Missing the best of Tim McCarver

Hunter Martin

Tim McCarver signed a book for me.

Which I mention only because I was completely surprised to discover that Tim McCarver signed a book for me. I remembered that McCarver had co-authored a book titled Tim McCarver's Baseball for Brain Surgeons and Other Fans, and I remembered that I own it. What I didn't remember was that, based on the evidence at hand, I attended a book-signing in Seattle and McCarver signed a copy for me.

This would have been in the spring of 1998, and probably at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Company, then just a few blocks from the Kingdome, home of the Mariners. Sadly, Elliott Bay has now moved far away from the bay; not so sadly, the Kingdome is gone. There are a lot of books like this one -- penned by the likes of Joe Morgan and Keith Hernandez and Jerry Remy and Ron Darling and others -- and for some reason I've never been able to finish even one of them. I'm sure that says something about me, but that something is a subject for another day, maybe.

Also, and this is actually a random thing, I came across a 14-year-old article in The New Yorker about McCarver, written by Roger Angell. Angell clearly admired McCarver's work, and McCarver himself. Considering that McCarver was in the habit of quoting Shakespeare during broadcasts, and was reading The Gulag Archipelago during road trips during his playing career, the hyper-literate Angell's admiration isn't so surprising. These things lead me to admire McCarver, too.

I just wonder if I missed most of what Angell saw in McCarver. He worked for years on local broadcasts in New York, first with the Mets and then briefly with the Yankees. When middle-aged baseball fans rave about how much McCarver taught them about baseball, they're almost always fans who lived in New York and listened to McCarver game in and game out.

For most of the rest of us, though, it was different. McCarver the broadcaster didn't really hit my radar screen until the middle 1990s, and what always impressed me wasn't his insightful analysis, but rather his insistence on not just making awful jokes and puns, but on repeating them in case you missed it the first time. I don't remember any Shakespeare at all ... but then again, if he'd dropped in a "Mirth cannot move a soul in agony" when I was listening then, I wouldn't have known it was Shakespeare.

I do worry that I've been missing something for the last 20-odd years, and I wanted to be especially fair to McCarver at the end of his career. So after watching Game 6, I watched it again, this time focusing specifically on McCarver's analysis. Maybe if I just paid close attention, I would understand. Maybe I would understand what people loved so much about McCarver, and maybe I would understand baseball at least a little better.

Here were the highlights I gleaned from McCarver's Game 6 analysis:

  • In the bottom of the first, Pedroia launched the first pitch he saw well over the left-field barrier, just a few feet foul. Joe Buck reminded us that Pedroia did the same thing in the ALCS against the Tigers. McCarver went deeper: "This reminds me of the second pitch of the ball game against Colorado in 2007. Second pitch, high fastball from Jeff Francis. That one was fair. This one was foul." I was at that game, and I forgot it was the second pitch, and that it was a high fastball, and that Jeff Francis threw it. McCarver's ability to tie something he just saw to something, very specifically, he saw six years ago is delightful.
  • In the bottom of the second, Xander Bogaerts came up after a walk, with nobody out and two runners aboard. Bogaerts swung at the first pitch and fouled out. McCarver: "There are two schools of thought on that. One is to take the first pitch, after a walk, because the pitcher's more inclined to be wild. One to which I subscribe -- and most big-league hitters do -- is because the pitcher's having a tough time throwing the ball in the strike zone, then he's going to find the middle of the plate, and go up there swinging."
  • In the bottom of the fifth, the Cardinals botched a routine rundown play. McCarver: "The one thing you try not to do is to get a pitcher caught in a rundown. They're not conditioned for rundowns, and Ellsbury with a great job to get by Kevin Siegrist, [who was] up too far, Ellsbury knew it, and gets back to the bag." I suppose that's just Baseball 101, but McCarver explained things accurately and succinctly.
  • In the top of the seventh, Carlos Beltran came up with runners on second and third. The Red Sox went into an extreme infield shift, but neither McCarver nor Buck mentioned it. McCarver did make a good point about how difficult it is for a third-base coach to see balls hit into the left-field corner. Anyway, Beltran drove a single through the left side of the infield. Or as McCarver said, "Through the deserted third-base position. The shift was on, so the shift giveth and taketh away. Here, it taketh away." Watching the hit again, I'm not sure a normally positioned third baseman would have fielded the ball; it might have snuck through anyway. But I'll grant McCarver the point. What's missed is that it was a lousy pitch; with the shift on, you don't want to throw waist-high fastballs on the outer half of the zone.

And that's about all I've got. I'm sure I missed some nuggets of wisdom, but I was also struck by how little time McCarver's actually got. Thanks to the in-game interviews with managers, sideline reports from Ken Rosenthal, and whatever the hell Erin Andrews was doing, there's just not a great deal of time for McCarver's analysis. Or there's less time, anyway, than there used to be. This situation is at its worst in Fox's postseason baseball coverage, but of course it's leaked into the local broadcasts as well. Even as our baseball knowledge has grown more sophisticated, the broadcasts have become ever more dumbed down. And this isn't the fault of Tim McCarver or his fellow analysts; it's almost solely the fault of the producers who put these packages together.

Frankly, I wouldn't be surprised if someone didn't sit down with McCarver a long time ago and say something like, "Tim, you know we love your work. But most of the people watching games on our network aren't brain surgeons, and a lot of them are barely 'other fans' ... so can you ratchet down the thinkology a notch or two? At least for a while?"

Of course that (in my fevered mind) would have been a couple of decades ago. And it doesn't seem like things ever got ratcheted back up.

In McCarver's book, the one he signed for me, he's pretty forthright about some managers who haven't appreciated his analysis. For example, Bobby Valentine, who's rumored to have been involved in the Mets' firing of McCarver. Another example is Cito Gaston, who heard second-hand about McCarver's criticism during the 1993 World Series. As McCarver writes, there were "only two times that what I said could at all be mistaken for pointed criticisms. And again, I was offering an opinion before the plays took place."

I fired off a four-page letter to Gaston explaining that he had been wrong in thinking I had attacked his strategy throughout the Series. I even called the Blue Jays and told them to have Gaston call me back. I never heard from him, not one word. I kept asking Howard Starkman, the PR director of the Blue Jays, "Has Cito received that letter yet? The mail sure is slow; I mailed it five years ago." Gaston got fired near the end of 1997 having never responded to me. It still upsets me.

I would love to someday watch a baseball game with Tim McCarver, free from the demands of "other fans" television. I would love to someday read a true memoir (assuming, of course, a good collaborator; Danny Peary, as usual, did great work on Baseball for Brain Surgeons). But until then, we'll always have this.

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