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Some thoughts on Joe Morgan

Nov 9, 2010, 6:58 AM EDT

Morgan and Miller yellow

I was reading a great interview of “Bloom County” cartoonist Berkeley Breathed yesterday, and came to the following exchange:

RUSSELL: The Internet’s biggest impact on culture has been the fragmentation of discourse — there’s no one central album or TV show or comic strip that’s a universal discussion point any more. How blessed do you feel for having gotten out of the game before that fragmentation really set in?

BREATHED: Your question is my answer. Blessed. The last hurrah. People think that things will unravel with rising sea levels. I happen to think that it’s because we won’t all ever be humming the same song at the same time around the country… or laughing at the same cartoon.

I found myself nodding my head because I realized that, no, I don’t read the same comics as everyone else anymore. I don’t watch the same shows. I don’t listen to the same music. If I didn’t work from home I wouldn’t be able to stand at the water cooler and discuss whatever the current version is of last night’s “Seinfeld,” because there isn’t such a beast anymore.

It’s not that I’m hip and have rarefied tastes. Even those of us with awful taste have our own niche interests these days thanks to the Internet and iTunes and Netflix and hundreds upon hundreds of TV channels at our disposal.  There just isn’t as much room for consensus on pop culture as there used to be. The only exceptions are a handful of reality shows.

Oh, and sports. Sports have to be one of the last great common meeting places, because why else would the news that ESPN was kicking Jon Miller and Joe Morgan to the curb make for such a common discussion point last night?  Maybe it’s only consensus within a niche, but everyone in this little niche of baseball had an opinion on the news last night.  For all of our localized rooting interests and TV work-arounds like or watching games  with the sound down and the Twitter feed providing silent commentary, we all pretty much watched Morgan and Miller on Sunday Night Baseball because, hell, what else are we gonna watch? “Desperate Housewives?”

And in keeping with the consensus of watching those two, there’s a consensus on ESPN’s decision to end their run: mild disappointment that Miller won’t be calling the games anymore, but considerable happiness that Morgan won’t be providing the commentary.  Not surprising. Miller is one of the best around. Morgan, well, we all know about him.

Here I break a little from the consensus. I agree that Miller was fantastic. I like his announcing style. I like his voice. I even like his corny humor. Most of all, I think he rises to the appropriate level at dramatic moments — high enough to make it clear that something big is going on, but not so big that he’d have you believe that history was being made every other damn play — and keeps things moving along.  To the extent he ever found himself in the weeds it was because he was dutifully trying to retrieve some rhetorical ball Morgan sliced in there.

About Morgan: I take no issue with any of the specific criticisms of the guy. As has been painstakingly chronicled on FJM and countless other websites, he seemed aggressively ignorant calling games at times, unwilling to acknowledge that any given bit of old school conventional baseball wisdom could be wrong or that any bit of new thinking — sabermetrics or otherwise — could have any insights.  This is not uncommon, or course, as many broadcasters are resistant to such things. But it was particularly galling from Morgan, because every account I’ve ever read about the man personally talks about how sharp he is, and everything about Joe Morgan the player suggests that he was among the smartest baseball players to ever play the game.

Indeed, Bill James even once determined that Morgan had the highest baseball I.Q. in history, measured in terms of on-field decision making when it comes to things like base running, defensive positioning, when to swing and when not to swing, etc.  Stuff that takes thought and strategy as opposed to pure athleticism. Stuff to which Morgan, as a commentator, was consistently hostile. Indeed, it’s not hard to imagine Morgan the announcer disdainfully discounting the skills of Morgan the player, and that’s what made us tear our hair out listening to the guy. In large part because we all suspected that he knew better and was taking contrarian positions rather than saying what he believed. We all felt, didn’t we, that if we found Morgan sitting next to us in a bar that he’d give us a wink and let us know that, no, he did not believe that a double was better than a home run because “home runs kill rallies.”

All of that said, I depart a bit from my fellow baseball fans when it comes to my reaction to the news of Joe Morgan’s departure from Sunday Night Baseball.  To be clear: it was a good move for ESPN to go in another direction. New blood is needed and I certainly won’t miss him. But at the same time, I can’t bring myself to join in to all of that “ding dong the witch is dead” nonsense I read all around the baseball web last night.  Morgan annoyed me, but never so much that I’d celebrate his departure. Mostly because, for as wrong as he could be at times, he was fairly easy to ignore. His voice wasn’t assaulting. He didn’t inject his commentary at the wrong times. He didn’t distract us from the game going on in front of us. He’d occasionally offer some good insights to go along with the bad stuff. In fact, it was often exciting to hear him say something insightful, because it was like catching someone trying to get away with something.

