I am not a broadcaster. I have never spoken into a microphone and I have never looked up to see that bright red ON AIR light. I do, however, watch somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 baseball games a year, and I like to think that that makes me somewhat qualified to speak on the delivery of baseball games to the audience, from the best — Hi, Joe Davis and Dan Shulman — to the worst, as in, everything Alex Rodriguez has ever said about even-run leads.
YES play-by-play man Michael Kay — friend of the blog, or at least, cautious ally — spent some time last week debating on his radio program how he should call Aaron Judge’s 62nd home run of the season. I’m sure there were a number of fine Twitter suggestions, but I don’t want to be limited to 280 characters. I want to go deep, and scientific, in this proposal.
First, we need to remember what this home run is. I’m not particularly interested in debating whether Judge is chasing the “real” home run record or not — the appeal of the chase to 62 has always been the Yankee-ness of it. This club has existed for more than a century. Of a list of the top 20 players of all time, eight or so of them are Yankee lifers or at least spent some real time in pinstripes. Judge is never going to catch Ruth in career home runs, but he’s probably going to do something that Ruth never did, or Mantle, or Rodriguez.
So this call, then, is for the Yankees and Yankee fans. That means I don’t really want to hear about Barry Bonds, or Mark McGwire, or Shohei Ohtani. Judge’s greatness this season is best enjoyed in the specific Yankee context — if it’s not Maris, not Mantle, not Ruth, I don’t want to hear about it.
Second, we need to understand what makes a great call. The benefit to being Michael Kay has been you’ve gotten to call a lot of big, historic moments. Some of them have been great, and in fact probably my favorite of all of Kay’s moments as a broadcaster came in Mariano Rivera’s final game:
“How’s this for drama?”
It’s simple, it’s elegant, I love it. Television is a visual medium — we can SEE what this moment means to Mo, we can SEE the way he collapses into Andy Pettitte’s arms and hear the way the crowd is reacting. Kay understands on this call that anything he has to say actually takes away from the moment; now is not the time for a rundown of Mo’s statistical excellence or to describe the emotions on his face. Give us just that little hit at the beginning, and then get out of the way.
Contrast this with a call that I love half of, and very much dislike half of:
Duane Kuiper, like Kay, has gotten to call a ton of big moments, but perhaps nothing bigger than the setting of what I consider to be baseball’s greatest record. The first half of the call has been burned in my brain for 15 years — Kuiper’s trademark “outta here”, and then all the context the viewer needs, “756, Bonds stands alone”.
After that, though, the call gets messy, and Kuiper talks too much. Like Kay with Mo, give the audience the proper context, and then let the visuals and the sound and the weight of the moment the story. Simplicity is key: we already know that this is a special moment for Barry Bonds, and you already gave us in the “Bonds stands alone” part of the call, all the context we needed to understand and appreciate the moment. As I said, give us the hit at the beginning, and then get out of the way.
Now we come to the last part of a great call: don’t let the dramatization lead to farce. Baseball is a game of high drama, but low stakes. Broadcasters are at their best when they remember that, but can often get a little goofy when they forget, or intentionally ignore that critical, inverse relationship — see every call Hawk Harrelson ever made in his entire life.
For a better example of this, let’s look at two calls of Aaron Judge home runs: one quite strong, one that gets a little goofy.
Now YES often employs a three-man booth, which is never my favorite, I think it becomes too tough to get everyone participating in a way that feels natural and not noisy. Here though, Kay does his job — quick call, remarking on the drama and uniqueness of back-to-back first career AB home runs, and then is quiet. It’s dramatic, but the stakes are low, and Kay understands that.
I’ve never loved the “up for grabs” line. It feels like Kay forgot the rule of high drama, but low stakes. Thus, with that equation out of whack, it comes off, in my opinion, a little goofy, certainly not on the level of “how’s this for drama?”. A similar phenomenon I think occurs in the famous Derek Jeter 3000 hit call, which is also not my favorite of Kay’s work. Play up the drama, but not the stakes, lest your iconic call be remembered for something not quite what you want.
Of course there’s a chance that Judge’s home run comes in a game that Kay isn’t even working. The Yankees have two national games against the Red Sox this week, and Judge seemingly bears a personal vendetta against the Sawx, so a hot run in that series might see him at 62 without being on YES. Should that happen, abandon all hope for a good call, I have precious little faith in national broadcasts to do any of these three things — Yankee-focused context, simplicity, and remembering the ratio of drama to stakes.
Still, I hope that Kay does get to be the one to call 62, and it all comes back to that first point. If Judge gets to 62, it will be a Yankee record, for Yankee players and Yankee fans. I know he doesn’t like the term “Yankee boy”, but Kay has been the voice of the New York Yankees on television since I was eight years old. This is a moment in Yankee history, something we’re not particularly likely to ever see again, and I hope he gets to call it. Perhaps this formula will help add to the experience of witnessing Yankee history.
Also, if I’ve attracted the attention of any YES Network employees or consultants, please switch to using fWAR on-air instead of bWAR.