Through the miracle of modern broadcasting, Washington has a baseball team: the Baltimore Orioles. They don't play at RFK Stadium, but they do play Washington.
We must be thankful. The Orioles, consistently above average and frequently outstanding, are blessed with a broadcasting team of similar character. It is this broadcasting team that allows us to pretend we have a home team. Be nice.
Orioles baseball is brought to Washington 43 times this season by WDCA-TV-20, and 143 times by WTOP-AM-1500 (plus 16 home games distributed to paying customers by Super TV, a subscription television service). The quantity is not quite what Baltimore itself gets -- 55 regular-season games on WMAR-TV-2, and all 162 games on the Orioles' radio network flagship, WFBR-AM-1300 -- but the quality is almost like being there.
There are some complaints -- such things as Brooks Robinson's use of the word "we" and broadcast boosterism in general, the radio people's misuse of the space between innings and the TV people's intriguing use of superimposed stats.
First, however, a vote for regional baseball sportscasters in general -- people like Chuck Thompson, the Orioles' play-by-play veteran, color announcer Robinson and radio man Tom Marr; like Los Angeles' Vin Scully; Boston's Ken Harrelson; the original "Holy Cow," Harry Caray, in Chicago, or Caray's son Skip in Atlanta.
No one will tell you they don't prefer the local guys over the slick, pat chatter of network baseball, if only because the local announcers are familiar and comfortingly idiosyncratic, their voices floating out on that inimitable sea of stadium crowd sound to round out the living-room ambiance of a summer Sunday afternoon.
The best thing a baseball announcer can be is comfortable. And Thompson, who is 61 and has been an Orioles voice for more than 20 years (along with Bill O'Donnell, whose health has kept him off the air most of this season), is comfortable.
Thompson is better on the television side, when he is teamed with former Orioles third baseman Robinson, than he is when sharing the radio mike with Marr at nontelevised games. Thompson's fatherly, cheerful restraint seems to take on just the right tone when played off the rank exuberance of the good ole hometown boy Robinson.
"This is a tough park for us," Robinson said from Chicago this week during the pregame standup from the booth with Thompson. "We haven't won here in a long time."
You haven't played here in a long time, one was tempted to say. But no. Brooks prepares well for these games -- and besides, as one relatively religious viewer said: "Brooks is Brooks. You really can't ask for more."
The radio coverage is made harder to take these days by two things: one of them is that Marr, the semistrident voice WFBR added to its Orioles team in 1979, does not mix well with Thompson on the air. In fact, the two don't mix at all. Thompson and Marr don't talk to each other; they take turns at the mike. Whether this is due to personal friction (as some say) or station policy (as others say) really doesn't matter much -- it just doesn't sound . . . comfortable.
The other radio problem is one you may have noticed if you hear the games on WTOP: frequently commercials between innings will cause you to miss a pitch, or the broadcast will be resumed in the middle of an announcer's sentence.
Metrosports, the Rockville sports packaging company that handles the Orioles radio network, just this week requested program logs from the network's 65 stations to determine if stations are trying to sneak more commercial time into the breaks than they're allotted, or if the choppiness is due just to sloppy button-pushing in the studio.
WTOP General Manger Michael Douglas said this week he thinks the problem is "sloppy board work," certainly not deliberate overselling (a violation, however unenforceable, of the station's contract with the network), and is working to correct it. After the first inning of Wednesday night's game in Chicago, however, WTOP played back-to-back, 60-second commercials in what was clearly supposed to be a 90-second "hole" left by the network. We rejoined Marr in midword.
On the TV side, the Orioles pictures are consistently good this year -- rarely do we miss anything important. For some reason, though, the pictures are too often spoiled by faulty, misspelled or miscued superimposed stats. The other night in Chicago, the Orioles lineup flashed over a view from center field as Thompson began to read. Pretty soon you noticed Thompson was reading an entirely different lineup; the super seemed to be left over from another night.
Of course, nothing so awful would ever happen on a network, nossir. Networks have better equipment, more cameras, more replay angles, higher pay and bigger names: Howard Cosell, Joe Garagiola, Keith Jackson. (Why do I always expect, when listening to ABC's Jackson do a Monday night baseball game in August, to be able to see the fans' breath?) A network does not a more comfortable, informative announcer make.
The best network baseball announcers -- ABC's Al Michaels and newcomer Steve Stone, NBC's Dick Enberg and newcomer Bob Costas -- are good because they have the novel ability of sounding both unassuming and smart at the same time. No matter. I prefer the local guys.