St. Louis Cardinals: In defense of Tim McCarver

The St. Louis Cardinals’ much-reviled baseball broadcaster may be through, and some of us will miss him.

On Oct. 28, 1998, a grumpy golf writer working a desk shift at the San Diego Union-Tribune roared with disgusted relief when the final out had been recorded in the 1998 World Series between the Yankees and the Padres. “Thank God!” he bellowed, turning away from the sports-department TV. “Tim McCarver season is over!”

I was there that night, designing sports pages, and heard more than a few copy editors mutter their agreement. The hometown Padres had been swept by a great Yankees team, but I heard no cheering or moaning about the last baseball game of 1998. I did, however, hear grumbling about the Fox broadcast team of Joe Buck, Bob Brenly, and McCarver.

Early this month, McCarver announced he won’t be working Cardinals games for Fox Sports Midwest this year. He’ll be 79 in October. His broadcast career, which began in 1984, may be over.

For some of you, that’s a reason to celebrate. Seven years after he retired as Joe Buck’s Fox broadcast partner, McCarver haters abound. Of course, the garrulous commentator didn’t entirely vanish after exiting the national stage. From 2014 to 2019, he supplied occasional color commentary for Cardinals games on Fox Sports Midwest.

Some were less than thrilled by that.

“Oh, McCarver’s the worst!” my sister-in-law, a Cards fan living in Chicago, declared in 2015. “We can’t stand him!” By “we” she included her husband, a White Sox fan who enjoys — he doesn’t deny it — Hawk Harrelson broadcasts.

McCarver has long been a polarizing presence, with some admirers, 12 Emmy Award nominations, and a legion of critics.

By retiring from Fox network’s MLB telecasts in 2013, T-Mac was “taking with him a legacy of bizarre rants and obvious observations,” Gabe Zaldivar of bleacherreport.com wrote. And that was one of the milder denunciations of McCarver’s work. Awfulannouncing.com has a list of disgusted tweets from baseball fans, including, “Tim McCarver is making me consider a lobotomy.” Seth MacFarlane took a shot at McCarver with this “Family Guy” clip.

Many objected to McCarver’s grinding verbosity, and I get that. He talked too much and his voice, as Time magazine’s Jack Dickey wrote, “had a droning quality to it, his vowels stretching out longer than the late-afternoon shadows in every Saturday Fox game.”

Broadcasters, like ballplayers, tend to lose their skills after too many years, and McCarver was no exception. Teamed with McLaughlin on Fox Sports Midwest, he sometimes sounded like someone’s grandpa, going on and on about the grand old days when he caught Bob Gibson.

But back in the ’80s and for most of the ’90s, McCarver was a very good broadcaster. He always had his quirks, including a love of painful puns — how often did he reference the Phillies double-play team of Bobby Wine and Cookie Rojas as “The days of Wine and Rojas?” But he did his research, arriving “at the ballpark five hours before first pitch to pepper managers, producers and assistants with questions about the relevant teams,” Dickey wrote in Time. And he called out players and managers for poor decisions and lack of hustle. “If (Barry) Bonds doesn’t run to first base, I’m going to say it,” he insisted.

McCarver once had a knack, a la Tony Romo, of forecasting plays. In the ninth inning of Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, he took issue with the Yankees playing the infield in with Arizona’s Luis Gonzalez at the plate and the Yankees’ Mariano Rivera on the mound. “Rivera throws inside to lefthanders,” McCarver said. “Lefthanders get a lot of broken-bat hits into shallow outfield, the shallow part of the outfield. That’s the danger of bringing the infield in with a guy like Rivera on the mound.” Sure enough, Gonzalez thumped a broken-bat blooper just over the head of the drawn-in Derek Jeter to drive in the run and give the Diamondbacks the championship.

“He called it, McCarver called it,” Peter Clark, a Union-Tribune copy editor, told me at work the next day. Then he smiled. “But no one will give him credit because no one likes McCarver.”

McCarver did receive credit from Keith Olbermann of ESPN, who called it “the sports-announcing equivalent of Bill Mazeroski’s home run in the seventh inning to defeat the Yankees in 1960.”

It’s funny how fans relate to baseball broadcasters. Some announcers are unabashed cheerleaders who spout nonstop cliches, and they’re beloved. Living in San Diego from 1994-2003, I heard announcers who seemed to know nothing about Padres’ opponents. McCarver made a lot of noise in the booth, but he knew baseball, he did his research, he pointed out things that many fans might miss, and he would never hesitate to blast a poor play by anybody on any team.

McCarver could come across as arrogant, but I’d rather listen to a pedagogue with a store of knowledge and something to say than a smooth-talking homer.

That said, T-Mac’s know-it-all persona didn’t wear well when confronted with 21st-century baseball metrics. Like a lot of old-timers (Joe Morgan, anyone?), McCarver saw himself as a deacon of the game who subscribed to Leo Durocher’s line, “Baseball is like church. Many attend, few understand.” He didn’t cotton to newfangled ways of dissecting stats. He even refuted the value of players getting on base, saying,  “I only care about on-base percentage if you can run. If you can’t run, I could care less about on-base percentage.”

One problem with assessing broadcasters is we tend to remember how they sounded at the end, not as they were in their prime. There were fans, no doubt, who disliked him from the get-go, but to others, early McCarver was a breath of fresh air. “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,” Sports Illustrated concluded in 1986. “It’s happening again with Tim McCarver.”

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If you don’t like the guy, fine. Baseball broadcasters tend to delight or offend different ears. But give McCarver his due. He was an original (check this out). Some of us will miss him.

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