Sunday, May 18, 2008

Some Announcers Leave Me With A Score To Settle

You might want to challenge my taste in movies, but one of my favorites is a 1984 send up of gangster pictures, something called Johnny Dangerously. It stars Michael Keaton in the title role, and I just think it’s funny as hell. The late, great Maureen Stapleton as Johnny’s mother was never better.

There’s a scene in the film where the main antagonist, played by Joe Piscopo (whatever happened to HIM?), wants to know the schedule of Johnny’s brother, the district attorney, that night, so he can whack him. So he turns on the radio.

“Should be great weather tonight as D.A. Tommy Kelly attends the premiere of the new James Cagney movie,” the announcer intones. Piscopo turns the radio off.

“Which theater?,” one of Piscopo’s minions asks. So the radio is turned back on.

“At the Savoy, at 38th street and fourth avenue,” the announcer says on cue before being turned off again.

Ken Kal may as well be that radio announcer.

I don’t have too many hard and fast rules when it comes to listening to sports on the radio. In fact, I just have one.

GIVE THE SCORE. You can insert some of those comic strip symbols for cussing in between “the” and “score”, too.

But no such worries with Kal, the Red Wings’ radio play-by-play guy since the 1995-96 season. We’ll discuss who he replaced in just a moment.

Kal doesn’t break my hard and fast rule. Ever. In fact, he just set a new record the other night. I was climbing into my car – Game 4 of the Red Wings-Dallas Stars series already underway. I flicked on the radio. I didn’t have to wonder for very long what the status of the game was.

“ score as Lidstrom fetches the puck ...” Kal said, literally the moment I turned the thing on. It was better than the announcer in that scene from Johnny Dangerously.

See how simply brilliant that is?

Ken Kal (right) and radio partner Paul Woods

Now, I’ve listened to some of the baseball guys in town over the years – the ones not named Ernie Harwell – and you’d think that the score was some sort of secret, only to be given out on a need-to-know basis. For minutes on end I’ve listened, practically in tears, begging them to tell me what the &%$!# score is. Often I’ve had to wait till the end of the inning before they finally condescend to my request – which by that point has been violently yelled inside my car, with words not fit to print here.

Why, oh why, is the score of the game treated in such a cloak-and-dagger fashion by some of these microphone types?

Speaking of Harwell, Ernie once told me that it was the legendary Red Barber who taught him a trick. Barber used to keep a three-minute egg timer in the broadcast booth. When the grains of sand ran out, he’d flip the timer over. And he’d give the score, too. For that tip alone, Red Barber should have been inducted into the Hall of Fame – of life.

Red Barber

Hockey on the radio can be a fascinating, heart-pounding thing to hear. Without the visual, you have to rely on the tone of the announcer’s voice. And when it reaches a crescendo or rises an octave or two, your heart flutters. For something exciting has just happened – and only the radio guy knows for sure. Kal possesses that change of octaves. But no one was more exciting in that department than Bruce Martyn, who preceded Kal for the 30 years prior to 1995.

Martyn had a voice made for hockey announcing, although he started out as a DJ, spinning records on WCAR. The late George Puscas said that Martyn, who also did Michigan State football games, was the best football play-by-play guy he’d ever heard, bar none. But I only know Martyn as the Red Wings’ radio and TV voice, and I simply can’t imagine him being placed on this earth to do anything else.

“He shoots ... he SCORES!!” Martyn would crackle in that nasally, octave-changing pitch of his, and there just wasn’t anything more fetching on the dial at that particular moment. Oh, and he gave the score, too. It would go something like this.

“Puck sent back into the Detroit zone...picked up there by tie...Bergman head mans the puck ...”

Didya catch it?

Kal does it the Martyn way – blending the giving of the score with the play-by-play monologue. It’s seamless and genius and what’s so $#@!& hard about it, anyway?

Television, a few years back, abided my hard and fast rule, capitalizing on its advantage of being a visual medium. Now it’s commonplace to flip on a game on the tube and see the score permanently embedded onto the screen. In fact, it’s hard to imagine that there was a time when that wasn’t the norm.

Now if we can just get the radio folks to cooperate.

Dan Dickerson, the Tigers voice, does a pretty decent job in this area. Not so his partner, the wretched Jim Price, who’s one of those secret-keepers when it comes to the score. George Blaha, thrilling us with his descriptions of Pistons basketball for over 30 years, not only gives the score, he does so with accoutrements.

“Five and forty-five to go in the third....Chauncey on the right wing...six on the shot’s the triple’s through! And the Pistons lead ‘em by eight, 76-68!”

Blaha has been giving us the score the same way Gallagher gave us comedy: with flair, drama, and a distinct lack of finesse. But always with the accompanying oohs and ahhs.

A simple egg timer. That’s all Red Barber and Ernie Harwell needed to remind themselves to clue their listeners in on the most important statistic of any ballgame. They still make those timers, you know. I saw one at Target the other day. So it can still be done.


Brian said...

It's tough to listen, waiting for Dickerson to give the score, because you have to listen to Jim Price repeat himself, he repeats himself, on many different stupid topics before Dickerson can get another word in. So it's tough to squeeze the score in when you can barely squeeze the actual ball game in. It's tough. It's tough.

I was driving home from dinner yesterday about 5:30 and flipped on the Tigers to see what the score was. It took about two minutes before I gave up because I couldn't listen to Price any longer. I figured it was better to wait the 10 minutes until I got home and could see it on TV.

We have been really spoiled (really spoiled) with the quality of announcers we've had the pleasure to listen to. Nobody could replace Bruce Martyn, but Ken Kal does a great job considering the shoes he's had to fill.

And it's not fair to compare Beckmann, Sorenson, Dickerson, and even Rizzs and Rathbun, to Ernie. But just because we have had some great announcers in this town, does that mean we have to suffer through Jim Price? I mean, you're telling me there isn't one former Tiger around here (Dave Bergman, Willie Horton, Tom Brookens, Chris Shelton, anyone) that couldn't do a better job than Price? Not one? What photos of Ilitch or Dombrowski does he have? If Matt Millen is the number 1 person in this town that we're all wondering why he still has a job, then Price has to be 1A.

And have you ever noticed how he takes a heavy breath into the microphone either just after or just before he starts talking? I never noticed it and then a friend pointed it out. Now I can't NOT hear it.

Greg Eno said...

The other night I was listening and Price OBVIOUSLY was talking with his mouth full. It was like he took a big old bite of a hot dog or something and started speaking. It was so unprofessional as to be uncomfortable. I've worked in local-yocal cable TV and I've never had one of my announcers do anything CLOSE to that!

Brian said...

He couldn't have done that. Because as he reminds us over and over, former catchers are brillian. They're brilliant.

And here's how bad it is for him as far as I'm concerned - I'd rather listen to Tim McCarver than him.

What is it with former catchers with 1968 World Series teams? At least (as far as I know) Bill Freehan seems to be normal (or at least he keeps his mouth shut).