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Thursday, January 09, 2014

Reflections on the Terminations of Chris Wheeler and "Sarge" Mathews

I suppose that it was inevitable that after Comcast ponied up huge bucks for the long-term TV contract for the Phillies (something which I think will prove to be a bad bet, and not just because of the Phillies' fortunes, but also because of changing preferences and demographics) that they would want to make changes in the broadcast booth.  To be blunt, the broadcast booth lost the magic it once enjoyed when you had Harry Kalas doing play-by-play and Richie Ashburn doing the color.  Both got along like best friends, Kalas with the dulcet tones and knowledge and Ashburn with a great sense of humor, who, more importantly, was a great story teller.  Contrast that with Wheeler, a long-term Phillies employee who some fans never forgave for being a shill for the team during the awful era when Bill Giles served as president (Giles called the team, located in the nation's fifth-largest media market, a "small-market" team and Wheeler defended every move management and boneheaded players made).  Wheeler was knowledgeable (although prone to making "Captain Obvious" points), kind by all accounts (the talk-show radio guys during drive time praised him for his courtesy) and a good radio teammate (he even had to put up with Kalas's "extracurriculars" during his time with Kalas), but the magic was lacking.  And Mathews, while also a likeable guy (much more so than the Oscar the Grouch of broadcasting, Phillies' radio color man, Larry Andersen, perhaps still smarting from the fact that the Red Sox traded Jeff Bagwell for him), also lacked the magic of Ashburn.  The Phillies even had gone so far as to poll fans about their broadcasters several years back.

So, now they begin anew, looking for a new color commentator.  Some former players have distinguished themselves on their air -- John Kruk, for his humor (although most adults wouldn't leave San Francisco to live in Philadelphia) and Mitch Williams, who has been very insightful about the game in general (although some still haven't forgiven him for giving up the Series-ending home run to Joe Carter in 1993).  They are probably out.  So, among the alums, there is Ricky Bottalico, who works the pre-game on Comcast (good guy, insightful, but is he enough of a humorous story teller to go nine innings?), Doug Glanville (an all-time good guy and University of Pennsylvania graduate), Curt Schilling (a potential Hall of Famer pitcher but also a clubhouse pain in the putt and not known for humor) and Brad Lidge, the name that has emerged recently (has a degree from Notre Dame, but, in the world of color commentary, so what?  Can he entertain?).

Naturally, someone with a connection to the city and the team's past would be the best fit.  It doesn't have to be a former star, but it has to be someone with good knowledge, good insight and a sense of humor.  Andersen was reputed to be among the funniest Phillies when he played, but that hasn't translated to an on-air persona.  While Pat Burrell reminded some fans of "Beauty and the Beast"'s Gaston, his teammates also thought him to be hilarious.  Yet, he didn't have the best rapport with the fans, although they came to appreciate him for his efforts at the end of his time in the city (along with the fact that he rode with his bulldog, Elvis, in the victory parade in '08). 

This is a huge decision for Comcast, one they need to get right.  Few might come out publicly to say that Wheeler and Mathews were lacking, but the broadcasts at times were labored, weren't entertaining, and Wheeler was too much of a "company" man on air, although, to his great credit, he had more leeway to be critical later on in his career and did a better job of pointing out flaws than he had earlier in his career.  It's sad to see anyone lose a job and a career end, but the hope for Comcast and fans is that they preserve the best of the old-school commentary while bringing in the best of the new.  They shouldn't look for another Ashburn; they should look for the next star.

The 76ers had the all-time P.A. announcer in Dave Zinkoff; today they have D.J. Matt Cord (whose low voice when the opposing team scores strikes me as disrespectful and who is not all that entertaining, especially when compared to the Zink).  P.A. announcers have much more of a script to follow than broadcasters, but the 76ers still have not found a worthy successor to the Zink after decades.  The Phillies need to invest in a good TV color man, and not turn the position into the equivalent of playing 3B for the Mets before they found David Wright.

I haven't heard Lidge comment, but of the others I mentioned who might be available, I think that Kruk would be the best bet -- if they can land him.


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