By David Zurawik
The Baltimore Sun
7:31 AM EDT, October 11, 2012
Epic is probably too strong a word, but Wednesday night's Orioles-Yankees battle was another great playoff game. And once again, TBS delivered a telecast worthy of it in almost every way.
Just as the images from Monday's victory for the O's at Camden Yards viscerally connected viewers to the joy in downtown Baltimore, Wednesday's made you feel the pain in the Bronx deep in your gut. Those images of the Yankees fans dancing and high-fiving late in the Bronx night were almost too much to bear.
I couldn't sit down to write after the second home run by Raul Ibanez gave the Yanks the 3-2 extra inning win. Too much emotion. I went to bed and set the alarm for 5 a.m., and here I am hopefully a little more clear-eyed about things.
First, I love the way the TBS team explained Orioles pitcher Miguel Gonzalez to viewers.
I have been wondering about this stuff since that first spot start out in Los Angeles when he seemed to come out of nowhere to stop the Angels. It was after the big summer storm that knocked our electricity out for several days, and I laid in the sweltering dark using our last batteries to hear the game late, late into the night.
It was an unexpected and fabulous trip back to my boyhood listening to the Milwaukee Braves on a West Coast trip. But I wanted the announcers to tell me how Gonzalez was doing it.
Unfortunately, his pitching was one of the things the local announcers generally attributed all summer long to "Orioles Magic." It's easier than digging until you get an explanation or figuring it out.
Ripken was having none of that for TBS Wednesday night. He started out noticing the little things.
In the first inning. Cal said, "Ninety-three [93 miles per hour] - that's the fastest I've seen from him. He's got a sneaky fastball -- he likes to pitch up in the zone."
Indeed, I later saw the gun hit 94 on Gonzalez Wednesday night, and I don't think I ever saw over 92. Ripken noticed before I did.
In the second inning, when Gonzalez threw a pitch that befuddled Curtis Granderson, Cal called out to Smoltz, "John, is that the split [split fingered] or a very good change [up]?"
The question forced Smoltz to crank his excellent analyst's brain all the way up to at least 9 on a scale of 10 and start explaining the nuances of Miguel Gonzalez. The clinic in pitching and adjustments was on. The only thing that could have made it better is if they could have called up Jim Palmer and added his voice.
But Ripken still wasn't totally satisfied with Smoltz's explanation, because Gonzalez is not easy to break down or explain.
So, during the brief segment where the guys in the booth get to talk to the managers between innings, Cal asked Buck Showalter if it was a splitter or a change-up.
"I'm not telling," Showalter said smiling (or as close as he comes to smiling during a game anyway).
"It's a baby splitter," he then added to give Ripken something. "It's an adjustable wrench. And we're going to have to keep adjusting it tonight."
Mixed metaphors aside, it was a great insight into how much baseball is a game of adjustments (thank you, Palmer) and touch. And there is a difference between magic and touch -- big difference. Gonzalez looks to have several speeds on that split-fingered pitch -- and several kinds of movements. And the success is in the way he varies and mixes them in reaction to who is at the plate and what's working best that game.
Again, I can't think of another broadcaster this side of Palmer who could get viewers half as far inside Gonzalez as Ripken, Smoltz and Johnson tried to do Wednesday. Did they get all the way? No, but they took me deeper into the broadcast and made it a richer viewing experience through their effort.
And a P.S. to some of our local play by play and analyst folks: Notice how Ripken, Johnson and Smoltz actually used the opportunity to talk to the managers to get information from them that would help fans understand the game, rather than sucking up to Showalter with questions like, "Well, skipper, how terrific is it to have a great pitcher like Gonzalez on the mound tonight?"
I am not going to single out the kings and queens of the "how great is it?" school of interviewing in Baltimore. I have made enough enemies already by being honest.
But speaking of honesty, local broadcasters and Ripken, something needs to be said here to the folks who whine in social media and on call-in shows about how Ripken isn't pro-Orioles enough in the TBS booth.
Here's what needs to be said: Grow up. I am trying to say that in a nice way because I know lots of folks are still feeling the kind of pain only the Yankees and Steelers can put on us and are emotionally raw. But grow up and get some perspective.
You have been spoiled by hardcore homer sports broadcasting here. Every city has it, but it is really pronounced here. Fans here don't question having a minor league infield instructor doing analysis on the cable channel owned by the team. They think it is the natural order of things.
Ripken is doing a very good job as an analyst. And he's doing it with the same kind of integrity and inquisitiveness that he brought to the game when he played.
When he sees an outstanding Yankees play, to his credit, he says it. And he doesn't make excuses for Orioles' mistakes. He's broadcasting to a national audience that includes New York, and he is serving those viewers just like the ones in Baltimore.
Ripken, Johnson and Smoltz are taking us inside some truths not only of this great series, but also the game of baseball. The question is whether we can handle those truths.
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