There is an alternate universe that exists on the television for Orioles fans nearly every night during baseball season. In this other world, the only crime greater than shouting the "O!" during the performance of the national anthem is any fan ever having the audacity to stand up and cheer at his or her seat. This place is known as a Washington Nationals game telecast. They are right there, so close and so far away.
Until the last couple of years, these two worlds were forced together for the two series each year where the two teams played one another, a situation that left no one pleased, neither O's fans nor Nationals fans who really just wanted to hear their own guys talk about the game being played. Outside of that they remain separate.
Most O's fans, myself included, probably have opinions about the Nationals TV crew based on those few games, but what are they like in their own environment? How different is it to experience a Nationals game with Bob Carpenter and F.P. Santangelo compared to getting the brilliant tandem of Gary Thorne and Jim Palmer? I have been curious for a while, and on Thursday's Orioles off day, with the Nationals playing the Braves at the standard civilized baseball time, I finally sat down to find out for myself.
Much like the Orioles did before clearing out a section of the press box and turning it into a mini-studio, the Nationals make use of space far out in the outfield for their pre- and post-game show set during home games. On this particular night, and from what I understand most nights, the set is occupied by Johnny Holliday and former MLBer - member of the 1987 Orioles, in fact - Ray Knight.
I have been aware of Holliday's presence on Nats shows for a while. It's a shrewd hire, as his very presence lends credibility in the eyes of past and present fans of the Maryland Terrapins, with the many remaining in the area likely in the target audience for Nationals broadcasts. Holliday has been the voice of the Terps football and men's basketball teams since 1979.
No Terps talk here. The pre-game show is a pre-game show - and structured much the same as an Orioles one. Tonight, we get a recap of a game the Nationals managed to win to salvage one win in a series against the Cardinals, which left them 6.5 games out of the NL East, their only shot at a postseason. Knight is still excited because he filled in for an ill Santangelo as the play-by-play man on the game broadcasts in the Cardinals series, which I find endearing.
Three hours later, the post-game show is much the same. It's a post-game show. They even use the same synthesized horn track to go to commercial every time as do the Orioles broadcasts. One difference is that there was no on-field player post-game interview before the broadcast duo signed off, despite the fact that the Nationals were at home. They did have a player interview a few minutes into the post-game show, with the player just sitting in front of a screen somewhere.
As the game broadcast itself begins, there is your standard hype music, different than the one on Orioles games, as a series of larger-than-life Nationals players fake-swing bats dramatically, interspersed with highlights from Nationals games in recent seasons. It is not Birdland. It's not bad.
My effort to stay neutral and forget about my pre-existing feelings towards Carpenter and Santangelo lasts three pitches into the game. After Nationals starter Jordan Zimmermann begins the game by going 3-0 to Braves leadoff hitter Nick Markakis (hi Nick!), Carpenter quickly opines, "Tight zone so far." Markakis ultimately walks on five pitches. The broadcast's Pitch Tracker suggests three of the pitches were strikes; actual Pitch F/X data suggests MASN is drunk.
This is a common theme on the broadcast, even on plays that have nothing to do with the calling of balls and strikes. After Ian Desmond makes a nice play in the field, Santangelo notes that this is "a daily routine, like last year LaRoche being called out on strikes on a ball out of the zone." It's time to let things go, man. LaRoche isn't even on the team any more.
There's more in the top of the second inning, when, with Nick Swisher batting, they offer the commentary that, "If you want a walk tonight, you can walk; the strike zone is the size of a tuna can." Again, a consultation of the Pitch F/X data reveals that the plate umpire missed no calls on Zimmermann pitches in the first inning. In the present, Swisher walks on five pitches. One called ball is actually a strike; the crew complains about three out of four balls. See for yourself:
Blessedly, they get over the complaining about nearly every pitch, though that only happens around the time the Nationals jump out to a commanding 7-1 lead after only two innings. Do they go on like that the whole time of a close game? Good grief.
It would be unfair for me to act like this broadcast combo are irredeemable homers. They are complimentary of the Braves players who are having nice seasons, such as Markakis, Freddie Freeman, and A.J. Pierzynski. At one point, after Anthony Rendon is hit by a pitch on the hand, Rendon is shown joking at first base with Freeman. Santangelo makes a joke of his own, that Freeman has been so hot Rendon should try having Freeman heal the pain with his touch. Respect for the other team's good players is a good thing.