The point is, Morgan was never an announcer that would keep me from watching a game or who would cause me to turn off the sound. And believe me, there are a lot of guys who are that way. Guys who call baseball like they’re watching football games. Guys who seem to be paid by the cliche. Guys who think that Every. Single. Thing. That. Happens. On. A. Baseball. Diamond. Has. To. Be. Analyzed. Guys who, as they do all of that, have voices of annoying pitch and cadence who make watching a baseball game a hostile experience. Indeed, after catching some of them during  midweek games, it was almost refreshing to ease into a Miller-Morgan broadcast because, even if it wasn’t fabulous, it wasn’t openly assaulting like a lot of guys I could name but won’t.

Damning with faint praise? Nah, because my point isn’t to praise Joe Morgan. Like I said: not good, and better gone.  But I do think some perspective is due here. Morgan was not the worst guy calling games. Not by a longshot. He even had some charms.  I can’t help but think that if, at some point, maybe 15 years ago, an ESPN producer sat down and tried to work with him to reign in his worst excesses he even could have developed into a good commentator. OK, maybe that’s a stretch, but not a gigantic one.

The point: I think the reaction to his dismissal, like that to his commentary itself, is a bit overblown.

  1. Adam - Nov 9, 2010 at 8:05 AM

    I could always stand to have Joe Morgan call games because as dumb as some of the comments he made were, he had a good delivery. Unlike Buck Showalter, who says some strange things and sounds like his voice is being scratched to death by a cat.

  2. Jonny 5 - Nov 9, 2010 at 8:15 AM

    I was never really bothered by Morgan. Sure he seemed a little off base mostly, and way off base much more rarely, which now in the day and age of the internet, and the new age of the “super media” is analysed and drug around papers, and scrutinized by other “talking heads” , I think making it seem worse than it is. See I’m not bothered by it too much because I can still see what’s going on during a game. I’m watching the game, grateful I’m able to do it. Content as if it’s my security blanket, while I sip on a beer. On the other hand, I do feel a sports network such as ESPN does have a responsibility to put the best in the buisness on the screen, which it wasn’t doing. Just because someone was one of the best at the game, doesn’t make them one of the best announcing one. Two seperate career paths there, that too often cross paths just to prove this point valid. Sure there are success stories here and there, but for the most part it is true. Anyway, let’s just keep hoping we don’t end up regretting what replaces this duo is what i’m thinking at this point, instead of the relief many others are expressing.

    • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Nov 9, 2010 at 9:48 AM

      The issue I had, as craig mentions above, is his overwhelming confidence in what he said was right regardless of who was pointing out how wrong he was. By year three of FJM people were baiting him on his chats about moneyball, and Joe still thought it was written by Billy Beane. To make matters worse*, no one told Joe that Beane was a MLB player himself!

      However, to play devil’s advocate, Joe Morgan announcer, greatest troll of all time? How could someone so good at baseball be so bad at understanding the game, unless he was doing it intentionally?

      • Jonny 5 - Nov 9, 2010 at 10:45 AM

        He could be bad at thinking on the fly, he could have done it intentionally, he could have been prompted by his bosses to put on a show , he might not be as great a baseball mind as it was originally thought, It could be killer instinct on the field that made him so great and not a thought went into it from Joe. Who knows? As far as not acknowledging his mistakes? It takes a big man to do so, with no ego problems. I’m sure a career such as his has built him up a huge ego, even if it doesn’t seem that way. And having an issue with him is fine, I’m not implying people shouldn’t take an issue with his announcing, It’s quite rational to do so, and I agree with most of what is said to some degree or another. I’m just a guy who is not easily irritated. I have a pretty strong fortitude when it comes to tuning out the annoying parts of life in general. 50, , errr,,,, 15 years with the same woman can have that effect on a man ya know….

      • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Nov 9, 2010 at 11:20 AM

        oh I agree, and I’m about as stubborn as anyone when it comes to admitting I’m wrong about certain things (or at least that’s what my wife says). However, it’s stupidity rather than just being wrong that drives me nuts and Joe Morgan had it in spades.

        I wouldn’t expect him to be able to explain the Markov Chain w/r/t a Run Expectancy Matrix, or give us the statistic that correlates the best to runs in a game. But saying things like the loss of Sheffield was the reason the yanks didn’t do well in the postseason instead of the atrocious pitching, or that Ryan Howard is the best player on the Phillies b/c of his HR and RsBI numbers while never mentioning Utley, etc. Those drove me nuts. Or the hypocrisy of not wanting to comment on HoF membership since he was on the committee, but shilling for Concepion(sp) every time someone brought up the Reds…

      • Jonny 5 - Nov 9, 2010 at 12:25 PM

        Well, i can’t disagree a bit. I don’t even want to because you’re clearly correct. But as i said earlier, let’s just hope it gets better and not worse, because there are worse announcers they could hire. Miller is going to be hard to beat to begin with, so that’s a concern.

