I like Mike Ilitch. I have never met the man, nor have I ever eaten one of his Little Caesars pizzas, the commercials for which give me indigestion. But after Ilitch took over the ownership of the Detroit Tigers from that other pizza face, Tom Monaghan, last year, he did something which caused my heart to soar and my cars to rejoice. He brought back Ernie Harwell.
Harwell, of course, had been the radio voice of the Tigers for 32 years. But, more important, he has been a voice of reason and honesty and poetry for his 50-plus years in broadcasting. He was dismissed by the Tigers at the end of the 1991 season not because his tongue had lost a step, or whatever tongues do when they get old, but rather because team president Bo Schembechler, since fired—gosh, just writing those words is a profound pleasure—wanted a voice of passion and loyalty and advertisement. Schembechler wanted the baseball equivalent of Bob Ufer, the late one-man Wolverine booster club who broadcast Michigan football games when Bo was coach ("Bless his little maize-and-blue heart, Rob Lytle just scored his third touchdown of the game"). Bo wanted a homer.
And so apparently does most every other club. You can't listen to a game—be it baseball, football, basketball or hockey—nowadays without some shill invoking the loyal "we," complaining about the officiating against "us," alibiing for poor coaching or trumpeting a nice play by "our" team as the greatest of athletic feats. In the throats of these clowns, a hard hit by one of "our guys" equals a cheap shot by one of "their guys." They are not so much broadcasters as carny barkers.
They're everywhere. In Cincinnati, Andy MacWilliams screams incoherently when Xavier wins a big basketball game. Not only does Bill Schonely, the longtime broadcaster for the Portland Trail Blazers, call the Blazers "we" and the opponents "they," but he has been known to rise from his seat on press row to lead a cheer. The biggest homer in the South is probably Larry Munson at the University of Georgia. When Bulldog quarterback Buck Belue hit Lindsay Scott with a 93-yard game-winning touchdown pass against Florida in 1980, Munson yelled, "Run, Lindsay, run!" as Scott streaked down the sideline. In New York, Phil Rizzuto barely acknowledges Yankee opponents; actually, the Scooter barely acknowledges there's a game going on. In Detroit the appropriately named Mark Champion roars, "There goes Barry [Sanders], he's at the 30, the 20, the 10, a touchdown, what a great run!" as if the mediocre Lions were in the Super Bowl and Champion has been waiting a lifetime for this moment. (Champion actually did the same shtick for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before going to Detroit in 1989.)
In Chicago...well, it is the Windy City:
•Ken (Hawk) Harrelson openly pledges his allegiance to the White Sox every time he tells an opposing strikeout victim to "grab some bench" and every time he second-guesses ball and strike calls. But the Hawk went a little too far in 1991 after Wade Boggs complained to an umpire that a Sox outfielder was moving during a pitch. Harrelson called him "Mrs. Boggs."
•Bull play-by-play man Tom Dore's references to "the world champs" are annoying enough, but heaven forbid that Michael Jordan does something special. "Oh, yes!" shouts analyst Johnny Kerr. "Yeah! Yee-aah! Yeee-aaah! Posterrrrr!"
•The Blackhawks are one of the NHL's most physical teams, although to hear Pat Foley and Dale Tallon tell it, you might think they were part of the Ice Capades. One night this season Tallon, a former Blackhawk, said, "Well, this is our fourth power-play chance in a row, so we better make good use of it, because you know we won't get another one."
•WGN squeezes four homers into one booth for Bear games: Hub Arkush, Dick Butkus, Gary Fencik and Wayne Larrivee. They sometimes sound like a parody of Saturday Night Live's Da Bears parody. If a flag should happen to be thrown against a Bear, Butkus, being the broadcast journalist that he is, will whine, "Aw, naw, you got to be kidding!"
The problem is threefold. Most of these guys get paid by the club they are covering. Many of the so-called color men played for the very team that's on the field or ice or court. And some of the broadcasters actually think that the route to popularity is to shamelessly root, root, root for the home team, a la the late, great Johnny Most of the Boston Celtics.
When Red Auerbach hired Most in 1952, he instructed him to be a cheerleader, and Most made the most of it. Hey, I admit I well up with tears every time I hear, "Havlicek stole the ball! Havlicek stole the ball!" A Most here and a Rizzuto there wouldn't be so bad. But unfortunately the homers have multiplied. They are almost all you can hear now.
And don't think the other, quieter broadcasters haven't noticed. Says Marty Brennaman, the thoroughly professional—and enormously popular—play-by-play man for the Cincinnati Reds, "There's so much commercialism now that the subjective announcer may be the way of life in this business. Twenty-five years from now we may not know what an objective announcer sounds like. We may have to go into the archives and pull out a dusty tape of Vin Scully."
Which is why I like Mike Ilitch. He may be bringing Harwell back for sentimental reasons, as he is with Kirk Gibson, but for one more season, at least, Tiger fans can hear Harwell's song. And won't it be nice for Gibson to hit another big home run, and for Ernie to simply and softly say, "Long gone."