Flagship: WEEI (850 AM, 93.7 FM)
PxP: Dave O’Brien (since 2007) and Joe Castiglione (since 1983)
Color: Same—they share duties
Reviewer: John Lewis
Category: Play by Play
The primary Boston Red Sox radio broadcasting team consists of Joe Castiglione and Dave O’Brien. Castiglione, the veteran, has been working in the booth since 1983, and O’Brien joined him in 2007 after stints with the Braves, Marlins, Mets, and ESPN.
Dave O’Brien is the stereotypical “straight man” of the two broadcasters, and his style reflects a crisp, A-plus student, with broadcast-school polish; indeed, his voice tone and style are remarkably similar to that of Dan Shulman’s of ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball. Castiglione, with his higher-pitched voice and 30 years of uninterrupted Red Sox booth experience, has a more relaxed, grandfatherly, and “back porch” narrative style that provides a clear complement to O’Brien.
The distinct strength of this team is their play-by-play descriptive capacity, and both O’Brien and Castiglione narrate plays with accuracy, confidence, strong imagery, and an appropriate level of emotion connected with the play itself. They share the play-by-play and color responsibilities, with each broadcaster doing play-by-play/color for at least four of the nine innings.
In terms of phrase-turning, both broadcasters maintain solid play-by-play linguistic fundamentals, but neither O’Brien nor Castiglione venture too far off the baseball rhetoric beaten path of “center cut” fastballs, “rockets” hit to the outfield, or defensive players being “a real adventure out there.”
Category: Color Commentary
By contrast, the team’s color commentary lags well behind their play-by-play calling skills. Yet with O’Brien leading the way as the “nerdy stat guy”, the key strength to their color work is their consistent use of “situational statistics” for individual players and teams, and the listener is never at a loss for statistical context. In describing players, they use overall batting stats, series stats, matchups, pitch speeds, splits, previous at-bats, and relevant stretches and slumps, to help put each at-bat into its proper place on the statistical map. With teams, they keep listeners engaged by noting series W-L records, season W-L, all-time series records, and in the case of one game reviewed, the use of a relevant and key stat: the number of times the Red Sox have been shut out during the year.
Beyond their steady and illuminating use of statistics, however, there is nothing remarkable about the team’s color commentary. Perhaps because neither broadcaster played professional baseball, their commentary style lacks any sort of “dugout banter” as it relates to events on the field, so they engage in few strategic discussions as the game gets into what Christy Mathewson once referred to as “the pinch.” Thus, at certain strategic junctures in the game, notably when Mike Trout was a threat to steal at first base late in a close contest, it was only noted in passing (“this could get interesting”), and there were numerous missed opportunities to describe, discuss, and evaluate the strategic texture of the game.
Category: Broadcast Team Commentary
Both men are solid broadcast professionals and are attentive to providing relevant contextual information about the teams at hand (i.e. describing John Lackey and Jered Weaver’s mentor-protégé relationship; Weaver’s decision to name his newborn baby Aden–after the deceased pitcher Nick Adenhart; All-Star Game choices and omissions; Mike Scioscia’s constant “chirping” at the umpires; and the impact of the Southern California sun on the players). Meanwhile, their discussions of their upcoming All-Star Break vacations (O’Brien is headed to Hawaii, Castiglione to California Wine Country), their favorite Southern California beaches (where O’Brien jokingly notes that Castiglione feels most at home at “Muscle Beach”), and the challenges of Southern California traffic, help to illuminate and personalize the listening experience without venturing into the annoyingly self-referential.
O’Brien has a formal broadcaster’s voice, and like many broadcasters with traditional Syracuse broadcast school training, sometimes the broadcast feels as if it has too much polish; thus, when he refers to Pedroia as “Petey” and Ortiz as “Papi”, the references feel like artificial intimacy. Perhaps this stiffness would be softened if Castiglione’s informal style were matched by a salty “infield-dirt-under-the-fingernails” sense of connection to the players and game strategy, but he presents more like the slightly distracted Dean of Red Sox University than a true clubhouse insider. As the voices of Red Sox nation, they certainly pull for the home team, but thankfully they avoid the emotionless Mr. Spock routine when the opposition makes a good play.
