After the Wagnerian music and the supernova graphics left center screen, viewers of Monday Night Baseball saw a fine midseason baseball game and not, to ABC's apparent regret, "Das Rheingold," "Return of the Killer Tomatoes" or any other such high-budget apocalyptic features. Not for want of trying, though.
In its eighth season of such broadcasts, ABC still imposes a high-strung "eventful" atmosphere on a sport resistant to it, especially in June. And poor Earl Weaver, he's doing his best as a new member of the team, but he's playing way out of position, the victim of one of the network's many mistakes.
I would like to see the combination of Al Michaels, Howard Cosell and Weaver do for Monday Night Baseball what Frank Gifford, Cosell, Don Meredith and selected others do for Monday Night Football. Although Gifford's corny insistence on decorum is sometimes alien to the goofing around in which his boothmates indulge, the personality formula works. At least as a novelty item in one's viewing week.
The announcers are part of the show; during a boring game they are the show. The piling on of facts, the 437 camera angles, the recounting of lunches and drinks taken that very day with coaches and players--it all works beautifully on its own terms. Monday Night Football is a polished product, something as dazzling to look at as a well-produced commercial.
Baseball does not stand nearly so well on such slick terrain and, more than anything else, Weaver's performance is weakened because he is asked to act too much like a football announcer. In an interview before Monday night's Milwaukee-California game, Weaver said he saw his role this way: "I want to describe the intricacies of the game, be an analyst. I want to describe the inner part of baseball and bring it across to fans in ordinary terms."
Weaver has been in the ABC booth before. After the Orioles fell to the Brewers on the last dramatic day of the season, he worked with Jim Palmer during last year's American League playoff series. More than enough time was spent exploiting the Palmer-Weaver relationship during that series and, best of all, Weaver proved he could be lighthearted and incisive about the game at the same time.
Now that he is a full-season contract player, Weaver seems to have abandoned whatever carefree attitude he may have had and is getting down to his ABCs. When Cosell introduced him at the beginning of the show, the Great Man said Weaver had a "touch of Stengelese." Presumably that meant we could look forward not only to technical knowledge but also stories that Weaver, as a once-and-possibly-future manager, would know.
Al McGuire in college basketball and Meredith in professional football have been able to combine an eccentric sense of humor with an insider's knowledge.
Weaver, though, has followed through with his analytical intentions. Monday night he was serious, almost grave, full of statistics and earnest preparation. No one doubts Weaver's knowledge of the enormously rich game of baseball. While he was managing the Orioles, reporters could often depend on him for a revealing discussion of any baseball subtlety. If Weaver is trying to carry that ability to the broadcast booth, he seems to have left his wit and his relish for anecdote in Florida.
In his premier performance as an ABC regular, Weaver was as deadly earnest as a junior faculty member in the presence of the tenure committee.
With his new colleague, Cosell was both pedantic and generous at the same time. He would often prompt Weaver as one would a shy schoolboy. But instead of asking little Earl to recite the members of the House of Tudor, Howard would say, "Later I'm going to ask Earl to talk about" Doug DeCinces or relief pitching or whatever. And Earl would dutifully comply.
"You do make some nice points," said Cosell.
"Thanks, Howard!" Weaver chirped.
Perhaps Weaver's seriousness is an antidote to Cosellisms such as "He's a good bat manipulator," but from a figure as intelligent and flamboyant as Weaver, one has a right to expect more--more risks, more fun.
Perhaps the reason for Weaver's error, then, is ABC's way of viewing baseball. The graphics are incessantly bold. The talk is endless, becoming by the fourth inning a white noise that can only be heard by cocker spaniels. The experience of watching a baseball game on ABC is about as pastoral as sitting on a traffic island during rush hour.
Weaver's voice is adequate and he looks pretty good up there on the screen, though his curly perm is a little maddening.
Cosell pressed Weaver on whether he will manage the Mets, the Cubs or some other major league team in the future. Gracefully, and not a little coyly, Weaver begged off.
Before the broadcast he said, "I'm having a nice time right now, I don't want to manage. Working a few Monday nights can't be too strenuous but I'll never be a beat man. Too much travel, too many ball games. That's why I quit baseball . . . . If I had to be at ball games every night I'd just as soon do it in a uniform."
Right now, executives at ABC could make Earl Weaver's tenuous retirement even easier. They could let him be his witty self and not the third-best statistics teacher at the University of Ames.
And they could let--no, demand that--all three announcers allow silence and baseball itself do more of the talking.
The night is Monday, true, but the ball is different.
It is round, it is small.