Every now and then a sports broadcaster comes along who, by force of personality or keenness of insight, subtly changes the state of his art. It happened with John Madden and it's happening again with Tim McCarver. After Madden began informing and entertaining the man in the street in 1979, the standards for football commentators were never quite the same. And with McCarver, the current darling of the baseball set, the old standbys—clichès, recycled stories and will-he-or-won't-he debates before stolen base attempts—have been shown to be sorry excuses for analysis.
It's not enough to say that McCarver, who has worked the NL playoffs with Keith Jackson for ABC, is the very best at what he does. That's obvious. The main point is, after seven full years in the broadcasting business, the former Cardinal catcher and Steve Carlton's personal valet is putting on a color commentator's clinic. No longer will it be enough for an analyst merely to humor or patronize the viewers. He'll have to raise their understanding to new levels, make observations that are continually fresh and insightful and be absolutely charming to boot.
The word that best describes McCarver is engaged—passionately engaged. "After I retired [in 1980], I didn't want to just stay in the game in some capacity," he says. "I wanted to stay in the game." When McCarver is announcing, he's knee-deep in a game's innards. Yet that doesn't mean that, during a lull in the action, he won't talk about anything except baseball.
McCarver is a TV switch-hitter. Besides covering regular and postseason games for ABC, he works 150 Mets games a year on New York's WOR-TV and cable's Sports-Channel. He'll no doubt receive complaints from Houston fans that he has tilted toward the Mets, but I defy any impartial observer to show where McCarver has played the homer. Just as important, he hasn't overcompensated and rooted against the Mets.
This year ABC threw out their conflict-of-interest rule that would have kept McCarver from announcing games involving the Mets. As a result, during the playoffs McCarver has provided a wealth of information on the Mets, such as how Ron Darling exasperates Davey Johnson by falling behind batters in the count. It's worth noting that one of McCarver's strongest and most precise criticisms was of Mets leftfielder Mookie Wilson for throwing to the wrong base in Game 2.
It's not only McCarver's impartiality, though, that sets him apart. There is his joie de vivre. "The game turns me on, it's therapeutic for me," he says. "I rarely feel worse after a ball game than I did before the game started." And, once you get past his sharp Memphis twang, there is his facile use of the language. He adores puns and he may be the only former Phillies catcher who has ever quoted from Macbeth in a TV booth. Finally, he has a way of relating the game to life itself. In Game 1, over a tight shot of Mike Scott's eyes, McCarver said, "The eyes are the window of the soul, and Scott is the calmest soul in the ballpark." Unlike the trademark observations of Howard Cosell, that kind of commentary can transcend the game without detracting from it.
Life is a trip with McCarver. During Mets games this summer, he and his colleagues—Ralph Kiner, Steve Zabriskie and Fran Healy—discussed, among other subjects: the marketing of dental floss, the remarkable tendency of dry cleaners to break the buttons on men's shirts, how barbers clip hair inside people's ears (with blunt instruments, McCarver says) and Nathan Bedford Forrest. Upon drawing a blank from Healy, McCarver, a Civil War buff, recounted how Forrest laid siege to the Union supply lines outside Corinth, Miss. "The North will never rest until that devil Forrest is dead," McCarver quoted Sherman as saying.
Sportscasting will never rest until another McCarver comes along.
McCarver: subtly changing the state of the art.