Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Changes to the Twins Airwaves Blowin' in the Wind

Powered By Jim Thielman

Standing on his Field of Dreams corn patch with the ghost of Joe Jackson leering at his movie wife, Kevin Costner is told the one constant through all the years has been baseball. Costner's 30-something Iowa screen character lives in Twins' Territory, so more precisely, the one constant for him has been Twins' broadcasts on WCCO radio.

The Twins have been heard on AM 830 since they arrived in Minnesota in 1961, despite coming close to leaving the station twice in the past 10 years. It was long anticipated this summer that their association with WCCO would end when rights expired at the end of 2006.

Teams divorcing venerable flagship radio stations is the trend in baseball.

For 52 years KMOX beamed St. Louis Cardinals games farther than, well, Minneapolis. The Cardinals jumped that 50,000-watt flagship station for 5,000-watt KTRS this season. It was such big news that two St. Louis television stations interrupted programming to carry the news conference.

It was not a first.

The Detroit Tigers left WJR three years ago. Next season, the Red Sox will move from WEEI to WRKO for $13 million, according to the Wall St. Journal. That's the largest such deal ever, and a meaningful one because local broadcast revenue is exempt from baseball's revenue sharing model. The Sox keep every sack of cash.

If the Twins move to KSTP, that would mark four teams to leave megawatt stations for signals with less reach. WCCO’s signal is a 50,000-watt fastball while KSTP’s electromagnetic waves have a knuckleball’s wobble.

What's the story? Well, the flagship station's value has been diluted. MLB.com streams games over the Internet. That and XM satellite radio mean a Seattle native in Miami can tune in every Mariners' game. This dilution was KMOX’s concern.

So KMOX proposed a revenue sharing plan that offered less guaranteed money but allowed the Cardinals to more than make up the difference in advertising sales. The Cards instead purchased a half stake in KTRS, a niche station looking to boost its Arbitron ratings and willing to bid higher for sports programming. The Cardinals gained more control over ad sales; XM radio plugs the holes in the KTRS network.

After XM Satellite Radio agreed last year to broadcast every major league game over the next 11 seasons for $650 million, subscribers vaulted from 2.5 million to 6 million. An XM survey found that 23 percent of those signed on primarily because of baseball. At a subscription fee of $12.95 per month, that's $120 million per year in new XM revenue directly attributable to baseball.

Radio is just playing catch up. About 15 years ago 80 percent of locally broadcast baseball was available with a set of rabbit ears. Today, pay TV carries about 80 percent of those games. The world changes.

Breaking with WCCO just might be an acceptable change for one reason: Herb Carneal is winding down his career, and now works about as many innings as Juan Rincon each season. Maybe it’s best if the Twins essentially left Herb, rather than the other way around.

Carneal is so rarely part of summer’s soundtrack these days that sometimes a few batters have swung before a WCCO listener realizes Carneal is in the booth. It takes awhile to notice Carneal because, as former Detroit Tigers’ announcer Ernie Harwell was saying one afternoon a few summers back, good baseball announcers are like good umpires or someone capably driving through traffic.

Harwell was specifically chatting about Carneal.

"I think the real touch of art is making things look easy," Harwell was saying. "In America, everyone thinks he can build a fire, run a hotel, write a song and broadcast a baseball game. There are a lot of things you have to report on in a game, and I think Herb has a degree of ability that’s so consistent and so consistently high that you take him for granted."

Harwell, who did his last broadcast in 2002, and Carneal once traveled with their teams. Harwell favored Carneal as a well-read, fascinating dinner companion who was a student of economics. Yet Harwell struggled to summon an extraordinary anecdote about Carneal.

Bob San has one. After arriving in the U.S. from China at age 16 he found himself working as a janitor at the University of Minnesota while he put himself through college. San has been known to attend dozens of Twins games a season, but he reached college without ever seeing a baseball game.

Night time janitorial work at the U was boring, but a radio was always on. San’s American buddies listened to baseball. Carneal painted pictures as San mopped floors. One day San decided to catch a bus to Metropolitan Stadium to see what this game was all about.

“It was just like Herb Carneal described it,” San recalls. “Herb would talk about the 6-4-3 double play. And there it was. I understood everything perfectly.

“It was a revelation. Like religion.

“Herb Carneal taught me baseball.”

Imagine explaining something your listener has never seen in their non-native language, and making the subject and jargon understandable. Praise doesn’t get any better than that. Carneal thought high praise might be elusive when he arrived reluctantly in Minneapolis at age 37. He was unknown in the market and uncertain how he would be received in the midwest.

The Richmond, Virginia native had worked in Baltimore since 1957 at a time when Hamm’s Brewery owned the Orioles’ advertising rights. Hamm’s acquired the Twins’ rights in ’61; Carneal was offered a job in the booth starting in ‘62.

It was a potentially great opportunity in a field that fascinated Carneal so much that after playing amateur baseball in Richmond and planning to enroll at Syracuse University he instead found himself knocking on the doors of Syracuse radio stations. One station offered him a job.

It is likely Carneal would be long forgotten had he been a good enough ballplayer to make the major leagues. As an announcer, he has enjoyed remarkable longevity in a single market and has received the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s Ford Frick Award, an honor he shares with 30 other broadcasters, including Harwell.

But the job is a challenge for a man of 82. It wasn’t long ago that Carneal would arrive at the Metrodome around 4:30 p.m., hours before his voice would reach into the night air thick with humidity to greet fans with, “Well, hi, everybody. This is Herb Carneal.”

The ritual would begin with Carneal creating the night’s big-league schedule by penciling teams in pairs onto a yellow legal pad. Computers spit out updated scores during the game, but he preferred this habit. Carneal would then descend steep flights of stairs into the Metrodome’s basement field and chat with players before climbing the steps to the booth to record some segments.

