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The Usual Suspects

Something amiss from Blue Jays broadcasts? Add to ...

That ol' ball hawk Hal Pinter once observed, "One way of looking at speech is to say that it is a constant stratagem to cover nakedness."

In that spirit, no televised sport leaves more exposed flesh on its speakers than does baseball. Next to hockey, baseball broadcasting is glacial in its pace. It has far fewer highlight-reel moments than does football. At 162 games a season, it represents two entire laps of an NBA season. There are fewer pauses than golf, but more catharsis.

It requires the raconteur's touch and the statistician's zeal for accuracy. A sense of which plays matter and which are prologue. A keen sense of humour and a flair for the dramatic.

It also requires an ability to capture a champion's progress or nurse a terrible team for six months without appearing jaded. It has defeated many a good man (and a few women) and elevated unlikely characters to the apex of the craft.

Which is a long way of approaching Rogers Sportsnet's coverage of the Toronto Blue Jays as we head to the All-Star Game break.

The word that springs to mind when listening to play-by-play guy Jamie Campbell and his rota of analysts would be unsatisfying. Part of this has been the mediocrity of the Jays themselves of late, but a significant part of the hollow feeling springs from the anodyne tone of the crew.

Now in his third season, Campbell has staked no claim to the team with either a flair for language or his keen insight into baseball. The genius of Vin Scully is that he tells you from the first pitch that he is the pilot, you are the passenger, and you are to sit back while he guides the ship. Even the lugubrious Chuck Swirsky grabbed the Toronto Raptors' mike like a thirsty man throttling a pump handle.

Campbell still gives the impression of someone filling in while the main guy is on holidays.

After this many games, he still has mighty trouble judging fly balls (watch the outfielders!) and a propensity for reading the daily statistical notes as if it were Finnegans Wake . His monotone delivery suits the subway ("Next stop Spadina, Spadina next stop") more than a pennant race.

The mark of a pro such as Jon Miller is his ability to bring out more than just inside baseball from his co-workers. Campbell's patter with his analysts is painful, leaving Rance Mulliniks or Darrin Fletcher to grind along unmercifully about arcane points of strategy.

Part of this is not Campbell's fault. Sportsnet likes to grow its own timber and has thrust several people into key announcing spots before they are ready. The results are mixed. When it doesn't work, the outcome is like a travelling company of High School Musical - you know, "Just wait till they grow up and move to Broadway!" Except they don't grow up. Campbell still seems stranded on first base. If he's being coached it doesn't show. Like Jays pitcher Scott Richmond, he's left out there to eat innings and pray that the penny will finally drop.

Perhaps a permanent sidekick would help. The rotating crew of Mulliniks, Fletcher and Pat Tabler is tough enough for viewers; how must it be for Campbell to frame each analyst properly? Mulliniks views the game the way a batter sees an at-bat - perfect for baseball aficionados. Sample after Vernon Wells took a called third strike against the New York Yankees with men on base: "Vernon took that pitch almost as if he was looking for a breaking ball or had it in the back of his mind. 1-2 is a tough situation to hit in, but you have to respect the fastball first."

Another time Mulliniks noted that, no matter the hitter, Johnny Damon never moves from a tiny radius in left field.

Tabler and Fletcher, too, work the black on the plate, too. Which is nice - but ultimately limited to the here and now of individual games and situations. Over the long season there is little evidence of the men behind the mikes, their own stories and personalities. Campbell seems unable to draw them out.

When Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers legend Duke Snider broke in on Montreal Expos' telecasts with Dave Van Horne, he was raw and almost impossible to listen to. But Van Horne - a pro's pro - shaped Snider's contributions, drew out the man, not the baseball player, and they soon were a perfect team.

That's not happening now with any of the analysts, and the occasional insertions of the eager Sam Cosentino are not much more illuminating. Again, this is an awfully young crew, and it shows.

You'd like the think Campbell will eventually improve, but for now he simply leaves you pining for his predecessor, Rob Faulds, who was not exactly mistaken for Red Barber himself.

You'd think that as owners of the team and the network that Rogers would make improving the telecasts a priority. But they seem content to allow the televised product to drift the same way the baseball team has slid into mediocrity the past several years.

Who's on first

If it's any consolation to Campbell, even the best have moments. Thanks to the L.A. Daily News, here's veteran Charley Steiner calling a recent Los Angeles Dodgers/San Diego Padres game: "Venable scores. … And a throw to third base. … Out at third base. … And the Dodgers win! Edgar Gonzales, trying to come home, then he stopped short, and then was tagged out a third. … And that is how the Dodgers win the game!

"Wait a minute. … Two runs are in. Out at third base was Venable. The Padres in fact have tied the score, scoring five in the ninth inning. … My mistake. … In to score was Gonzales. … Alfonzo is out at third base. And we will go to the 10th inning. … Unbelievable …" You can say that again.

And fear not, Erin Andrews will survive. The ESPN baseball sideline reporter took a baseball on the chin the other night. After a brief stay at hospital she was back at her post, ready to go.

Top Dog

Gentlemen, start your heartburn. The July 4 Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest on ESPN topped the Wimbledon men's and women's semi-finals on ESPN2, two major-league baseball telecasts on ESPN, and tied an Indy Racing League race on ABC. The eating contest's rating is also better than the audience for last year's MLS Cup. Which makes it a wiener in anybody's ratings book. Ouch.

 

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