The headline gives it away, but here’s why I think Grant Brisbee should become a color commenter in nationally televised baseball games:
Major League Baseball finds itself in a demographic crisis. Thirty years from now, there might not be anyone alive who cares about the league enough to watch or attend a game. That’s bad. But the game is healthier than it has ever been, financially, and the quality of play has continued to improve year over year even after a huge PED scandal “rocked” the sport. That’s good.
Baseball’s thought process regarding the demographic cliff it’s racing towards has involved blaming the best player in the game for not being marketable enough and banning defensive shifts. Meanwhile, the cost of going to a game has risen on average by $10 over the past 12 years, the league successfully lobbied the government to screw minor leaguers, and the people paid to nationally televise the game openly deride the sport they’re paid to cover (Joe Buck, John Smoltz) or cover anything other than the game itself (Matt Vasgersian, Jessica Mendoza, Alex Rodriguez).
Joe Buck is a legacy kid propping up the beliefs of his father’s friends and demographic and John Smoltz is a cranky Hall of Famer who just wants it to be like the good ol’ days when he could buzz an annoying twenty-something with a 98 mph fastball when he felt like it.
ESPN’s broadcast is so tied up in sweaty broadcasting gimmicks — the broadcasting booth is in a drone floating above the stadium! Alex Rodriguez is full of himself and Jessica’s gonna poke holes in his persona! We talked to the players before the game! — that it’s not about the game itself and it’s hardly even fun when it comes to the general subject of baseball.
MLB Network has Bob Costas, who is a better historian for the game now than ambassador, even though he certainly has been one in the past. The Facebook Watch broadcasts are this weird hybrid of how old people think young people want to watch an old person’s baseball broadcast and so the supposed innovation of a streaming-only game comes up short.
The average national baseball telecast features one play-by-play dude and one former player and, usually, 9 innings of describing what we just saw, on-camera interviews that distract from the action on the field, and a few discussions on league current events wherein the play-by-play-dude will goad the former player into talking about the way things ought to be or how they used to be when he played.
The thesis of every broadcast is Baseball is bad now because it’s different from when I played it and from when you grew up watching it, and the John Smoltz’s of the broadcast world get paid to take a steaming dump on the sport while the game is happening. Fox even ditched their MLB theme music and replaced it with the NFL theme in order to trick viewers.
You might think that’s because the sport itself is boring, and for some people, that might absolutely be true. But what about the people who enjoy baseball? Or, better yet, what about the people who might enjoy baseball? That’s the audience baseball wants to find anyway, right? Well, in order to do that, someone has to take risks.
If Baseball is willing to experiment with pitch clocks and banning defensive shifts, then why not really shake things up in the broadcast booth? Why not add in new voices? Someone who can speak to the desired demographics. It doesn’t have to be the voice of The Common Man, but the voice of An Informed Person Who Has A Sense of Humor And Love for the Game. Someone who can talk about the current iteration of Baseball without making OPS+ sound like the magic phrase in a sorcerer’s curse.
So, in the interest of promoting the game in a healthy and fun way, and as a fan of the game and the history of the league, I urge MLB and its broadcast partners to put SB Nation’s Grant Brisbee in the broadcasters’ booth.
He’s the untapped potential of baseball’s future. Or, at least, someone like him. It’s not because he’s “funny” or “irreverent”, it’s because he’s an informed outsider. A… Giants Outsider, as it were...
... but the point remains: Grant Brisbee knows baseball and he likes it more than the people covering the game. He’d be a better ambassador for the modern game than virtually all of the current national broadcasters and a lot of the other possibilities because he’s youngish and his on-camera persona suggests a casual guy who doesn’t take himself too seriously.
That’s different from the Dennis Miller era at Monday Night Football, as Miller has always taken his insouciance very seriously – they’re part of his bit. Grant’s bit is befuddled baseball fan just trying to make sense of the sport’s chaos. The beauty of that bit is that Grant is a very clever person who’s able to adapt to new information and himself be a source of entertainment as he informs.
