The Ups And Downs Of Color Commentary

Thanks to being swamped with work these past few weeks, your correspondent has had to take an imposed vacation from The DFR.

Did I miss anything important while I was away?

Kidding. I kept connected enough to know that ESPN’s adopted house team–the Red Sox West Chicago Cubs–won it all. But I would be remiss if I did not note, even this many weeks past the conclusion of Game 7, something else important that happened this past post-season, something that had little to do with what went down on the field.

For all the excitement surrounding Chicago’s victory, it was one of the Connecticut Clown College’s rivals–FOX Sports–that may have achieved the more important and lasting victory, because it looks like the network has finally found the color analyst their broadcasts have been looking for forever: John Smoltz. And Smoltz’s ascendancy into the upper ranks of national sports broadcasters may provide clues to the formula for finding the best announcers for the games we watch.

The DFR: MediaIf you’d been speculating on the matter sometime back in the ’90s, you probably would not have guessed that John Smoltz would be the Atlanta Braves pitcher who would go on to become the sports’ premier color analyst.

Everyone with an opinion on the matter characterized Greg Maddux as professorial and studious–a knowledgeable guy all the way. Meanwhile, Tom Glavine was a leader in the players’ union and made regular appearances in the media discussing baseball matters big and small. Either of those legendary Braves starters would have seemed like a better option to talk up the game as the lead analyst on baseball’s showcase broadcasts.

“It does seem like just the right combination of big success with fairly big failure creates the right mix to make a good to great color commentator.”

As it turns out, such speculation would have been wrong. In his first year as part of FOX’s No. 1 broadcaster team with Joe Buck, Smoltz proved this past season—-and particularly in this past post-season–to be an astute observer of the game and, most importantly, to have great skill in translating his observations into intelligible and entertaining commentary.

His critique of the teams’ game play–especially his forceful remarks about Cleveland’s failure to press the base-stealing issue against the pickoff-deficient Jon Lester, which may have cost them Game 5 and ultimately the Series–combined with Smoltz’s personal recollections of what it’s like to be out there in such crucial moments as Game 7 of the World Series–warming up in the bullpen before the game, playing in the game itself, living with the aftermath of the loss–all of his contributions were spot on throughout the playoffs. (Smoltz knows about that particular pressure-cooker as well as anyone alive, having started a Game 7 of the World Series himself in 1991.)

And, perhaps most to be appreciated, when Smoltz plays the inevitable self-deprecating gambit so loved by ex-players in the booth, he doesn’t go overboard with it. With Smoltz, it’s one wry comment and then we’re moving on; other announcers tend to try to yuk it up so hard you’d think it was open mike night at the Improv instead of a major league baseball broadcast.

Indeed, the contrast between Smoltz on the FOX broadcasts and his counterparts on TBS (which, for all I can tell, stands for “Teh Baseball Stupid”) is remarkable. Ron Darling, while intelligent and observant, frequently stumbles in his delivery, and often just sounds awkward despite his many years in the booth. As for Cal Ripken’s work on the broadcasts, the less said the better; he is a poster child for the self-deprecation game mentioned above, and rarely adds much in terms of quality observation to the game–a strange thing to say about a beloved Hall of Famer who is so iconic to the sport.

That, perhaps, may indicate part of what makes Smoltz so good. He too is a Hall of Famer, having been inducted in 2015, despite being perceived as a lesser of the trio compared to his former running mates Maddux and Glavine. Smoltz enjoyed plenty of success in his career…but not too much success. Indeed, Smoltz and his Braves teammates were known almost as much for losing as for winning, having achieved only one World Series championship in five tries. That formula–a star player who won some but also failed on the big stage, too–may be the equation that creates the best color analysts for the broadcast booth.

Consider: on NBC’s Sunday Night Football–now the NFL’s showcase broadcast–Cris Collinsworth holds the color commentator seat next to Al Michaels, a position that designates him as the top analyst in the game. Collinsworth was a Pro Bowl receiver (success) who was a member of two losing Super Bowl teams with the Bengals in the 1981 and 1988 seasons (failure). He has that combination of career highs and, if not lows, then at least disappointments that give him a broad perspective, one that translates well when you’re trying to describe the total picture of a game to the people watching at home.

The same can be said for other top-flight color commentators throughout the broadcast landscape. Collinsworth’s NFL colleagues Phil Simms and Troy Aikman–top team analysts on CBS and FOX respectively–are both Super Bowl winning quaterbacks who also had some very visible disappointments in their careers, too. (Simms eventually lost his starting job with the Giants; Aikman began his career with the Cowboys on a 1-15 team, and eventually left the game due to concussions.)

On the NBA beat, the best color commentator (for my money, at least) is Reggie Miller–a multiple-time All Star and NBA Finalist with Indiana in 2000. Lots of ups, with a big disappointment in the loss to the Lakers. And while he’s not my cup of tea, lots of people seem to like Bill Walton’s work behind the mike, and he’s another guy who had plenty of ups and downs in his NBA career.

Hockey, anyone? NBC’s current top NHL analyst, Eddie Olczyk, had a solid NHL career and eventually got his name on the Stanley Cup with the Rangers in 1994–though he was injured most of that year and played only one game during New York’s playoff run. Success and failure all tied up in one package.

Of course, sports are all about failure. Everyone who plays the games loses now and then–even the best of them. But it does seem like just the right combination of big success with fairly big failure creates the right mix to make a good to great color commentator.

Now that we’ve figured this formula out, the world’s broadcast outlets need to apply it and find the guys who will do the best job on their broadcasts. The top network positions are doing all right now–ESPN excepted–but there is still a host of seats in broadcast booths all across the channel lineup that could use an upgrade. So all you program directors out there: get to work, and find the next John Smoltz–and the next one, and the next one, and the next one…


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