Long before the Twitterati rose up against him, before his broadcasting chops were lampooned on Family Guy, Tim McCarver had to deal with Lou Piniella. With the Reds trailing the Pirates by a run in Game 5 of the 1990 NLCS, the Cincinnati manager sent in reliever Scott Scudder and backup catcher Jeff Reed to start the bottom of the eighth inning. McCarver, calling the game for CBS with play-by-play man Jack Buck, pounced on the decision. By not rearranging the lineup to bat the light-hitting Reed in the pitcher's spot, McCarver told viewers, Piniella risked having one of his worst offensive players at the plate with the game on the line in the ninth.
It was the kind of strategic oversight that only a manager—or a former catcher like McCarver—might notice. And sure enough, one inning later the Reds saw a bases-loaded rally snuffed out when Reed grounded into a game-ending double play. It was the broadcasting equivalent of a walk-off homer, but Piniella wasn't impressed with McCarver's prescience: In his office the next day he ripped into McCarver for being critical. When the broadcaster defended himself, saying he was obligated to point out the potential mistake, Piniella screamed, "Yeah, but you didn't have to keep pounding it and pounding it and pounding it!"
McCarver, who announced last week that he will retire after calling this year's World Series for Fox, told that story in Cooperstown, N.Y., last year, when he received the Hall of Fame's Ford Frick Award for broadcasting excellence. Two generations of fans know how Piniella felt. On one hand McCarver, 71, is the gold standard of television baseball analysis. After a 21-year playing career—he was a two-time All-Star and caught two no-hitters—he shifted seamlessly into the booth. Over the last 31 years he has worked local telecasts for the Phillies, Mets, Yankees and Giants, appeared on four networks (including Fox since 1996) and called 23 World Series, more than any other broadcaster. Yet McCarver has long drawn the ire of viewers who see his wordy style as pedantic at best, condescending at worst.
There is merit to the anti-McCarver movement. His love of puns too often leads to tortured wordplay. His sermons on the simplest events remind viewers why one SI critic wrote in 1992 that if you ask McCarver what time it is, he'll tell you how a watch works. And McCarver's missteps and malaprops in recent years—he butchered a Scrabble joke by saying strike is a five-letter word during the 2011 World Series—suggest he has lost a tick off his verbal fastball.
But the criticism is also a reminder of how high McCarver raised the bar on what we now expect from a baseball analyst. Before him, the ex-jocks in the booth were colormen, there to tell folksy stories, play fast and loose with the language and generally lighten the mood next to an august play-by-play man. In those early days the paradigm of baseball "analysis" was Dizzy Dean singing "Wabash Cannonball" or exclaiming that a base runner had "slud into third."
When McCarver jumped from the field to the booth in 1979, he revolutionized the job—it wasn't just his mastery of defensive positioning, his ability to take viewers inside the symbiotic relationship between a pitcher and a catcher or a tendency to quote Macbeth while breaking down a hit-and-run. McCarver, who was skilled enough to cohost the '92 Winter Olympics for CBS, complemented his intelligence and behind-the-curtain knowledge with an unabashed love for the game and journalistic instincts that made him incapable of stifling his critical urges. No Hawk Harrelson, he: Many believe both the Mets (in '98) and the Yankees (in 2001) removed McCarver from their booths because he was too harsh on the home team.
But McCarver's greatest skill was his eye for what was about to happen. All broadcasters second-guess. McCarver made first-guessing an essential part of the job. Were you shocked by Luis Gonzalez's broken-bat hit off Yankees closer Mariano Rivera to win Game 7 of the 2001 World Series for the Diamondbacks? You weren't if you were listening to McCarver, who minutes earlier had chided New York for playing its infield in because it increased the likelihood that Rivera would surrender a flare that might otherwise have been caught by his fielders.
In the latter part of his career, McCarver's edginess has been blunted by his reluctance to embrace the expanding influence of statistical analysis—more and more, 21st-century fans want their broadcasts seasoned with WAR stories, not war stories. Perhaps the game did pass him by. McCarver's audience may be smarter now than when he started. And for that, he has himself to thank.
The criticism of McCarver is also a reminder of how high he raised the bar on what we now expect from a baseball analyst.