His qualifications seem pretty easy: he’s a national baseball writer (like Tom Verducci), he has over a decade of experience providing instant game analysis (like Joe Buck), and he knows how to take a joke and make a joke at his own expense (to make the former player feel less threatened). He also has a voice that he himself has described as mellifluous and, at times, dulcet. His commentary would be a pleasant intrusion on John Smoltz’s latest rant against people having fun while playing baseball.
Going back to that Dennis Miller experiment on ABC’s Monday Night Football – he was brought in because of continuous ratings decline on the league’s crown jewel national show. Growing cable audiences and younger audiences more interested in stuff like the WWE fragmented that audience. Streaming and video games are the current evildoers fragmenting MLB’s audience, so it’s not absurd to think that they should try to address that audience issue first before radically altering the game itself. Of course, in that MNF situation, the old guys in charge brought back an old guy who had retired and opted to go with the old guy’s version of what “different” was. As a result, we can comfortably look back at a booth of Al Michaels, Dan Fouts, and Dennis Miller as anything but different.
One way to change the nature of a national MLB broadcast is to put someone on the air who actually speaks the language of the audience demographic they want to cultivate. In scripted television development, high school shows aren’t made for high schoolers, they’re made for 9-13 year olds, because they’re the age group most likely to stick with the show through its entire run. And they’re also the demographic most likely to respond to the material because it’s aspirational. So, that’s why I’m not suggesting MLB Network or Fox Sports or ESPN put a zygote in the booth – you have to put someone on air to whom The Kids can relate. Right now, they want viewers who are two generations younger than the broadcasters, and that’s just not going to work.
And it doesn’t have to actually be Grant Brisbee himself, although that would be swell. I’m suggesting him because the likely audience of this post has likely read most of his work and have seen him on TV before. In my semi-pro talent scout view, he has a rare combination of camera ability, improv comedy, and intelligence to convey complicated ideas easily. There are no doubt people of all types with similar skill set and age, so this isn’t me stumping solely for Grant. But a Grant.
In order to get a Grant into the booth, though, we’ll need a revolution. Most former players are insecure and the professional broadcaster is there to run play by play and make them look good. A wild card in the booth has the potential to make them look bad, and a ballplayer’s natural affinity for room dominance will, similarly, make them want to target The Smartest Person In The Room, which fair or not, a more stats-friendly and well-spoken broadcaster will automatically be labeled as by everyone else. This isn’t to say that former players have halted the evolution of the baseball broadcast. It’s the fault of the producers.
We need only look locally to see miracles in broadcasting. Duane Kuiper and Mike Krukow are two of the best baseball broadcasters in the game, both former players but who worked well together and wound up meshing well with the professional broadcasters. Chemistry and character counts, of course, and there’s a booth alchemy few productions master. Broadcasters want their broadcasts to have credibility so that people will listen and former players give them that. And that’s the extent of their creativity in that regard. They know what their audience expects from them because they’ve primed them over decades.
Broadcasters know their demographic and they’re terrified of losing the boner pill-needing, beer-drinking crowd. We will never understand the financial accounting behind catering solely to a demographic until that demographic disappears, but that’s the TV business. The only way this stuff might start to change is on the local level.
Maybe the next time Joe Simpson’s contract comes up, Atlanta might think about how having two stodgy old men in the booth makes it difficult for them to push their young, cheap talent on young, potential ticket buyers who could become lifetime fans. It makes a lot of sense that teams want “the kids” to conform to their elderly views on how human beings should behave, but seeing a bunch of old farts being assholes to a bunch of young people is off putting to young people who might otherwise have been interested in buying tickets or watching your game on TV.
Again, Giants fans are spoiled. Kuiper, Krukow, Miller, and Flemming are not a stats-phobic crowd, they’re charming, effortless in their storytelling, and appreciate both the jobs they have and the game they cover, regardless of how the team’s doing.
Go read Grant Land and tell me that’s not someone who loves the game, warts and all. Then think about the national telecasts you’ve watched — haven’t the broadcasters been a consistent drag on every broadcast?
Baseball’s national TV coverage makes a lot more sense when you view it through the lens of old people losing their minds upon realizing their mortality: they can’t imagine a future without them in it, and so they’d rather there just not be one.