Posted by mike in Annoyances,Sports at 1:23 am on June 19, 2009

One of the things I’ve found (to my pleasant surprise) that I enjoy about having the MLB Extra Innings package on DirecTV is that I get to watch a lot of baseball games with other teams’ announcers calling the plays. While the quality of the commentary varies widely—particularly in regards to the hometown bias factor—it’s kind of nice to watch some games from the other team’s point of view. I also get a nice sampling of what kinds of coverage and commentary there are around baseball. A lot of the time this gets annoying, though, especially with some of the smaller-market teams, which aren’t able to attract (and pay for) quality announcers.

In the NL Central, which is the majority of the baseball that I end up watching, the Cardinals, Pirates, and Reds tend to have announcers that shade more towards the “hillbilly fan” end of the spectrum, while the Cubs, Astros, and Brewers have guys who come across more as professional broadcasters in their booths. In the case of the Cubs and Astros, I think this is because they’re major-market teams; in the case of the Brewers, it’s because they have Hall of Fame announcer Bob Uecker calling the plays, who’s one of the best around. While I’m obviously preferential towards Len and Bob—I think they provide a tasteful amount of home-team favoritism while still keeping things professional, although they are occasionally a bit dry—it’s surprisingly fun to give some of the other announcers a listen from time to time.

Hawk and Steve That’s not to say that they’re all good, and tonight’s Cubs-White Sox game provided a remarkably obvious example of how bad some announcers can be—especially when they’re frustrated with their team and overly invested in it to the point of becoming unprofessional. In this case, we have Ken “Hawk” Harrelson, who has called games for the South Siders for 20 seasons now. Most Sox fans I know tend to like Hawk’s unabashedly biased play-calling, which he often supplements with shameless cheerleading. This is all well and good, if that’s the kind of commentary you prefer. The flip side of that coin, though, is that he sometimes comes across as the worst kind of fan: the umpires are always out to get the Sox, the opposition sometimes makes lucky plays while the Sox are just downright talented, things like that. I’m actually fine with this; while I think I’d find it a little embarrassing if my team’s announcers were so partisan, Sox fans seem to like him and appreciate his style, and that’s cool with me. Just don’t flat-out lie about the game you’re calling, please.

I’ll try to set the stage: it’s the bottom of the 8th inning, with the White Sox winning 5-1. The Cubs’ first batter (Micah Hoffpauir) reaches base on an error. The next batter is Alfonso Soriano, who with 2 strikes in the count gets this pitch:

Soriano takes a pitch outside

The Hawk is convinced that’s an obvious strike: “That ball had the plate. Had the outside edge of the corner.” The above picture is from the replay they showed, which Hawk was convinced reaffirmed his belief that it should’ve been a called third strike. His color man, Steve Stone (formerly the Cubs’ color commentator), tries to remain more diplomatic about it, but humors his partner just the same and agrees with him that it was probably a strike. Honestly, I think it’s one of those pitches that could’ve been called either way, but in the picture above I think it’s definitely more ball than strike. But whatever, the subjectivity of the umpire calling balls and strikes is part of the game, right?

On the next pitch, Soriano gets a base hit. The next two batters (Ryan Theriot and Milton Bradley) are retired, bringing the hot-streak-riding Derrek Lee to the plate with 2 outs, who proceeds to hit a 3-run homer. (Sub-rant: Why doesn’t MLB offer the ability to embed their videos?)

Next up is Geovany Soto, who also hits a home run, tying the game. Harrelson proceeds to lose it, repeatedly referring to the Sox giving up “4 unearned runs” to allow the Cubs to tie the game. For those of you keeping score, only the run scored by Hoffpauir was actually unearned, because he reached on an error. Soriano had a base hit, and Lee and Soto hit home runs, all of which are most decidedly earned runs on every score sheet except for Hawk’s. (I think he might’ve been trying to imply that Soriano reaching base was the result of an “error” on the home plate umpire, but he never clarified). So much for accurately reporting the events of the game. (Update: Apparently I am incorrect in my interpretation of how these runs should be scored; see the comments below for clarification.)