Nor is Santangelo above criticizing Nationals performance when the situation warrants. There was little enough of that in this 15-1 blowout, but one instance when the score was much closer came when Zimmermann was at the plate and botched a sacrifice bunt. Nats catcher Wilson Ramos, at second and running to third, essentially gave up on running after the ball went right to Braves pitcher Matt Wisler.
The ball was bobbled by Wisler, who then almost made a wild throw to third, but with Ramos quitting on the play he is easily tagged out. Santangelo points out that you don't want to give up on a play, though the Nats hitters pick up Ramos plenty.
A couple of highlights for Santangelo in the game are when he can use his own expertise as a former big league hitter to do some breaking down of different swing-related issues. For instance, in Bryce Harper's first plate appearance, Santangelo points out things about Harper's swing that likely cause stress on certain muscle groups - including the gluteus, a slight strain of which caused Harper to be removed early in the previous day's game.
Later on, there is a nice triptych graphic on the screen showing the evolution of Zimmerman's batting stance through his career, which shows three different years of swings in motion, allowing Santangelo to point out a higher leg kick in later-period Zimmerman at-bats, which he believes benefits Zimmerman in the present.
I'm not sure how well the facts bear this out. Zimmerman's best season was 2010 and this year he is sporting near a career-low OPS+. That's a still-respectable 104 heading into Thursday's game, but a far cry from the 142 of 2010.
The duo is appropriately appreciative of Zimmerman (Ryan, that is - and they do pronounce the one 'n' and two 'n's differently) hitting the 200th home run, although I could have done without the endless gushing about the standing ovation that Zimmerman received in his first plate appearance. He doubles while the crowd is still clapping, which Santangelo deems "one of the coolest things to happen at the stadium all season."
I am underwhelmed. Zimmerman is in fact the owner of the franchise lead for Nationals home runs with his 200. I guess these things are more impressive to a young franchise.
The game rolls along. It's a blowout baseball game, though to my chagrin there are not many blowout-esque digressions. One amusing thing they do get into is when a Nationals player accidentally throws his bat onto the outfield grass. The bat boy must run out and retrieve the bat. The MASN broadcast duo are on a first-name basis with this bat boy - Adam - and they talk about how he was their golf caddy in spring training and "never moved that fast." I would love to hear more about Adam. I am disappointed when there are no more anecdotes forthcoming.
I was most looking forward to seeing if there would be a Nationals MASN commercial with a lame hashtag like they do on Orioles games. There were no such commercials during the game. Has this wing of MASN realized those things are dumb? Good for them if so.
Otherwise it was mostly the same commercial assortment, except with "Hey, go to Nationals games" commercials instead of "Hey, go to Orioles games." These were very different from their Orioles counterparts, with only on-screen text and music advertising different giveaway games. One commercial celebrating "Ten Years Of All-Stars" was trying to hype people up for a 2005 lineup card replica giveaway. That's a weird one.
In-game, the advertisements for giveaways were different as well. Each of these has a larger-than-life Nationals player moving around on the screen, "holding" a red screen which has the giveaway information projected onto it.
Oh, and about those montages? Nationals broadcasts, much like the Orioles, seem to use horrible montage music with dumb lyrics. The one I heard in this game kept saying, "Take me home to solid ground." There was a cool effect on the screen for the highlights, though, with all of the colors of the video turned to grey except for the white and red of the Nationals uniforms. Steal that one for the Orioles side, except with orange, white, and black.
I was surprised when a sideline reporter named Dan Kolko made a couple of appearances down in the photographer's well near the dugout. In his two visits, he did not interact with the booth much at all, and his sole purpose seemed to be reading off a couple of quotes from other people.
This function is served much better on Orioles broadcasts by just having an on-screen graphic, where someone in the booth reads off the player or reporter quote and then the two booth guys can talk about it. Sorry, Dan Kolko, but I think your presence here is kind of pointless as things stand. Hopefully they integrate you better into what's going on. I'm sure you would have something interesting to say if they let you.
I won't be tuning in to watch these guys again. Long-time Camden Chat readers and periodic hate-readers know, my default attitude towards the whole franchise is antipathy. Take out the strike zone whining and I'm sure they're alright for a neutral fan or an opposing fan transplanted into this broadcast territory. I don't know if I caught them on a bad night for that or if they're always like that or what.
Of course, even Jim Palmer gets into his umpire rants, but then, as a Hall of Fame pitcher, he has an inherent authority to draw upon when making criticism like that - and it also helps that since he's Jim Palmer, he's nearly always right.
This concludes the journey into a parallel universe.