David Roth Sings Selections from The Great American Gongbook.
Since he announced earlier this week that he’d be retiring from broadcasting after this year’s World Series, the discussion about Tim McCarver—which was always and already defined by a heavy payload of “ugh, this guy”—split in two. The more generous argument holds that McCarver—a player for 21 years, and a broadcaster for an astonishing 29 postseasons—was once a more generous and less grandiose broadcaster than he is in his prickly, mannered endgame. This argument holds that McCarver was someone who understood and loved the game deeply, and expressed that right up until the moment when he stopped understanding or loving it. Depending on the observer, this could be five or ten or 15 years before McCarver realized that it was time to retire.
At which point this first argument kind of collapses into the second, which is that McCarver was always a vain and pedantic character, unforgivably given to high-fiving himself for his own crummy puns and puddle-deep insights and crustoid prejudices, and never quite interested in what people other than himself—or his notional and unloved audience, rapt as rubes before a traveling magician, albeit the sort of crummy magician whose prestige trick is predicting which pitch would be thrown when—might have taken from a given game.
The first way of seeing McCarver involves viewing him as a brilliant baseball mind who allowed the game to pass him by, more or less on purpose and more or less to prove some cranky and ill-defined point about… well, whatever it was about, you kids should get off his lawn. The second way of seeing McCarver is that he’s just something of a vain jerk, full stop. It says something about McCarver that both of those arguments feel correct enough, to an extent. But neither one of them says quite enough about Tim McCarver, who spent 50 years in baseball without ever quite becoming anything greater or more endearing than himself. It’s funny how much of that last sentence—more or less a condemnation, if read from front to back—looks like praise.
...McCarver played 21 years in the Majors, and was teammates with both Stan Musial and Mike Schmidt; he was the personal catcher for Bob Gibson and Steve Carlton. In 1966, McCarver led the National League in triples; he’ll almost certainly be the last catcher to do that. As a member of a St. Louis world championship team the next year, McCarver put up an OPS+ of 136, which was better than Lou Brock, Roger Maris or Curt Flood managed that year, and better in fact than everyone else in the lineup except Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda.
It’s a shame, in a way, that McCarver would almost certainly sniff at that latter achievement. He’s as entitled as anyone else to be skeptical or confused by a stat like OPS+—I like the stat and find it telling, but I’m not sure I could calculate it myself if given a supercomputer, some strong coffee and, say, seven years. If McCarver is not quite as flamboyantly, aggressively retrograde as Joe Morgan—his peer during their playing days, and perhaps the only baseball color commentator who evokes a similar revulsion—it often seems as if it’s only because he isn’t quite interested enough. Morgan, who was an advocate of uncontroversial ideas like the value of on-base percentage during his playing days, descended into grouchy self-parody at the end of his ESPN tenure; by the end, he was essentially arguing that bunts, RBI and World Series rings be the only statistics used. McCarver had no real time for stats, but more to the point he didn’t have much interest in them—he knew what he knew and he knew how to express it, and seemed serenely certain, with that certainty only increasing by the year, that this was more than enough.
Posted: March 29, 2013 at 05:26 PM | 71 comment(s)
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