For years, Hawk Harrelson had a ready response for every time he was asked about how long he planned to call White Sox games (or sometimes he’d just tell it himself, unprompted). Not only did he say he wanted to die in the booth, but he wanted to pass out in between “boaaaaaard” and “YES!” during his home run call.
But Harrelson has softened that stance markedly over the last two years. After the 2015 season, he yielded home games to Jason Benetti, sparing him 70+ two-hour drives between Chicago and Granger, Ind. Harrelson, who was opposed to the idea of drawing down just the year before, said that part-time work gave him a second wind, at least until another disappointing White Sox season knocked it out of his sails.
At SoxFest, he revised his end date to 2020, which would indulge his fixation on decades.
I want to go four more years only because of my grandkids and it puts me in that club, that very exclusive club. Vin Scully’s in it. Don Zimmer’s in it. Dave Garcia’s in it. If I go to 2020, that’ll put me in professional baseball for all or part of eight decades. I got seven now and I want that for myself too, but mainly for my grandkids to have a granddad who is in an exclusive club of being in pro baseball for all or part of eight decades.
That was less than two months ago, and the reporters on hand took that to mean four more years of Harrelson on the reduced schedule. However, Harrelson told Daryl Van Schouwen on Thursday that he didn’t reveal the whole picture:
“I didn’t say I wanted to broadcast four more years,’’ Harrelson told the Sun-Times. “The main thing is, I just want to be in baseball four more years, not necessarily broadcasting.’’
If it sounds like the Minnie Minoso path to additional decades, it might be:
Harrelson said he will do Sox broadcasts this season, “and if I decide to do some games next year . . . it’s up to them.’’ [...]
By 2020, “it will definitely be enough,’’ he said. “Even if it’s for one day.’’
This is a relief, although not in the way it often is with broadcasters who are approaching the ends of their careers. Actually, Harrelson’s unique style could have aged very well. Because he seldom describes plays as they’re happening, it’d be hard to notice a slowdown in reaction time or precision. Silence could have been his cane -- something for support, and a signature.
But circumstances lent a different meaning to the dead air. Four consecutive losing seasons limited Harrelson’s emotional range, leading him to stressing, bemoaning and harping when he resumed speaking. A better partnership could have allowed the analyst to steer Harrelson out of these ruts, but the arranged marriage with Steve Stone remains mostly loveless (although they finally took counseling to heart last year).
My hope was that the reduced schedule would have helped Harrelson not get so entrenched in the drudgery of a losing season, and some distance would have broadened the topics and areas of his interest and curiosity. I’m not even talking about sabermetrics, but merely spontaneous observations that would inform the listener about things that capture his attention on the field, making the games and days easier to separate.
That didn’t happen. Instead, the gloominess of the Harrelson-Stone broadcasts stood in even starker relief when alternating with the Benetti-Stone pairing. It’s not like the latter duo is perfect — they’ll crash into walls reaching for jokes, and Benetti probably needs to get more established in the chair before he can more candidly describe awful play -- but they take the job of entertaining and informing the viewer seriously, whereas Harrelson needs the team to amuse him before he can pass the savings along to us.
Harrelson still has the ability to rise to the occasion when the moment demands it, which is why I’ve never wished outright retirement. I’m glad he was on the call for my favorite moment of the 2016 season:
This is Harrelson at his modern-day best — his homerism accompanies the action rather than dominating it, and whenever he genuinely laughs, the broadcast becomes about 40 pounds lighter (which is why Beckham Getting Bucked should get a bobblehead day, if not its own statue on the concourse).
The rub is that exciting baseball is the only way to reliably unlock this Harrelson, and a rebuilding makes that outcome harder to achieve. That’s why I’m relieved that Harrelson senses the time is nigh. Perhaps this will unburden him the way other efforts haven’t, which would be terrific for everybody. If the grumbling, griping and grousing habits are too firmly rooted, fans will probably be more forgiving, rather than responding in kind.