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Not as good as he once was, but ...

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  December 9, 2011 04:53 PM

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... Tim McCarver was an outstanding baseball broadcaster once upon a time. Really. No punchline. Honest. He was.

What's that? No, it is the same Tim McCarver, I'm sure.

Yes, his heyday feels like a long time ago. And yes, I'm probably only writing this here because there wasn't room in my media column today. And yes, he aggravates with his dependence on and exaggeration of secondary, trifling details that run on so long that his alleged point often lasts longer than the batteries in your remote control. The man can filibuster a mute button into submission.

So it was unsurprising Wednesday when the consensus reaction -- via Twitter, e-mail, and terrific baseball sites like Hardball Talk and Big League Stew -- to the announcement that McCarver was was named the winner of the Hall of Fame’s Ford C. Frick Award for broadcasting excellence went something like this:

McCarver? Broadcasting excellence? Frick, who voted on this thing, Derek Jeter, Steve Carlton, and Joe Buck?

Hmmm. It appears my case on his behalf is rather lacking so far. Hey, he usually drives me crazy these days, too, especially when he's chattering about the Red Sox and expounding on minutiae we either already know or strikes us as dubious in accuracy.

But the key is these days. But -- and this is coming from someone who has made exceeded the appropriate share of McCarver-hearts-Jeter jokes -- would go too far to suggest that McCarver is undeserving of the honor. Because if you heard him when, during his pre-Fox days on NBC, CBS, and ABC, if you remember how original his voice the six-time Emmy Award winner was then, you understand why he'll be honored at Cooperstown this summer.

There was a time when McCarver was a master of instant, incisive analysis, when his catcher’s-view insight and folksy, pun-heavy style were refreshing and innovative. Listening to him, you understood how he managed to play four decades in the big leagues. His knowledge -- and his connection with Carlton -- kept him around when his ability waned. He knew the game, and he knew how to share that knowledge with the viewer.

OK, maybe the puns were always a little much. But the man knew his stuff. If you’re skeptical, try to catch a replay of the MLB Network’s recent look back at the 1986 postseason. McCarver called the Mets-Astros NLCS, and the program stands as a reminder of how sharp he was.

Like fellow Frick Award winner Tony Kubek, who was paired with Bob Costas in the '80s on NBC's Game of the Week (they were the second team; Vin Scully and Joe Garagiola were the No. 1 pairing), he elevated the role of color analyst to a new level of insight. It was the an overdue progression from the days when Howard Cosell shouting over Keith Jackson and Tom Seaver during big moments passed for analysis. That he ticked off Deion Sanders is another point in his favor.

He's lost few miles per hour off his fastball years ago, and a few more in recent years, which is neither a crime nor a surprise considering the man is 70 years old. Not everyone is Scully. But when he was 45, and not so far removed from active involvement the game, had that uncanny knack for telling you when something would happen, then after it inevitably did, he explained with impressive insight why he saw it coming. Jerry Remy used to do that quite often, too. I'd be willing to bet Terry Francona has the same knack.

Tito is an interesting variable in the current perception of McCarver. It was telling that when he filled in for McCarver for two games during the American League Division Series, the consensus among those who comment on such matters was that he was a natural despite being a relative novice.

It did not go left unsaid that his subtle humor and speak-only-when-there's-something-worth-saying approach felt like a refreshing break from McCarver's current style. Fox will lament letting him get away to ESPN, particularly if Tito's TV stay lasts more than a year. I hope he manages again, but when he does, I'm pretty sure we'll lament his departure from television.

We felt that way about McCarver once too. It would be argued here that fellow finalist and former Red Sox broadcaster Ken Coleman -- "Yastrzemski is going hard ... way back ... way back ... and he dives and makes a TREMENDOUS catch!" -- would have been a more deserving Frick choice this year, and pretty much any other year.

But that doesn’t mean McCarver doesn’t belong. Because he does. No matter how hard that might be to fathom now.

Now, should Joe Morgan ever gets nominated? I assure you there will be a far different reaction in this space.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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