When broadcasters' contracts are expiring, we usually hear about their extensions during the last week of the season. That's how it worked for Hawk Harrelson and Steve Stone the last time this happened, and we heard the same about Ed Farmer and Darrin Jackson this time around.
But the last games of the season came and went without any word. Sure, Hawk Harrelson and Steve Stone made a casual reference to next year at the end of the last broadcast, but the Sox tend to make a big deal about their icon.
Bruce Levine provides a good reason: Harrelson's next deal won't be a simple reupping. Rather, he's official reducing his workload to a half-season on a reverse Vin Scully deal:
Harrelson is scheduled to call 81 games in 2016, including 78 road games, the home opener and the White Sox’s two home games against the Cubs, according to industry sources. Harrelson signed a two-year contract, according to sources.
Harrelson entertained the idea of a reduced schedule last season, but Rick Hahn's active offseason lit a fire under him, so it was business as usual. This time around, the Sox will be hiring an official third wheel to handle the other 81 games with Steve Stone.
At first glance, it's strange that Harrelson would choose to work only road games and the Sox' marquee home games, because that sounds more strenuous for a 74-year-old (the aforementioned Scully only works Dodgers home games and the occasional West Coast trip, a far more intuitive arrangement).
But then you remember that Harrelson's commute to U.S. Cellular Field from his home in Granger, Indiana, requires three-plus hours of driving, so flying charter and being driven around is somehow considerably easier, especially when factoring in things like bad weather or a bad cold. I don't even like driving two minutes to CVS when I'm feeling under the weather.
Back in May, we talked about how rotating in a third voice could refresh the broadcast booth without upending it. For one, Harrelson should be able to summon more energy, and/or have more things to say to Stone. He said during the finale that the frequent in-game silences were because the FCC wouldn't permit what he actually wanted to say, but there were long blocks of nothingness during 2-1 games in the fourth inning. He's a good broadcaster when he's locked into the action, but the action hasn't captivated him to the point where he's kinda shirking his professional responsibilities. Maybe less will be more here.
For the games Harrelson isn't calling, the Sox can go a few different ways.
A more traditional play-by-play guy: Steve Stone responded well to Chuck Swirsky in the booth. Swirsky did his part by buttering up Stone with compliments, but he also gave Stone plenty of talking points by peppering him with questions. The quality of the inquiries varied -- sometimes Stone rejected them outright -- but they kept Stone on his toes. Swirsky's interactivity with fans on Twitter also found its way into the broadcast booth, which was a way to liven up lopsided games.
Swirsky wouldn't be available for this gig due to the overlap of the basketball season, but his fill-in work provided a good look at an arrangement they've generally eschewed. It has merit.
A new former player: The Sox' attempts to break in new analysts generally hasn't gone well. Darrin Jackson needed years to find his voice, and Chris Singleton was out before he discovered his. None of the guest analysts they've tried stood out either.
But part of that is attributable to Harrelson, who doesn't set up the guy next to him. Somebody looking for a cue to talk could go innings without finding one. Stone is better about this, and a half-schedule of Stone and New Guy might be the smoothest way to get a guy reps. Listeners would still be exposed to the learning curve, but road trips would provide respites from the inexperience-born stumbles. (Likewise, homestands would give fans breaks from "Kansas City Special.")
The most notable negative here is that Stone isn't a great Big Moment guy.. He has no problems with the rhythms of plate appearances, but he doesn't have that extra gear when stuff gets crazy. That's the best thing about Harrelson, like this call of this Avisail Garcia's walk-off in August:
And replacing his call with Stone's is a step down. That's a present-day drawback for what is a forward-thinking idea, but it hinges on the new guy being somebody who will eventually get good.
(One bummer about the way Harrelson's divided his schedule -- he'll only get three chances to call a walk-off.)
A former player with experience: I don't have anybody in mind, but let's use Singleton as an example. He wasn't good with the Sox, but he's since worked on it with ESPN, both in studio shows and on national radio broadcasts. Mechanical Turk suggested Dirk Hayhurst, although he would definitely be more unpredictable and unconventional. But then again, so are Harrelson and Farmer.
The question here is whether an 81-game schedule would be a step up from other engagements, whether in terms of pay or profile. The lack of travel seems like a selling point in this case -- if you're calling all games in Chicago, then it's easier to plan to be elsewhere for part-time work.
There's also the idea that this could turn into full-time work soon enough. Harrelson is 74 and Stone is 68, and while Harrelson said he wants to die in a booth, Stone hasn't said the same, so a greater overhaul may not be all that far down the road.