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Less may be more with Hawk Harrelson

Reducing broadcaster's workload stands to make White Sox broadcasts more resilient against team's struggles

Jonathan Daniel

Joining the perpetual debate about baseball's slow death, Tim Marchman at Deadspin hit on a point that we've talked about when discussing the Hall of Fame's future -- the anti-marketing of a sports and its stars:

Let's take a normal 25-year-old, born in 1989. He would have spent his formative years as a sports fan in the immediate aftermath of a canceled World Series, hearing that greedy players were destroying the game and that the dynastic Yankees team dominating the sport was such an affront to its competitive integrity that drastic measures had to be taken to give other teams any kind of chance at winning. He would have heard about the commissioner touring the country threatening to abolish various teams, some of them successful ones. He would have seen the league enthusiastically cooperating with a congressional investigation that all but treated many of its most famous players as criminals; the league touting an owner-written report claiming that those players were frauds, cheats, and liars; and the league and the government working together with small-time con men to destroy the very best of those players. [...]

There's no obvious reason why a 25-year-old would be an especially big baseball fan; there's no reason, having seen baseball ruin rather than protect the reputations of its best players, why the marketing companies that make great athletes transcendent stars would want to be involved in promoting Mike Trout or Clayton Kershaw as something more than exceptional ballplayers; and there's no mystery in what's wrong here. The people running baseball told everyone that the game was broken and that the players—who weren't doing anything their peers in other sports weren't doing—were frauds. Meanwhile, rivals took a somewhat more sensible approach. Now the game has to deal with the consequences of people more or less buying the political line adopted by its management class, which involved depicting the very thing they were selling as not worth buying. The real question is whether they learned their lesson.

I've been thinking about anti-marketing when listening to Hawk Harrelson, which is actually a connection a lot of non-Chicago fans indirectly make when listing Hawk as a reason they hate the White Sox. That actually increases Harrelson's appeal to me -- baseball fans never sound softer than when they complain about 10 seconds of audio from a guy who isn't supposed to cater to their rooting interests -- and I think he's an incredibly unifying presence for Sox fans, even ones who don't particularly care for him.

But I've been wondering about the effects of his ubiquity during this second straight season of non-contending. Harrelson hasn't called a bad team's games in consecutive years since the 1990s, which was two broadcasting partners ago, and he doesn't have Tom Paciorek to take the edge off.

It's hard to make losing broadcasts sound enjoyable -- at least without being a phony hack -- but Harrelson's discontent is often palpable, lingering over the proceedings like a cigar smoke, and it can make the lowlights exceptionally resounding. I've come to dread the dreaded leadoff walk, not because of its potential to start a disastrous inning, but because I'm going to keep hearing about it in lieu of live observations down the road.

Harrelson is too honest to sell positives when they're greatly outnumbered, he shouldn't be expected to try. But he isn't particularly suited for the other option that doesn't involve lying to the fan base, which is changing the subject. Yukking it up is always welcome, but if Harrelson doesn't feel like it, that's not something Steve Stone can sustain. Stone can talk about current events, but it didn't sound like Harrelson was too familiar with Andrelton Simmons when talking about the game's best defensive shortstops on Friday night, so those conversations hit walls even more abruptly. Their strengths only match up when the Sox are playing compelling baseball that day.

And when they're playing a stretch of bad baseball like this 7-18 August, there's a whole lot of nothing to say. That seems problematic when the broadcast is the chief connection between a team and its fans, and it might be more troublesome with Sox fans in particular, because it's a group that doesn't need a whole lot of encouragement to reject a product. We're discerning fans with discriminating tastes, by God.

The Sox have tried combating that attitude with an equally critical approach, but attendance shaming only succeeds in publicizing reasons why fans shouldn't show up. To their credit, they stopped driving that discussion years ago, and now they look like they're playing the long game -- praising the fans who show up, appealing to the egos of the fans who don't, and emphasizing family-friendliness in hopes of forging a new kind of loyalty.

Harrelson's a great fit for that big picture, because while outsiders may consider him a dinosaur, he connects with Sox fans of all ages on one level or another. He's the perfect reverend for SoxFest, and he's the guy to call walk-off homers and web gems, because he can amplify excitement in the way others can't.

But when there isn't much excitement to go around, it seems like the Sox should find a way to weatherproof the broadcasts for fans who still want to tune in. Basically, this is all to say a reduced road schedule for Harrelson might be best for everybody -- a way to nudge the booth forward without leaving behind the stuff that makes it hit home.