Between bites of a meal and conversation he would study press notes, but not too much. He said announcers who over-prepared tended to inappropriately cram all that knowledge into a broadcast.

Carneal would repeat the pattern on the road, which 20 years ago might mean a late-night getaway flight from Cleveland would take him and the Twins into Hamilton, Canada rather than Toronto. Toronto’s late-night noise curfews restricted early morning travel into the city, so the team would bus 50 miles to Toronto and sleepwalk into the hotel lobby at 5 a.m.

That schedule separates octogenarian announcers from younger counterparts, and Carneal always called himself a man who preferred routine. He said proper rest and a sensible diet smoothed out that lifestyle, which meant he abstained from green onions during the game – against the advice of Halsey Hall. Carneal’s broadcast partner from 1962-72, Hall enjoyed a press box diet of Muriel cigars and onions; he maintained onions were “scavengers of the stomach.”

It might be difficult for Twins’ fans to believe that it’s been nearly three decades since Halsey established residency in Section L, Grave 405 of Fort Snelling National Military Cemetery. So it’s understandable why fans think their team’s association with WCCO has been all too short.

But fans survived Harmon Killebrew signing with Kansas City and Rod Carew going to California; Tommy Herr’s arrival and Frankie Viola’s departure. Kirby Puckett’s death. A baseball team leaving a radio station isn’t the end of the world, and after all, Twins’ fans have been fortunate. Herb Carneal taught us baseball.

Jim Thielman covered the Minnesota Twins from 1977 to 1993. His book about the 1965 Minnesota Twins is available at www.cooloftheevening.com.

8 comments:

Patrick said...

XM is great. A strong signal basically anywhere. But and in my opinion this a big deal, they only have the radio feeds of the home team. If I want to listen to the Twins while on the road on XM I'm stuck listening to whoever the homer is on that particular day. Not good times.
Paddy

Beth said...

"Carneal is so rarely part of summer’s soundtrack these days that sometimes a few batters have swung before a WCCO listener realizes Carneal is in the booth."

Possibly this is generally true, but a friend and I listen to broadcasts at the park. Without fail, whenever Herb comes on, we'll turn to each other and say, joyfully, "Herb!" We like his announcing better than anyone else--others miss telling us pitches or where the runners have advanced to on hits (or outs, if they have). Herb is also content to let the airwaves fall silent for a few seconds when the pitcher is taking a little longer to pitch (if it takes too long, Herb will make some comment). The noise of the crowd is enough for fans listening at home to know the game is still there.

Jeff A said...

I think what makes Herb so great is that he always assumes that the listener has tuned in to hear the game, rather than to hear him. This means he always makes the game the important thing, rather than telling us where he went to dinner last night, what he plans to do after the game, or anything else that might prevent him from keeping us up-to-date- on the action. It also means he uses a low-key style, absent of any hype or attempts at clever catch-phrases.

Yes, we are lucky to have had Herb so long. And yes, we will go on listening to the Twins after he leaves, but the broadcasts will be poorer for it. Beth, I understand your reaction perfectly. When Herb comes on, it's like we're hearing from an old friend.

Twinsluvver said...

dissapointing...i moved to northen Illinois (enemy territorry) with my framily this winter and I was amazed and indeed excited to learn I can catch wcco most nights if its not storming...time to catch the XM wave...

NateW said...

One of my first jobs in High School was to push buttons for radio station KVBR in Brainerd. We were a Twins network affiliate. We had to pay attention because you never knew when Herb was going to throw it back for Station Identification or for a pitching change or whatever.

I remember how every night the game sounded so close and so exciting, then the next morning read in the newspaper how the Twins got killed and think, "But it sounded so exciting on the radio...."

Herb's practice of not speaking and letting the crowd noise carry for several seconds put board operators like me in a constant state of panic. Many a time I would start a commercial in the middle of an at bat because I heard dead-air and thought Herb had called for a commercial break.

Every now and then I'll be driving somewhere, listening to a game, and suddenly hear the local station start playing commericals in the middle of an at-bat, and I'll start to laugh. Some kid making minimum wage to push buttons is panicing...

Part of the fun of listening to 'CCO here in NE Iowa is that if anyone moves, it affects the signal, so once we tune the game in, everybody has to be still and listen. Focus on the game or you lose it.

Now if we have to switch to XM I'll be expected to fold laundry or something while the game is on.

Thanks for nothing XM...

brianS said...

Great piece. Like many of your readers, I grew up on Herb (and Halsey Hall).

Jack Ungerleider said...

Great piece Jim. Please forgive a wander down memory lane.

I grew up watching the Mets in 70's. We had one of the great annoucing crews, in my opinion, ever then. The team wasn't always great but you knew if you watched or listened to a game it would be an enjoyable experience. You see this team did both the radio and the tv broadcasts. Two on TV and the other in the radio booth. Eventually that all changed and the last of these three original Mets broadcasters, Bob Murphy, ended his career on radio. Murph is in the same class as Herb and Ernie and those other lowkey announcers that brought the game to you. Bob Murphy was my favorite of those early Met broadcasters, less flamboyant than Lindsey Nelson (who was probably closer to Vin Scully in style) and a little more polished than ex-Pirate slugger Ralph Kiner.

We can only hope that the next generation of baseball broadcasters studies and learns for the likes of Carneal, Harwell, and Murphy in their primes so that the rest of us can continue to enjoy baseball on the radio,

Steve Webb said...

I saw my first Twins game in 1964... I have listened to Twins baseball on radio since then. Herb is slowing down, but he still does a good job. I heard someone criticize him recently and it just plain pissed me off.
Listening to Twins baseball on the radio on a hot summer night is one of my life's pleasures, whichever station it might be on.
SWebb