  3. Jonny 5 - Nov 9, 2010 at 8:24 AM

    BTW, I wonder how things are going between ESPN and Bobby Valentines teeth???

    • Utley's Hair - Nov 9, 2010 at 11:10 AM

      The contract’s hung up on the dental plan.

  4. RickyB - Nov 9, 2010 at 8:28 AM

    As long as Joe Morgan is not replaced by Rick Sutcliffe, all we be OK with the world. I actually didn’t mind Morgan’s announcing either, probably because as Craig said, I found that I could easily ignore him. Yes, I would occasionally yell at the TV when he said something egregiously off base. But losing Jon Miller is like losing touch with a good friend. Sure, he’ll still be around calling games, but the familiarity of that voice on Sunday night will be no longer, and that’s something that many people will miss.

    • phillysoulfan - Nov 9, 2010 at 9:03 AM

      Uuuggghhh Sutcliffe. I remember seeing him for the first time thinking “WOW they got him!?!?!?!!? He’ll be good.” By the 5th inning I was ready to shoot the TV.

  5. Lukehart80 - Nov 9, 2010 at 8:57 AM

    Morgan drove me nuts sometimes, but without really bothering me; it sounds like others felt something close to the same thing. It was always sort of fun to be driven nuts by Joe! Everyone seems thrilled with the change, without actually knowing what the new team will be (or is that news out there and I’ve missed it?). There aren’t a ton of great game callers out there, an upgrade over the Miller and Morgan team is far from a sure thing.

  6. phillysoulfan - Nov 9, 2010 at 9:04 AM

    I would like to see ESPN do something really cool like being able to email or twit the booth. There is enough downtime in a baseball game to do this.

  7. Kevin S. - Nov 9, 2010 at 9:15 AM

    I disagree that Morgan was easily ignored. Maybe it’s because his inanities set my teeth on edge, constantly, but him calling Yankee games on SNB sucked the joy out of watching my team for me because I spent most of the time yelling at Joe Morgan.

    On the downside: No more Joe Morgan Drinking Game.

  8. proudlycanadian - Nov 9, 2010 at 9:30 AM

    Now that these guys are free agents, is it likely that they will be signed on by another team?

  9. BC - Nov 9, 2010 at 9:49 AM

    I was probably the worlds biggest critic and complainer about Joe Morgan. And then I think of Jeff Brantley, Tim McCarver and Rick Sutcliffe. And you know what? Morgan doesn’t seem quite as bad.
    As far as a replacement, I think Orel Hershiser is very good. VERY good. As long as ESPN doesn’t hire Joe Buck for play-by-play, they’ll be fine.
    Say, what’s Sean McDonough doing these days? Always thought he was pretty good.

    • WhenMattStairsIsKing - Nov 9, 2010 at 11:23 AM

      Ugh, don’t even mention Tim “It’s hard to believe I played this game because of how idiotic almost everything I say is” McCarver and Joe “My head is the size of Russia and I yell every word I ever speak” Buck.

  10. billtpa - Nov 9, 2010 at 10:10 AM

    This was almost exactly my reaction. I couldn’t stand listening to Morgan, but I don’t think he’s any worse than Sutcliffe or Grace or Hudler or Jeff Brantley or John Smoltz or any number of other guys I’ve heard. I think Morgan seems worse, because (a) he was such a great player and doesn’t seem to have any idea why; (b) he’s been the subject of a few disastrous interviews in which he’s come off as horrifyingly arrogant and out-of-touch, and especially (c) he and McCarver had somehow attained a status in the media that is way, WAY beyond their talent and knowledge levels. Putting someone like Sutcliffe in his place would just elevate him to the same undeserved position, and would be even worse — at least Morgan was generally kind of likable on-air when he wasn’t saying something ignorant about statistics.

  11. TomTom - Nov 9, 2010 at 11:37 AM

    I hear Rob Dibble is looking for work…..

  12. hackerjay - Nov 9, 2010 at 11:49 AM

    I’ve never been a fan of Joe Morgan, but I have to say, as long as Buck and McCarver are in the Fox booth Morgan was never in danger of being the worst broadcaster on TV.

    Morgan was annoying, but at least Miller was good enough to keep the telecast interesting. McCarver is worse then Morgan, and Buck is such a no-talent hack that it amplifies McCarver’s problems.

