October 5, 2009

Harry Kalas died shortly after the season began. His casket was placed at home plate in the Philadelphia ballpark. The Phillies have been wearing a patch with his initials all year. The insignia was purposely sewn just above the heart.
Ernie Harwell is dying. A couple of weeks ago, a Detroit Tigers game was stopped in the third inning — that is, the game itself was interrupted — the better for Harwell to have full attention when he addressed his loving admirers. The whole packed house rose and chanted his name with love.
Kalas and Harwell, of course, never wore a uniform. They were merely announcers, or better, what we call “the voice of …” In a visual world, they’ve been but oral, something that harks back to the cracker barrel, to the camp fire. They — now pay attention to the vernacular verb here: “call” — they call a game. And after awhile, the voices like Kalas and Harwell somehow become so familiar, even comforting, that they don’t just bring you the game. Rather, the game brings you them.
The Tigers and Phillies would come and go, players, managers, names, numbers. But Harry Kalas was always there to talk to you in Philadelphia, Ernie Harwell to speak to you in Detroit. To call you. For his valedictory, when he retired in 2002, Harwell thanked his listeners for “taking me to the cottage up north, to the beach, to the picnic, your workplace and your backyard.” Baseball voices go with you. They are not just on the air, but they are in the air, most every summer’s day, for months on end. And almost every team has a voice that is identified with the team.
Baseball is more languid, with time for storytelling. A pastime. But not really the national pastime anymore. It’s the local pastime now. Football is the national game, on the networks, with people watching impersonally from all over. By contrast, baseball is a bunch of neighborhoods, where each distinct voice can be heard, most every day. That’s why fewer folks care about the baseball playoffs. Once their home team is eliminated, so many good fans eliminate baseball from their mind.
In the whole history of sport, has anybody tuned into any game because of the announcer? John Madden, for instance, was wonderful at what he did and
famous, on a national primetime game for years, but nobody ever said: Well, I want to watch football tonight because John Madden is on the air. It’s only the game that matters. Madden was simply football. As Walter Cronkite was news. They were so capable, but above the fray and not really part of anything.
Kalas, though — he was the Phillies, and Harwell was the Tigers, and so, as there is a home team, they were a home voice.
As the media grows more and more fragmented, as fewer fans read the sports pages or watch the sports guys on the local newscasts, announcers like Kalas
and Harwell should become more and more singular. In a cacophonous world, how comforting to hear someone who we know speak to us as “the voice of …”


Sam Farmer, of the LA Times, reported from Pleasanton, CA:
“Welcome to plasma paradise.                                                                                                  
Nine massive flat-screen televisions with a cinema-quality movie screen in the middle. A different NFL game on each screen, with the sound coming from the big one in the middle.

Plus six experts, the fathers of eight NFL quarterbacks.

Who but John Madden could watch football that way?

Call it what you like — Hut-Hut Heaven, Sunday Click-It, Temple of BOOM! — just don’t call it the Man Cave. Not within earshot of Madden, at least.

“I hate the words ‘man cave,’ ” he said. “I don’t know what I want to call this place, but I know what I don’t want to call it: man cave.”

The most reinvented man in sports — from Super Bowl coach, to ubiquitous broadcaster, to video-game maven — is trying something new this season:

Or something like that. Actually, aside from his casual khakis, untucked Oxford shirt and San Francisco Golf Club cap, Madden is in game mode. He’s every bit the master coordinator as he welcomes us out of our dream taxi — the luxurious Madden Cruiser bus — and onto the dimly lit sound stage at his Goal Line Productions, about five minutes from his Pleasanton home. In his hand is a “play chart” of sorts, a map of which game will be shown on which TV. DirecTV’s NFL Sunday Ticket has helped complete his vision.

“I’ve had a season all my life. I wasn’t going to go away and not watch football,” Madden said. “I still love football. We started talking about this” concept of a viewing complex.