Since they are both professional broadcasters, some of their most engaging commentary can focus on broadcasting life itself; in one case, engaging in a humorous discussion about rare rainout experiences in Southern California games, where O’Brien shared a story about the seeing the tarp rolled out in San Diego, and noting how it disrupted the lives of mice who had built their home in its tranquil and undisturbed folds.
Category: Charisma and Chemistry
The lack of true chemistry between Castiglione and O’Brien might be the most problematic part of the broadcast, and one gets the sense that if these two guys were at a bar watching a ballgame, they would be sitting at separate tables. Indeed, because they share the play-by-play and color responsibilities, splitting innings throughout, there were moments when it felt as if the non-PxP broadcaster had left the booth for the inning. This is not to say that they step on each other’s commentary, or that there is a passive-aggressive undertone in their discussions, or that they seem not to like each other, but rather their chemistry lacks the “booth romantics” that defines superior broadcast teams.
Humor is not central to their broadcast style, but it is employed effectively at times to lighten the broadcast. While Castiglione, with his higher-pitched voice and informal style, would seem more likely to fulfill the cutup role, it is actually O’Brien’s dry wit that is more likely to provide the listener with the occasional chuckle. In one particularly humorous moment, O’Brien describes genetics-in-action as he observes the high level of competitiveness he sees in Dustin Pedroia’s infant son as he sucked aggressively on his binky.
Again, since neither broadcaster ever played professional baseball, their commentary seems to lack a depth of “insider’s insight,” and during an Angels-Red Sox game, there was only one moment, when O’Brien noted how a first-strike pounder like Jered Weaver throws off a patient team like the Red Sox (who led the league in pitches per plate appearance at 4.06), where the reviewer felt a true nugget of insight was shared with the audience. Castiglione especially tends to sacrifice too much descriptive real estate in repeating certain obvious game features like the deceptiveness of Jered Weaver’s delivery.
Again, the broadcast team is strongest in its utilization of statistics and history. Since Castiglione has been in the booth for more than two decades, his commentary is sprinkled with references to games and players from Red Sox teams of yore; meanwhile, O’Brien seems to have relevant and insightful trivia at his fingertips, as in the instance where he related a recent Red Sox loss (giving up four runs when down to their last out), to the last time the Sox blew a lead of similar proportion in 1936 at the hands of Lou Gehrig.
Category: Production Values
The production value and sound quality of the WEEI broadcast is neither extraordinary nor problematic.
Category: Commercialism and Cutaways
The commercialism of the broadcast is truly memorable, and beyond any broadcast I’ve ever heard, WEEI is remarkably focused and successful in the integration of its corporate sponsorship. Throughout the broadcast we are repeatedly reminded that we are listening to “The Shaws” radio broadcast—with “Shaws” referring to a New England grocery chain–and it’s clear that the central sub-purpose of the broadcast is to make the listener eager to shop for boneless chicken breasts and blueberries; indeed, the ads inspired the reviewer to fetch a package of blueberries from his refrigerator between innings.
Typically Castiglione is the one who reads the “Shaws” advertisements, as O’Brien’s voice is more “used car salesman” than “grocery grandpap”. Maine Tourism is also a primary sponsor, and at one point the broadcasters did a nice job of discussing their recent Maine vacations while also apologizing for bungling the pronunciation of a certain Maine town in a previous commercial.
John Ryder provides a lively out-of-town scoreboard several times per game, and throughout the game both commentators weave in commercials and cutaways in a smooth and distraction-free manner. Throughout, the commercialism of the broadcast was interesting in itself, rather than an annoying interlude between innings.
The O’Brien-Castiglione team delivers a solid and competent broadcast, but their lack of interpersonal chemistry and smooth interplay creates a ceiling for what turns out to be an only average listening experience. Comparatively, O’Brien is the livelier and sharper of the two men in the booth, and it would be interesting to see him paired with a wizened Red Sox ballplaying veteran who might be able to provide improved “insider” commentary.
Whereas O’Brien’s voice could be that of any team in any sport (indeed, he has covered basketball, soccer, and football), Castiglione’s voice is clearly the signature voice of Red Sox nation, and it’s easy to see how his easy manner continues to appeal to listeners.
About the author:
John Lewis is a school leader who lives on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
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.