Welcome to Top 5 Fun Friday, a regularly-occurring blog feature where I give you a list of extremely specific pointless shit from my life no one asked for. Why? Because the internet is STILL incredibly un-fun in 2021 and I miss blogging. It’s Friday and these will be fun! This week’s list…
Top 5 Favorite Sports Broadcast Teams
1. Words are my life. They’re how I make my money. I have a large vocabulary and an unorthodox way of speaking and writing, probably because I’ve ghostwritten hundreds of thousands of words across a multitude of formats for clients of all sizes, types, and businesses. It’s professionally useful if I can change up style, syntax and authorial persona at the drop of a hat to match whatever’s needed by the client. Just this week, and for the umpteenth hundred time, something I ghostwrote for a client appeared as a guest editorial on the opinion page of a major daily newspaper.
2. It’s not just the writing, it’s the podcasting. I’ve mentioned it before, but in addition to this show, I currently produce three others for clients, have two more likely coming on next month, and have another half dozen or so in the rearview mirror. In general, I have to listen to each show at least twice (once while we record, and then again while editing). That’s a lot of fucking time paying very close attention to people’s vocal manner. When I’m not working, I actively have to remind myself to turn off the part of my brain that analyzes the way people talk because too many people are ineloquent chuds.
3. I’ve spent my entire life watching sports and thousands of hours listening to hundreds of different commentators talk about whatever the fuck. I mean it as a compliment when I say that I don’t remember the vast majority of them because that means they did their job, got the hell out of the way, and largely didn’t detract from the experience. A small handful – Hawk Harrelson, Phil Simms, and Joe Morgan to name just three – actively made the experience of watching the sports they called worse.
Five commentary teams stand out as my favorites. Let’s pay tribute to them right now.
Dan Hicks and Rowdy Gaines
I used to read Bill Simmons a lot, but largely outgrew his brand of sophomoric frat boy horseshit about a decade ago. I find it mystifying that he STILL cosplays as a degenerate gambler with the odious “Cousin” Sal Iacono on his stupid podcast and that actual real people listen to it in 2021. I bring this up because the first time I felt myself pulling away from Simmons was during his ESPN days when he bitched about how much coverage swimming earned at the Olympics. Man, get fucked, you lazy dunce. Yes, NBC’s coverage of the Olympics has more than its share of problems, but swimming ain’t one of them.
One of the reasons is Dan Hicks and Rowdy Gaines are absolutely masterful at what they do. As a former swimmer, I love how they break down the subtleties of swimming technique without being alienating about it. For geeks like me, it’s a delightful bonus. For noobs, it’s nice ambience. It reminds me of how during the Winter Olympics, I know fuck all about figure skating, but appreciate how the analysts break things down to both enhance not only everyone’s knowledge, but enjoyment. Listening in on experts talking shop is like spying on a secret club, which is always fun.
More importantly, Hicks and Gaines can call a big moment with the best of them. During the finals of the Men’s 100m Freestyle, one of the sport’s iconic events like the 100m in track and field, Caeleb Dressel joined a long line of notable American swimmers – Mark Spitz, Matt Biondi, Nathan Adrian and Gaines himself – who have won it. He said to Dressel, “Welcome to the club, buddy!” Shit man, what a cool thing to get to witness. That’s a cool ass club to be a part of, and we all get to watch it! It’s not like he put on a smoking jacket to rub elbows with a bunch of secret handshaking trust fund babies; he’s part of a history of American excellence at sports.
Further, who can forget his and Dan Hicks’s iconic call of the Men’s 4×100 Freestyle Relay in 2008 in Beijing? Jason Lezak reeled in the French swimmer in the last leg in one of the greatest relays ever swum, and Hicks called it thusly: “Well there’s no doubt that he’s tightening up! Bernard is losing some ground. Here comes Lezak! UNBELIEVABLE AT THE END! HE’S DONE IT! THE U.S. HAS DONE IT! HE DID IT! A NEW WORLD RECORD! HE DID IT! HE DID IT!” Jesus Christ, I have chills all over again.
Even though NBC has butchered the editing of that sequence in their YouTube re-upload, an added bonus is seeing Michael Phelps screaming at Lezak, “Catch this motherfucker!”
Chrissie Evert and Chris Fowler
I suspect most people know Chris Fowler as either a) the once and long-tenured host of “College Gameday” on ESPN before handing it off to Rece Davis, or b) the guy who emceed the Heisman Trophy presentation when Charles Woodson defeated Peyton Manning to the dismay and anger of University of Tennessee fans. He further drew their ire when he referred to the backlash as a “trailer park frenzy.”
I know him as the guy smart enough to get the hell out of the way of his tennis broadcasting partner who just so happens to be one of the absolute greatest tennis players of all-time, Chrissie Evert. Go to Evert’s Wikipedia page and just read the first 3 paragraphs to appreciate her tidal wave of accomplishments including 18 Grand Slam Championships, at least two on every surface. She is one of the greatest athletes in the history of professional sports, full stop.