  13. apbaguy - Nov 9, 2010 at 11:58 AM

    Well, less Miller on ESPN means more of him in the Bay Area. Right now the best announcing duo going is Miller and Mike Krukow. We usually only get them Friday nights, hopefully now we’ll get them a bit more. I have no issues with Duane Kuiper and Krukow, I just like Miller a bit more. Maybe its a nod to his days in Baltimore, but I also prefer his voice.

  14. tomemos - Nov 9, 2010 at 12:07 PM

    Craig: isn’t that “I could name guys but I won’t” thing disingenuous? You flat-out named Sutcliffe on your Twitter feed, which is just as public as this and has your name on it and everything. A little late to take the high road, isn’t it?

    As for “‘ding dong the witch is dead’ nonsense”–are you saying that we’re lying about being happy, or just that we’re wrong in our opinions?

    Finally, regarding the “good insights” that Morgan could be counted on to lay down “occasionally”: I’m going to have to go with “page not found” here.

    • Craig Calcaterra - Nov 9, 2010 at 12:18 PM

      I’m not hiding the fact that I find Rick Sutcliffe to fit the description above. I tweeted it. I fully own up to the fact that I had him in mind when I wrote that description. I just didn’t want this post — which is a different thing altogether from a tweet — to be defined by me calling someone else out by name, because that’s not what I was trying to accomplish. But yeah, Sutcliffe is one of the many I was thinking of, sure.

      Ding dong: I don’t think you’re lying about being happy. And I don’t think your opinions are wrong, per se. It is merely my argument that any reaction to Morgan’s firing that is premised on him being the worst announcer out there is — in my opinion — misguided, because I do not believe him to be the worse announcer out there. You may obviously disagree. And if you don’t disagree, and you think that there are those worse than Morgan, I would expect your reaction to their dismissal to be even more joyous.

      Good insights: Everyone can find examples of Morgan saying dumb things. It’s certainly not hard. But no one has dedicated a blog to pointing out when he was actually right about things, however minor. I’m sure at some point in the past 20 years he noted that it was a good count on which to steal just prior to a base being stolen. While this should not be cause for reassessing our opinions of the guy, you can’t dispute that he had a baseline of competence for the job.

      Overall, what I’m reacting to is what I think has been a long-since-played-out hatred of Joe Morgan. No, I don’t think he was good. But I think many are worse, and that going after him became fish-in-a-barrel years ago. That’s all.

      • tomemos - Nov 9, 2010 at 12:38 PM

        Craig: Fair enough. Thanks for the reply.

        Do consider that part of the happy reaction might not be based on the premise that Morgan is the worst ever, but on the hope that the broadcast winds might be shifting a little bit. But one swallow doesn’t make a summer; it’ll depend on who the replacements are.

        Of course, I’m apparently the only fan on the planet who doesn’t mind Buck and McCarver, so what do I know.

  15. Reflex - Nov 9, 2010 at 12:25 PM

    I can’t say I’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing truly great game calling on tv. It always annoys me. But as I’ve said before, by far the most annoying has always been Bob Costas for me. I can take almost anyone except him and it would take a really bad caller to change my mind on that…

  16. The Rabbit - Nov 9, 2010 at 1:43 PM

    As always, great post.
    Given that ESPN has no class and the state of TV broadcasting in general, I’m not optimistic that their replacements will be an improvement.
    I thought Miller was pretty good. I found Morgan’s commentary mostly inaccurate but I didn’t feel like buying a gun and shooting the TV; however, there are quite a few that could drive me to NRA membership.
    For starters: The FOX duo, Chris Wheeler* who had to have compromising pictures of Phillies ownership, Chip Caray who did not inherit the broadcasting gene from his grandfather or dad, The bozo who calls the Yankees games (whose name excapes me at the moment because I don’t get to listen to the games as often now that I live in MO)
    *You knew media was going to hell when Chris Wheeler joined a team that formerly had By Saam and had Harry Kalas and Richie Ashburn.

  17. dasher521 - Nov 9, 2010 at 3:14 PM

    The wrong two guys got the boot. Buck & McCarver are the ones that need to go. Morgan wasn’t great, but he wasn’t bad either. Morgan and Miller at least had a chemistry and played well off of one another. All the others guys that I’ve seen mentioned of are somewhat “cookie cutter”, interchangable parts. What I would really like to come playoff time, for each teams first home game, let the home team announcers do the games. Game 1 in Phila cound have been done by the Phillies announcers. When the teams move to Cincinnati, let the Reds announcer’s do the first game. Where’s Costas been hiding? He loves the game and it show!

  18. crankyfrankie - Nov 9, 2010 at 8:52 PM

    Will not miss Morgan but will very much miss Miller. He painted the picture well without being overpowering. Local baseball announcers all seem to be looking for their network deal rather than being happy with being a local announcers..

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