game. And now the pitcher was telling us his thought process. Pederson had fouled off a couple of pitches, and Manoah was desperately trying to think of the pitch that would finally put Joc away. Front-hip sinker? That’s the pitch that seemed right to him.
Kirk, instead, called for something else. “Oh, I was wrong,” Manoah said, but he shook off the first sign. The front-hip sinker was what he wanted to throw, and it was the pitch that Kirk called second. Manoah didn’t throw it perfectly; he left the pitch up more than he wanted. But it was good enough, and Pederson swung and foul-tipped the ball into Kirk’s glove for out No. 2.
“Here we gooooooooooo!” Manoah shouted. “That’s two!”
“I didn’t throw that too good,” Manoah added. “It was more like front shoulder than front hip.”
At this point, I began to wonder: Could they simply mic up every pitcher from now on and let THEM announce these games with a talented announcer up in the booth to set them up and enhance the game? Because this was breathtaking stuff. I realize that it was an All-Star Game so it didn’t matter. I realize there aren’t many pitchers like Manoah. But it was just so good.
“They say I’m not good against lefties,” Manoah said as another lefty, Jeff McNeil, stepped to the plate. “Ironic I get two of them.”
Well, not really ironic — I guess it’s ironic in the Alanis Morisette way.
“Are we really playing a shift?” Manoah asked as he was getting ready to pitch (they were). He fired a 95-mph fastball past McNeil.
“By you!” Manoah shouted. “Here we go!”
Next pitch was a fastball that started at McNeil’s back hip and broke back into the strike zone. “Yeah, baby!” Manoah shouted. “Don’t flinch!”
“Are you going to strike out the side in the All-Star Game?” Joe Davis asked him.
“What do you want me to do it on?” Manoah asked back.
Smoltz suggested a back-foot slider low. ‘Oh, you’re sexy,” Manoah said. “Here we go.”
And Manoah’s slider broke off too sharply and hit McNeil in the front foot.
“Yeah, that was a front-foot slider,” he said to McNeil. “My bad.”
Then to himself: “Arrrgh! I should have stuck with the heater.”
I know I’ve said this already, but I cannot remember the last time I was so riveted in the second inning of a baseball game.
Up came Ronald Acuña Jr., and Manoah asked if they knew the scouting report on him. They gave him a pretty unfulfilling report — aggressive, loves the first-pitch fastball.
“I know he hits balls far,” Manoah said.
The first pitch was a fastball that Acuña fouled back. “Yeah!” Manoah shouted. “Foul ball. Don’t catch it!”
Don’t catch it. He wanted the strikeout.
Smoltz took one more step back into Boring Land by asking Manoah about the quality of the mound. I mean, again, who cares? What possible interesting answer could come from that? “It’s covered with spiders?”
Fortunately, Manoah either didn’t hear him or chose to ignore him. He announced the slider, then threw it, but Acuña didn’t offer. “Oh, good take!” Manoah said, impressed. Then, after the pitch, he saw Acuna do a little shuffle with his legs.
“Don’t Soto me!” Manoah said.
This line “Don’t Soto Me” went by mostly unnoticed, but it was SUCH a wonderful reference. Juan Soto is the best in the world — one of the best ever already — at spitting on sliders out of the zone. There’s a reason the guy in the last three seasons has walked almost 100 more times than he has struck out. And often after watching them go out of the zone, he does a little shuffle at the plate. Manoah is using “Soto” as a verb for that little dance.
Acuña fouled off a running fastball to make the count 1-2.
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Smoltz offered that Manoah throw a slider and try to make it look like a strike. “I’m thinking slider too,” Manoah said, “but if I can get a heater up … he’s seen the sinker twice. Something that stays true might throw him off a little bit. That’s what we’re going to go with.”
Back at home, I was so excited to see what would happen next, I could barely stand it. He was going to challenge Acuña with the fastball. If he was wrong, the ball could end up in Burbank. He reared back and fired, aiming for the outside corner. As soon as he let it go, he realized it would catch too much of the plate.
Acuña still swung through it for strike three.
“Right down the middle!” Manoah yelled. “But we’ll take it! Three punchies! Let’s gooooooo!”
And I was up out of my chair like this was the ending of Hoosiers.
Now I think: This is the future of baseball on television. I don’t know how it will work, and I don’t know how long it will take to get there, but we’ve now seen how well this can work. We’ve now seen just how thrilling baseball on TV can be when you can take an audience inside the battle. As Alek Manoah might say: Let’s goooooooooo!