One of my biggest pet peeves with sports announcers in general is that they like to imply that if you changed the outcome of a single play, it is reasonable to assume that ensuing plays’ outcomes will remain unchanged. Hawk is happy to commit this commentator sin as well: he believes that had Soriano gotten out on what he felt should’ve been a called third strike, then Theriot and Bradley would’ve proceeded to get out in the same fashion as they actually did, and the inning would’ve been over without the Cubs scoring any runs, much less 4. As if them batting with an additional out, or with fewer runners on base, would be the same. Who’s to say the same pitches would’ve been thrown to them, with the same amount of success, their swings would’ve been the same, and all of the other little variables that contribute to how a single at-bat plays out would remain invariant? It’s nonsensical to think this way. (And in fact, I tend to believe that any time one endeavors to comment on what “would have” happened in almost any situation—sports or otherwise—they’re likely doing little more than demonstrating willful ignorance… Generalizations like “if that bomb had gone off, people would have died” aside, of course.)

It doesn’t quite end there. In the top of the 9th inning, with Paul Konerko batting, he gets thrown “the same pitch” (according to Harrelson), which is this time called a strike.

Konerko looks at a strike

Hawk can’t take it: “Why is that a strike on him, but it wasn’t a strike on Soriano?” he asks. I think the proof is in the pictures, which incidentally were taken from the same replays he was watching while continuing to whine about the supposedly-biased umpiring.

In the bottom of the 9th, Soriano—the beneficiary of the non-strike call that got the Cubs’ rally started in the first place—knocked in the game-winning run, just to rub it in. “5 to 1 lead going into the bottom of the 8th inning… 4 unearned runs… and they pitch to Soriano, and he gets the base hit,” Hawk summarizes.

There’s nothing wrong with being passionate about your team, even in the case of an announcer. In fact, this is one of the things that makes baseball unique: each team has their own set of commentators, who bring their own perspective to the games, and can typically assume that their audience consists largely of that team’s fan base. But going overboard by trying to frame the events of the game you’re calling in an untruthful manner, and then whining about it on top of that, isn’t something I can imagine anybody enjoying. (Stone, I should say, remained silent every time Hawk mentioned the “4 unearned runs,” presumably not wanting to get into an on-air fight with his incensed partner.)

At least he faithfully reported the outcome of the game: Cubs 6, White Sox 5. Whether the runs were earned or not.

One called a ball, one called a strike

Comments (7)

7 Responses to “Hawk Eye”:

  • Comment by Tree at 4:28 pm on June 19, 2009

    Some of the Sox fans I know, including myself, absolutely cannot stand Hawk. He is a jackass. He is completely unprofessional, ridiculous, calls the game more like a fan than an announcer. Until Steve Stone came along this season, the TV stayed on ‘mute’.

  • Comment by Andy at 1:49 pm on June 21, 2009

    I think technically they were 4 unearned runs by definition because Hoffpauir would have been the first out and then Theriot and Bradley are outs 2 and 3. The box score seems to show the same thing as well since Linebrink has no earned runs. http://scores.espn.go.com/mlb/boxscore?gameId=290618116

  • Comment by Andy at 1:51 pm on June 21, 2009

    I meant to also add that even though two runs were by homeruns, he should have been out of the inning already. It goes along with your “it is reasonable to assume that ensuing plays’ outcomes will remain unchanged” comments and I think they have also scored plays in this manner. I do find Hawk annoying, however, luckily he has Stone with him now rather than DJ.

  • I think it is totally not reasonable to assume that they would’ve gotten out had the preceding play progressed differently. That’s a completely insane way of looking at the world in general.

    You’re right, though, the official scoring does appear to back up Hawk’s interpretation, not mine. I’ll chalk it up as yet another item on the long list of nuances of baseball scoring that make no fucking sense.

  • Comment by Andy at 2:25 pm on June 21, 2009

    Yeah I guess I didn’t look at what I copied and pasted there but I was trying to say that baseball is looking at it the same way as you do. If a starter gets two outs, a runner reaches on an error, baseball is saying he may not have given up the homer the next inning. I tend to think that if you give a homerun, its your fault no matter what and it should be an earned run.

  • That’s the way I look at it, too. Maybe the runners who were on base weren’t his fault, but I don’t see how he can’t take the official blame for giving up the home run(s).

    I guess from the scoring perspective, Linebrink did his job prior to any of those runs scoring: he got 3 guys to hit into what should’ve been outs (according to the scorekeeper). Seems like scoring-wise, they completely let him off the hook after that, though. Just doesn’t make sense to me.

  • Comment by Carl at 11:56 am on June 24, 2009

    I know he’s not a baseball announcer or even a tv announcer but I wish Jeff Joniak could announce everything ever.

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