The true beauty of Chrissie Evert’s broadcasting style is that because she could play on any surface, defeat any type of opponent, and adapt to any opponent’s style, she could 100% adopt a smug persona about virtually any tennis player on the planet and be absolutely right about it. But she doesn’t. I’m sure she gets this comparison all the time, but her analysis reminds me of Roger Ebert in that Ebert always assessed a movie on “what is this thing trying to be, and how well does it achieve that?” Evert seems to live inside the players’ heads and can not only analyze what went wrong, but based on what she knows about them, prescribe changes that will likely lead to success. All in a low-key, warm, and entertaining demeanor. Evert’s approach is minimalist (especially compared to, say, John and Patrick McEnroe), and Fowler is the sidekick to that energy. I can picture watching tennis with the door open to my patio and hearing these two punctuate the warm breeze, and it fills me with pure contentment.
Harry Caray and Steve Stone
Steve Stone is the Chrissie Evert of baseball analysis, which I’m sure he gets all the time, too. No finer a baseball analyst exists than Steve Stone. Only Steve Stone could say some outlandish Amazing Kreskin shit like, “This is going to be an 86 mph slider on the inner half that the batter will chop 85 feet to the 3rd baseman” and BE RIGHT ABOUT IT. The dude was basically clairvoyant in his understanding of likely baseball actions and outcomes, which is why I still find it infuriating that some of the butthurt babies on the Cubs ran him out of the organization in 2004.
So what do you do with a guy with superhuman abilities like that? Why, you pair him with a good-natured-but-insane, senile fucking drunk, is what you do! I suspect everyone reading this is familiar with Harry Caray, if even only because of Will Ferrell’s unforgettable impression of him. (Personal taste, but John Caponera’s Harry Caray impression is my favorite.) I won’t belabor the points about Harry here because this is well-worn territory.
But I will say one of my favorite books that I think I read in like two hours was Steve Stone’s memoir Where’s Harry? Steve Stone Remembers 25 Years with Harry Caray. The stories are even weirder and funnier than you imagine, especially coming from a really sharp guy like Steve Stone. I think the only reason this pairing worked at all is because Harry represented pure id. Steve is our aspirational superego. We as the viewers served as the ersatz ego finding the happy medium between the two. If you could grow that energy in a lab and sell it, you’d never have to work again.
Mike Goldberg and Joe Rogan
Outside of calling MMA fights, Joe Rogan is indeed Gwyneth Paltrow for men. I’m old enough to remember Joe Rogan as the 6th lead on “NewsRadio,” and a standup comic I first saw on Showtime’s bizarro nudity/comedy showcase “Full Frontal Comedy.” It’s an understatement to say his ascent to cultural ubiquity was indeed a surprise.
But credit where it’s due here – Joe Rogan is an insanely good MMA commentator. His analysis is spot-on, his knowledge deep, and his excitement palpable. He’s your buddy who knows a shitload about MMA and the only reason he never shuts about it during a fight is because he desperately wants you to enjoy it as much as he does. You never will! But damn if that infectiousness doesn’t help you touch the sky once in awhile!
Mike Goldberg took a lot of shit from MMA fans because he was basically a good-hearted lunk who often got calls wrong. He had one rhythm, and all his shit was copy-and-pasted boilerplate. And y’know what? Fuck the fanboys. I liked that Goldberg called everything basically the same way. I can still hear him saying, “Coming up next!” in that ¾ speed of his.
“And it is allllllll over!”
“INside the Octagon…”
“Everything else is virtually EYE-dentical.”
Goldberg’s calls live inside my head as the soundtrack to a very happy interlude in my life when Kristin, Jason, Mikey and a rotating group of randos would go to bars on Saturday nights for big UFC fights. Like all the best times in your life, you don’t realize it actually has a beginning and an end until you’re long past it.
Bobby “The Brain” Heenan and Gorilla Monsoon
You didn’t think we’d escape this little column without talking wrestling, did you? Of course you didn’t. Professional wrestling was the central preoccupation of my youth, and I cannot seem to shake its grasp, even today. There’s a certain breed of wrestling fan (*ding dong* It me!) that can just sit down and watch a 90 minute episode of “Prime Time Wrestling” from 1987 filled with WWF midcarders beating up no-name jamokes one after another. Sounds riveting, doesn’t it? It sure isn’t!
The reason we watch this shit at all – outside of mashing the nostalgia joy buzzer with our big fat hands – is because of Heenan and Monsoon. They’re like an old vaudeville team who know each other’s timing on a cellular level. They each know when to push and antagonize, and they know when to sell. Both former wrestlers, they’ve taken the strange dance of pro wrestling and applied the lessons to broadcasting.
On one particular episode, Heenan talks about one wrestler being so nervous that on his honeymoon he folded his wife over a chair and took his pants to bed. That’s straight Borscht Belt schtick that came from so far out of left field you hear the crew laugh from off-camera, and Monsoon cannot get it together enough to even introduce the next match.
If you want the apotheosis of their chemistry watch the 1992 Royal Rumble. The WWF Championship is on the line in a 30-man battle royal where two men start, and every 2 minutes another participant enters. Heenan’s newest charge is Ric Flair who enters at #3. That gives Monsoon more than an hour to twist the knife on Heenan as Heenan becomes increasingly unhinged. Flair’s performance is amazing throughout, but Heenan and Monsoon take something that would have already been great and elevate it to legendary.
That’s what great commentators do, and that’s why these two will always be first in my heart.