On one side of the room is a buffet table, complete with an omelet chef. On the other side, a technician working a control board, making sure the games are
on the right screens — a big play might warrant a game being switched off a 63-incher and onto the nine-by-16-foot screen — and to ensure no one is ever
watching a commercial.

“He gets fired if he ever puts a commercial up there,” says the sports world’s No. 1 pitchman, only half-jokingly. “Never watch a commercial. Never do it.”

Because this was only Week 4 of Madden’s new fall routine, he’s still working out a system. Sometimes, he has friends and family watching with him.
Sometimes, it’s more of a corporate endeavor, as was the case Sunday when DirecTV flanked him with the six fathers of quarterbacks: Archie Manning, dad of the Indianapolis’ Peyton and the New York Giants’ Eli; Bill Palmer (Cincinnati’s Carson and Jordan); Andy Edwards (Buffalo’s Trent); Chip Brees
(New Orleans’ Drew); Don Hasselbeck (Seattle’s Matt), and John Stafford (Detroit’s Matthew). Each dad was outfitted with a headset, allowing him to listen to his son’s game.

It takes a novelty such as watching football with Madden for these dads to alter their Sunday routines. To them, this is a never-miss-a-moment business.

“I’ve had friends call and say, ‘Hey, maybe I can come over and we’ll watch the Colts.’ Naw,” Manning said, shaking his head. “Sometimes the phone will ring [during a Colts or Giants game] and I’ll just look at the caller ID. Who does that? Not everybody knows.”

When he’s watching from home, Manning will wear a Colts T-shirt when Peyton is playing, and changes into a Giants shirt for Eli’s game. When both sons are playing at the same time, dad layers the shirts.

Andy and Fran Edwards have worked out a system for watching their son when they attend Bills games. Dad will watch the thrown ball, and mom will watch Trent to make sure he didn’t get clobbered. Then they’ll switch assignments.

When Carson Palmer led the Bengals to a 23-20 overtime victory over Cleveland, his dad could finally exhale. Bill Palmer tilted his head back and sank deep in his chair, getting backslaps from all the quarterback fathers around him.

“It was just draining,” the elder Palmer said later, joking: “I hate this game. Why couldn’t he be a golfer?”

At Madden’s place, the dads watch quietly, contorting in their leather office chairs on pivotal plays, their eyes locked on the wall of screens.

Madden sits in the middle in an ornate wooden chair, a low-slung throne.

“I had a guy here last week with me that could watch all nine screens,” he said. “Any time something happened, he’d say, ‘Whoa! They scored over there!’
And I never saw it . . .

“I said, ‘Man, I don’t know how you do it.’ And he said, ‘Well, I have attention deficit. I don’t think about it.’ He’s a bright guy, big businessman, and he says,
‘My mind pops. It doesn’t focus in.’ When I’m watching something, I focus in on it — ‘What’s the defense doing? What’s the coverage like?’ — so I have to
learn how to do this.”

His agent, Sandy Montag, certainly finds no fault in Madden’s ability to watch and process.

“He sees things that most mortals don’t see,” Montag said. “With football, he’s one of the few people who can see and evaluate what all 22 people on the field
are doing. His perception, vision and inquisitiveness are unparalleled.”

Madden was recently appointed special assistant to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, a job the old coach is taking very seriously. He’s in contact with
Goodell’s office on a weekly basis, not on issues such as labor and discipline, but on what happens on the field.

“I’m a great one to start a sentence, ‘Hey, you know what we ought to do . . . ‘ ” Madden said with a laugh. “Like last week, those uniforms, that was wrong. . . .
Who OK’d that? I watched Houston with red jerseys and red pants. That’s our brand. Seattle is the next one . . . terrible. [The day-glo green uniforms were]
embarrassing. That’s not NFL football. Where they got that, I have no idea.”

So really, retirement isn’t retirement at all. Madden still has his opinions, his vision, his kingdom.

All here at Turduckingham Palace.


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