By David Zurawik
The Baltimore Sun
9:09 PM PDT, October 5, 2012
This is the kind of thing they used to teach in journalism school and I wish they still did: The way one careless mistake can diminish an otherwise strong performance and bring embarrassment instead of praise.
That's the story of TBS's coverage of the Baltimore Orioles 5-1 victory over the Texas Rangers in a one-game wildcard showdown Friday.
The mistake: a graphic identifying analyst Cal Ripken, Jr. as "Carl Ripken, Jr." as seen in the screenshot accompanying this review.
At playoff time, as the announcers and analysts on TBS told viewers over and over Friday, everybody raises their games. Everybody except the crew members responsible for the ID on Ripken, that is.
And it's not like he's just another ballplayer, is it? At least for fans in Baltimore, it's like TBS, which wants to be thought of as the home of the best baseball coverage on television, misidentified Babe Ruth as Bob Ruth.
It makes me angry, because I was otherwise so impressed with the team of play-by-play announcer Ernie Johnson and analysts John Smoltz and Ripken.
The overall production values were solid, too. I kept hoping the folks at MASN were watching so they might see the kinds of illuminating camera angles and transporting images that are possible when the director and at least one or two of the camera operators are trying.
I loved listening to Ripken and Smoltz talk strategy back and forth in the booth. Early on Ripken explained how he tried to use his first at bat to see the full repertoire of the pitcher he was facing. And Smoltz countered by talking about how he tried to hide as much of it as he could for later in the game. They were talking about Texas Rangers starter Yu Darvish having seven -- count 'em -- seven pitches.
Ripken had gone down before the game to press the Rangers catcher, Geovany Soto, about how many pitches Darvish actually had -- and how Soto signaled for that many. Yeah, Cal still does his homework and pre-game preparation -- just like Jim Palmer.
I thought Ripken had a fine first night of the playoffs. He was a little pumped and tight at the start, but once he settled in, he was engaging, steady and insightful.
He and Smoltz work well together. If they have any weakness, it is that they occasionally get too inside baseball and forget that they are not talking to other ballplayers in the dugout between at bats, but rather fans who need some translating of certain concepts and terms.
"Two-seam, four-seam, and power cutter," Ripken said, ticking off three of Darvish's pitches at one point. What he went on to say about the almost 30 m.p.h. gap between Darvish's fastest fastball and slowest curve was fascinating, but I'm sure some in the TBS listening audience could have used a bit more description of what constituted a power cutter versus a standard cutter, and what the difference was, at least in movement and velocity, between a two and four seam fastball.
But that's minor stuff and it's mainly a function of the depth of knowledge Ripken and Smoltz bring to their roles.
And it's really the job of the producers to use Johnson as the voice of the fans asking his analysts for translation, explanation and clarification when things are getting too inside.
I like Johnson a lot. He doesn't bring the sense of history and gravitas to the booth that Al Michaels does. But he's informed, competent and smooth. And his easygoing style is a good match for the general rhythms of baseball.
What I liked best about Ripken Friday night was him decisively stating at the start of the game that he thought Adrian Beltre was the best third baseman he had ever seen. Yes, better than Brooks Robinson.
It was Ripken's way of announcing to the audience that he was a national TV analyst who took his role seriously -- not a shameless, hometown, gumby booster who loved all things Baltimore and had no sense of judgment or perspective.
I had a lot of other nice things to say about TBS, which we are going to be seeing a lot more of as the Orioles take on the New York Yankees starting Sunday.
But I can't get past the Carl Ripken, Jr. thing. Really.
It is so representative of the careless, ignorant media world in which we now live. It might be only one mistake in what some might say is only a game after all. But if you are given the privilege of covering it for millions of viewers, do it well, do it with precision and professional integrity. Don't be so cheap as to hire people who don't know who Cal Ripken is -- or are so lazy they don't care enough to get his name right. I'm serious.
Get your act together, TBS.
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