Playing The Game

My buddy Doug Glanville has a piece up over at the New York Times that is partly about ESPN announcer Jessica Mendoza, but mostly is about women covering baseball, either as announcers or, in the case of Spink Award winner Claire Smith, as a writer.

The story is about sexism, plain and simple, but there is another smaller question in there too, one I thought about during Saturday's award ceremony at the Baseball Hall of Fame.

As mentioned, pioneering writer and editor Claire Smith won the Hall's J.G. Taylor Spink Award. Also the fantastic announcer Bill King won the Ford Frick. Most people shorten and call it the "Frick Award," which I find funny because my sense of humor has not evolved yet.

In any case, Claire came to baseball writing -- as she told the story -- because of her deep love of the game and because her father told her to do what she wanted to do in life. She stood up to the game to cover it, enduring sexism, enduring racism (once she was physically removed from a locker room) and she did it all because of her love for baseball and for writing and because her father had told her to do what she wanted to do in life. She has changed the way baseball is covered in the best of ways.

Bill King's daughter Kathleen, meanwhile, told us about her father's deep love for the game. Bill King was a master of the microphone. He was a fantastic football announcer; his call of the Holy Roller play might just be the greatest in NFL history. Susan Slusser, who has been covering baseball almost exactly as long as I have -- sorry Susan, we ain't kids anymore -- says that Bill's real talent was broadcasting basketball, where he was so good that she has never quite loved the game since his death in 2005.

But Kathleen, in accepting the award on behalf of her father, also told us that Bill King was impossibly diverse in his interests. He was en expert sailor. He loved opera and he loved jazz. He helped found a ballet company. He grew so fascinated with Russian history that he actually learned Russian so he could study it more closely. He read everything.

What does any of this have to do with Doug's story about Jessica Mendoza and women baseball broadcasters and analysts. Well, it's my just my opinion, but here goes: I think the ability to play baseball exceedingly well and the ability to offer real insight into the game have absolutely nothing to do with each other. In a Venn diagram, they are two circles that would not touch at all. I think Bill King's love of sailing was every bit as important to baseball broadcasting -- perhaps even more important -- than having played Major League Baseball.

I suspect most people would howl at this, and I get it. Most people think that broadcasting or writing has to do with knowledge, especially innate knowledge, and you really can't KNOW what it feels like to come up with the bases loaded in a tie game or what it's like to pitch the ninth inning on the road at Fenway Park unless you've actually done it. That's true, by the way. You can't KNOW the feeling unless you've felt it.

But, in my view, KNOWING is not what great writing or broadcasting is about. Let's stick with announcing: What do we want from a baseball announcer? We want him or her to be the background music to the game. We want them to be, at different times, funny, thoughtful, perceptive, scientific. We want to them to see things we might have missed, explain things that are curious, give us a historical context when something unusual happens. Sometimes we'd just like to hear the excitment in their voices. We'd love to hear some good stories. We might want to know a little bit more about a player's background. We want them to tell us the score every now and again, reset the situation at precisely the right time, build the drama. We might want to know about the time Henry Aaron did this or Pedro Martinez did that. And if, every now and again, they can predict that what pitch will be thrown or that a suicide squeeze is coming, hey, that's fun too.

Well, how do you deliver these things? Well, it sounds silly, but it takes a bit of magic. Sure, you have to know stuff. But you also have to imagine stuff. You also have to have great timing. It doesn't hurt to have a bit of a poet in you. Great book critics know better than anyone what makes for great literature; but that doesn't mean they can write a great novel (and vice versa, great novelists are rarely great critics). Great singers can break your heart or melt it, but that doesn't mean they can write the words they are singing. And there are great songwriters who can't sing a lick.

Yes, of course, there are those rare people who have multiple talents -- and there are some great athletes who are also great broadcasters. But they are not great broadcasters BECAUSE they were great players; Joe Montana should have ended that nonsense years ago. Their ability in the booth is born of something entirely different from their ability to play baseball; they are natural communicators, born storytellers, they are self-aware in ways that few people are.

A sportswriter or play-by-play broadcasters gets used to the "What do you know, you never played the game," jabs every time we write or say something that people disagree with. The only real response to this is to nod and shrug. Robert Caro was never a U.S. Senator, J.K. Rowling was never a magician, Stephen Spielberg wasn't at D-Day, Lin-Manuel Miranda didn't fight in the Revolutionary War and Vin Scully never played an inning for the Dodgers.

When you talk about what women broadcasters like Jessica Mendoza can add to the game, you are running squarely into the powerful myth that only people who played Major League Baseball can enchance the experience of watching it. I can name a dozen former ballplayers who I think are terrific announcers. And I think they're terrific because they STOPPED BEING former ballplayers, because they stopped relying on their own tired stories and personal biases about the game, because they left the past behind, and they have worked on their craft, and they kept up to date and they are constantly learning all sorts of new things about baseball and life and how to tell a story. I think Jessica Mendoza does all these things. In other words: I think Jessica Mendoza is terrific.