Radio is supposed to be the ideal medium for baseball. With its languid pace, its storytelling and its inescapable daily presence from April till October, the summer game comes alive via radio. It's also why so many of the best baseball radio voices have never been a perfect fit for the sport on TV. The increased structure and formality of TV can squeeze a talented radio voice. It's why Jerry Howarth and Tom Cheek thrive on radio but never quite translate as well on TV.
That makes the TV work of Blue Jays broadcaster Alan Ashby so unique. The former major league catcher may be just as good on TV as he is working with Howarth on radio. Ashby was handling the play-by-play last Friday on Rogers Sportsnet's Tigers - Blue Jays game beside analyst Pat Tabler, and he was terrific. He doesn't have screaming fit when a Toronto hitter finds a gap in the outfield, he paces the game properly, and he can tell a fly ball from a home run off the hitter's bat.
Ashby's greatest strength is that he can be critical without coming off as shrill or partisan - a pitfall on occasion for Buck Martinez, the man Ashby filled in for. Last fall, as the Jays melted under Cito Gaston, Ashby got his points across without turning it into a battle of personalities. This spring, he's been equally firm as, one after the other, Jays prospects found themselves back in Triple A. (Perhaps Ashby's developed this technique after allegedly being fired by thin-skinned Houston owner Drayton McLane in 2005 for his critical remarks about the Astros.)
Ashby can also work his way through the minutiae of play-by-play and commercial breaks, the laundry of broadcasting, without sounding like he's about to swallow his own tongue - a subtle but underrated part of the business. No one's advocating giving Martinez the heave-ho, but more Ashby would be much appreciated by baseball fans.
Mac On Air: While we're talking underrated performers, a word about former NHL coach Craig MacTavish, who's become a genuine asset to TSN's hockey panel. When he first started, MacTavish looked like he might drown in a flop sweat as he struggled to find cameras and make sense under the TV lights.
And while he's hardly a seamless work of art at the moment, MacTavish has managed to emulate Ashby in getting across his points without turning it into a vendetta against someone he had issues with in the past (who could we be referring to?). MacTavish seems destined for NHL coaching again, which would be a real loss for TSN and hockey punditry.
TSN has only itself to blame for bringing in analysts who still aren't committed to staying away from jobs in hockey management. Continuity is why CBC can present a weaker performer than MacTavish but have a more consistent product in its panels.
Dan's The Man: Sign that NBC takes hockey seriously: The network is bringing back Dan Patrick to host Games 5-7 of the Stanley Cup final for another year. Second sign that NBC takes hockey seriously: It's not bringing back Jeremy Roenick to cry all over Patrick's nice suit, as he did after Game 6 in last year's playoffs. No word if JR thinks NBC's move is "gutless".
Kahn Ruins The Moment: So you're Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert. You lose LeBron James from your NBA team and whine about how James was all about himself. Then you send your 14-year-old son who suffers from neurofibromatosis to represent your horrible team in the televised NBA draft lottery. The kid's wearing a bow tie and looks like a dark-haired version of Ralphie from The Christmas Story. Your kid then miraculously vaults the Cavs from eighth to first in the ping pong ball fest.
It seems almost too good to be true to some. The feel-good story of the beleaguered Gilbert's team winning the televised lottery brought out the tinfoil hat in Minnesota's GM David Kahn. Kahn, whose own player machinations make Mike Milbury's Islander tenure look like the Age of Reason, thought the Cavs story sounded a little too good.
"This league has a habit, and I am just going to say habit, of producing some pretty incredible story lines," Kahn said. "Last year it was Abe Pollin's widow and this year it was a 14-year-old boy and the only thing we have in common is we have both been bar mitzvahed. We were done. I told Kevin: 'We're toast.' This is not happening for us, and I was right."
Pass The Glasses: He's king of the world so James Cameron can pretty much do what he wants these days. The Canadian film maker has set his Avatar sights on bringing 3-D to sports on a more complete level. With 3-D TVs slowly making their way into the market, events such as the NHL Winter Classic, The Masters or the U.S. Open Tennis are now offering viewers a choice between traditional and the glasses-on style of watching.
For Cameron and his partner Vince Pace, whose work on the U.S. Open Tennis in 2010 won him an Emmy award for technical achievement, the key to unlocking 3-D is not simply to replicate traditional HD broadcast angles and continuity. This involves the use of more cameras at court level and overhead to capture the speed of the shots and the movement of the players. In short, finding a new visual way of telling the traditional story.
"When 3-D sports first came out the focus was putting viewers in the best seat in the house, but with the U.S. Open we shifted our concentration to telling a story and enhancing the viewing experience for the public," Pace, CEO and co-chairman of Cameron-Pace Group, told Forbes Magazine. "With 3-D sports broadcasts, we're starting to migrate over from a cool highlight reel to covering the whole event from a production value approach."
The big stumbling point remains the cost of 3-D. "We think this whole process is going away from having separate 2-D and 3-D production because it's just costing you dough," said Cameron. "If we're trying to get the whole 2-D broadcast and cable business to shift over to 3-D, they have to do it by replacing their 2-D production with 3-D production or by piggybacking on top of it, so it's not costing them dough. And that's a big paradigm shift for them."
Cuban Revolution: Finally Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, is a quote machine and a pain for commissioners. The news that camera-friendly Cuban may yet end up with the NHL's Dallas Stars has to send shivers down the back of Gary Bettman (who's got more than a few shivers lately.) Cuban's latest stunt was wearing a T-shirt with a Mavs logo on the front and "He Sue Me" on the back - a reference to the numerous times David Stern has docked Cuban for conduct unbecoming. Can't wait.