Jimmy Piersall the broadcaster couldn’t happen today in Chicago. A bigger-than-life personality unafraid to point out the team he colorfully commentates on is doing something wrong? And to do it with passion, sometimes with anger? Not a chance.
That’s what Piersall, who died Saturday at 87, did while working White Sox games in the 1970s and early 1980s. You didn’t know what was going to come out of his mouth. That could be very good or very bad for the Sox player or manager who was in his sights. It was very, very good for us, the audience.
If you listen to most broadcasts these days, you know Chicago teams walk on water. That goes for the defending World Series champion Cubs, who should have been prime targets for criticism to this point in the season. Manager Joe Maddon’s insistence on keeping a failing Kyle Schwarber in the leadoff spot during the Cubs’ ordinary first two months should have elicited some vigorous frustration from the TV booth. Instead, hardly a raised eyebrow.
Forget, for a second, the unwillingness to criticize. Where’s the willingness to speak the truth? Schwarber hasn’t been close to getting out of his slump at any point this season. He and Addison Russell have looked absolutely lost at the plate, but you never hear anyone on the team or in the booth questioning why either player is in the lineup so regularly.
This is life in pro sports today, where ‘‘protecting the brand’’ is everything. Franchises don’t want a hint of dissent from the people they hire to announce their games. More than ever, they want promoters who treat a discouraging word as though it carries the Ebola virus. They want broadcasters who spread the corporate gospel like street-corner proselytizers.
And that’s how we got to where we are now, listening to boosterish broadcasts where there is rarely emotion when something goes wrong with a team. You sometimes hear it in Hawk Harrelson’s long silences during a bad spate of baseball from the Sox and sometimes in the edge in Jeff Joniak’s voice during another Bears loss. Steve Stone will cut through a poor play by the Sox with a surgeon’s precision and a parent’s patience, as will Eddie Olczyk on the Blackhawks’ broadcasts.
But anger? I’m mad as hell and not going to take it anymore, a la the movie ‘‘Network’’? Sorry, no. If I want to hear anger during a broadcast, I’ll wait for a referee’s call to go against the Bulls and listen to Stacey King’s outrage.
I got misty-eyed in 2004, when Stone, then a Cubs announcer, publicly questioned manager Dusty Baker’s strategy. He later ripped the team on a postgame TV show as the Cubs fell apart at the end of what had been a promising season.
‘‘The truth of this situation is an extremely talented bunch of guys who want to look at all directions except where they should really look and kind of make excuses for what happened,’’ Stone said. “At the end of the day, boys, don’t tell me how rough the water is; you bring in the ship.’’
Stone left WGN-TV a month later.
Fans liked Piersall for his equal-opportunity honesty. They knew he cared the way they did, and they knew he wasn’t afraid to speak his mind. Nothing was out of bounds, not even the medication he took for the bipolar disorder that had plagued him as a player.
‘‘Hey, Jimmy, did you take your pills today?’’ broadcast partner Harry Caray would say on the air whenever Piersall got particularly worked up.
Piersall would respond that at least he, unlike Caray, had papers to prove he was sane.
Piersall was fired as the Sox’ color commentator in 1983 after his on-air criticism of the team and manager Tony La Russa, who had skin as thin as water. Let that be a lesson to you skittish young broadcasters out there.
Implied in the everything-is-beautiful approach to broadcasting today is the idea that fans are so gullible they’ll believe anything that’s spooned out to them. I find that insulting, but maybe I have it all wrong. Perhaps fans, now so conditioned to hearing sweet nothings, really do want a pretty picture painted for them. You listen to enough government-controlled radio, you start thinking Dear Leader really is a dear.
Is it possible to be a team broadcaster these days without selling your soul to the corporation that has your future employment in its hands? The answer is obvious and sad.
Jimmy Piersall is gone. The truth he spoke is long gone.
Follow me on Twitter @MorrisseyCST.