Flagship: New England Sports Network (NESN)
PxP: Don Orsillo
Color: Jerry Remy (primary) or Dennis Eckersley (alternate)
Reviewer: Bill Johnson
Category: Play by Play
Don Orsillo has held no other positions in baseball beyond broadcasting, and he has filled the play-by-play announcing role for the Red Sox since 2001. His voice conveys a professional demeanor, with its depth and Orsillo’s phrasing and diction, and his apparently casual call of the game action belies his long experience in the booth. Viewers can find themselves caught up in the picture, listening raptly to the play by play without being fully conscious of the announcer. Orsillo uses subtle voice changes in pitch and intensity to highlight significant plays, but is not generally prone to exaggeration and hyperbole, and is comfortable with periods of silence between pitches. In short, he respects the baseball interest of his audience and allows the viewer to consume the telecast as an individual.
Category: Color Commentary
Former major league infielder Jerry Remy is the primary color analyst on NESN, and his most frequent substitute is Hall of Fame reliever Dennis Eckersley. The baseball pedigree of the analysts is unimpeachable, yet neither condescends to the audience with their comments. They treat the viewer almost as a telecast participant, trying to carry on a conversation about the game in language with which they are comfortable.
Unlike Orsillo, however, both sometimes fall into a “cliché” trap, and an occasional trite platitude sneaks into the commentary. The other flaw (to some, but perhaps not to their regional audience) is in their respective New England accents. Remy and Eckersley are both Massachusetts natives, and when they are not consciously and carefully articulating thoughts, such as when they get a bit caught up in the on-field action, they can slip into a heavy Boston dialect. The local audience is likely quite comfortable with the choices and pronunciations of particular words, but non-New Englanders may occasionally ask themselves, “what did he just say?” at some point in the broadcast.
Category: Broadcast Team Commentary
Given the leadership of their professional play-by-play announcer and the superb capability of the analysts, the overall broadcast team commentary could be more consistent than they’ve shown this reviewer. In their best moments, the team is a superior television crew, but when Remy starts to get too playful on the air, to poke excessive fun at either himself or Orsillo, the broadcast suffers. The interactions between the announcers, again, probably work well for a regional audience that has effectively grown up on the team’s game call, but for an outsider, a viewer not “in” on the joke (whatever it is for that particular game or series), this type of sidebar feels contrived and detracts from the experience. Finally, while the game is not called from an overtly Red Sox-centric point of view, there is no mistaking that NESN is a Boston-based network.
Category: Charisma and Chemistry
As noted, both of the primary color commentators virtually ooze charisma, and Orsillo is a quiet professional, but on-air allusion to earlier jokes and events, or to local Boston activities, leaves the uninitiated feeling disconnected from the broadcast and the game. For a local viewer (and this has been confirmed in discussion with several Boston Red Sox fans), the schtick is terrific. For the outsider, though, there are times when the chemistry works well, and there are times when it is almost preferable to turn the volume to zero and simply watch the video.
This part of the production is unsurpassed. Dennis Eckersley can, fifteen years after throwing his last professional pitch, still break down the art of pitching, and the interactions among pitchers, catchers, and hitters with the best analysts in the business. His insights are routinely spot-on, appropriate to the situation, and offer the viewer – in consonance with the excellent camera work – a look at the game-within-the-game.
Remy, also a former All Star, is older and hasn’t played since 1984. While his macro-awareness of the game remains solid, his feel for the subtle decisions made within the flow of the game is less nuanced than Eckersley’s, which may be a function of his time distance from being on the field day to day. Remy, though, is a gifted story-teller, and presents the analysis in an entertaining fashion, often generating a sincere laugh from Orsillo.
Category: Production Values
The production, the fusion of picture and word, is effective, and at times seems as if the producer is directing the commentary by the choice of replays and camera views. The slo-motion features do not feel abused, and the producer seems to have an intuitive feel for the appropriate amount of time for discussion of any particular play. Orsillo’s experience allows him to move from live action to the monitor as he describes the game, and viewers are able to follow his coherent meshing of word and picture.
Again, the analysts often complement the PxP with appropriate insight, and it is only when the team drifts “out of the box” that the above-mentioned distraction issues arise.
Category: Commercialism and Cutaways
Jenny Dell is the NESN on field reporter and heir to a position previously held by Hazel Mae and Heidi Watney (both of whom went on to wider fame on the MLB Network). While the value of such in-game reports is debatable, Ms Dell performs the task as well as anyone. Her familiarity with the team and the region is obvious, although the various and sundry topics on which she ‘reports’ are of minimal value at most. Penetrating questions of fans in the stands, such as “what do you think about …?” or “how does [such and such] make you feel?”, no matter how professionally they are asked, do little to enhance the telecast of the actual baseball game, but at least NESN seems to avoid overuse of the on-field reports. Additionally, the network uses the telecast introduction and conclusion to ensure sponsors are identified, and does not overwhelm the viewing audience with excessive commercial appeals outside the between-inning periods. (Note: NESN announced during the offseason that Dell would not be returning to Red Sox broadcasts for the 2014 season.)
On balance, the NESN broadcast is better than merely watchable. The announcers each bring unique talents to the booth, and the producers keep the viewing perspective fresh by rotating camera views, game action, crowd shots, and cutaways in a way that keeps the visual component fresh. For the viewer from New England, or with Red Sox sympathies, the telecast works well, and when the announcing team is at the top of their collective game, they are tremendously entertaining. For neutral audiences and opposing team fans, however, the experience can feel parochial.
About the author:
Bill Johnson has been a member of SABR since 1994, and has contributed over 20 biographies to the BioProject. He is a consultant with the Iowa Baseball Museum of Norway.
DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed in this evaluation are solely those of the author. As such, the views expressed by the author should not be interpreted as representing the opinions of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), its board, or anyone otherwise affiliated with SABR. Likewise, the conclusions included in these evaluations are not to be viewed or interpreted as official endorsements (or lack thereof) by SABR, or of anyone affiliated with SABR, of any particular broadcasters or broadcast organizations.