No-hitters present quandary for broadcasters
Is it a jinx if they say it on the air, or is avoidance shortchanging the audience?
Let's face it. Any way you look at it, we're a superstitious bunch.
It could be the simple act of wearing the same clothes during a winning streak (sometimes outerwear and sometimes, well, underwear), or eating the same foods, or driving the same route to work, or sitting on the same side of the couch while watching a game, or sitting behind the same dugout when actually attending a game.
When our team is doing something significant, or historic, or just winning a lot, we somehow feel as though any misstep or slip-up from our end can somehow affect what's happening on the field.
It's silly, sure. But baseball jinxes -- or, more accurately, the belief in them, and the art of avoiding them -- have been around longer than almost all other traditions that comprise the landscape of our great game. Longer than stadium mustard. Longer than the Phillie Phanatic. Longer than the eight-dollar beer. Longer than the lines to the restrooms at Wrigley Field.
Most of us can just roll our eyes and laugh at ourselves for believing in superstitions (and, of course, continue to believe in them) and move on with our lives without giving it much thought. There's one small fraternity in Major League Baseball, however, that isn't afforded the same luxury.
Yes, broadcasters. Those who are paid to talk to us night after night and are responsible for telling us what's happening on the field. That's exactly what's at issue here -- the fine line between their duty to bring us the action in real time, while appeasing an undoubtedly large superstitious fan base following along via television and radio.
What if a no-hitter or perfect game is in progress? Baseball tradition dictates that if it's your pitcher who's throwing one, you do not talk about it. You do your best to pretend it's not happening, even though the buildup is hard to ignore.
It's not like that's an unreasonable expectation. Just check out the players in the dugout. As a no-hitter or perfect game progresses, the pitcher who's throwing it sits alone on the bench between innings, as if he has the modern-day version of the Bubonic Plague or some other infectious disease that would make you want to stay at least 10 feet away.
So if the players are buying into the superstition, how can others involved in the game not?
That's the conundrum for broadcasters, many of whom at some point in their careers have either called a no-hitter or perfect game or watched a pitcher at least flirt with one into the seventh inning or beyond.
Opinions on the matter vary. Some like to avoid the actual word "no-hitter" or phrase "perfect game," but will use other terms to strongly indicate that something potentially special is happening. Others have no problem whatsoever using the actual words.
Count veteran broadcaster Charley Steiner, currently working Dodgers games, as one who falls into the latter category. In his view, there really is no gray area -- if there's a no-hitter or a perfect game in the works, that's exactly how it needs to be relayed to the fans -- immediately, in plain English.
"There are sheepherders in Botswana aware of no-hitters going on," Steiner said. "Because they have an iPhone. If we're 50 feet from a no-hitter and we don't mention it, if that's not the definition of negligence of duty, I don't know what is."
But what about jinxes? Superstition? Angering the baseball gods?
"Do I not walk across the street because a black cat walked there two weeks ago?" Steiner asked. "No. If any announcer, anywhere on the face of the planet, in the history of the world, if they can affect the outcome of games ... well, we're all grossly underpaid."
Veteran Reds radio announcer Marty Brennaman, honored by the Hall of Fame in 2000, called Tom Browning's perfect game in 1988 and Tom Seaver's no-no in 1978. Both times, Brennaman said "perfect game" or "no-hitter" beginning in the seventh inning.
"I've never been superstitious," he said. "I know there are guys in my profession that are superstitious. I'm not one of them."
Others are a little more skittish about saying the actual words. Angels TV play-by-play announcer Victor Rojas, who called Jered Weaver's no-hitter last year, prefers to say everything that makes it clear to the audience that there's a no-hitter going on, but without coming out and flat-out saying it.
"I grew up in the game. My dad [Cookie Rojas] played, I played," he said. "I don't like saying no-hitter. That's just the way I am. I'll talk about it. I'll gloss over certain things. With TV, it's easier. You've got the pictures and the pictures help you tell what's happening. You see the R-H-E and the zeroes, and you focus on that. But I don't use the term no-hitter. I'll say zero hits allowed. The no-hitter thing -- to me, it's the one thing I don't say."
Astros announcer Bill Brown, who has upwards of three decades of broadcasting experience, enjoys the challenge of coming up with other phrases without saying "no-hitter." Early in his career, he felt different about it. He'd say the phrases blatantly -- that is, until the day after Mike Scott nearly threw one.
In a nutshell: Scott had a no-hitter going and Brown said something to the tune of, "Mike Scott has a no-hitter with two outs in the ninth."
Then Kent Oberkfell singled. The next day, an Astros executive in charge of broadcasting said to Brown, "Hey, can I talk to you?"
Turns out, veteran announcer Milo Hamilton's policy was to never utter the actual words, and the Astros liked it that way and preferred that others fall in the same line. From then on, Brown avoided the term "no-hitter." Twenty-some years later, he has pretty much stuck to it, while making sure he's clear while describing what is happening, as it's happening.
"It's more fun for me not to say it, but I still think with all the channel switching there is out there, you should tell them," Brown said. "If I'm flipping through channels and someone says, 'Well, he's got a no-hitter through seven,' I'm going to stop at that channel a little bit longer. It's not a jinx."
Brown's broadcast partner, Alan Ashby, who's been on both the radio and TV sides during stints with the Astros and Blue Jays, feels the same.
"If it's radio and you're driving in your car, I think it would be kind of a shame if you danced past the station and didn't hear that there's a no-hit bid going on," Ashby said. "Same thing on TV. If someone's bouncing around [stations], I think it's a good thing to let folks know there's a no-hitter going on. I realize it's a taboo subject. But it's silly, realistically."
Padres announcer Andy Masur prefers to defer to alternative vocabulary. He was tested last season when Jason Marquis carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning in Pittsburgh. Masur used phrases such as "All nine hits belong to the Padres" and "A lot of goose eggs up there for the Pirates."
"You have responsibilities, especially when you're on radio," Masur said. "It's so much harder to do because you can't see what's going on. You have a responsibility to the fans to say, 'Hey, he's got a no hitter.' So if I say it, I guess I'm the jinx."
In today's age, broadcasters can immediately hear feedback from fans. And it's not always complimentary.
"I get that sometimes on my Twitter," Masur said. "And I write them back and say, 'Hey, listen. If I had that much power, do you think the Padres would be the only team in the league without a no-hitter?"
Eric Nadel, a 35-year veteran of Rangers broadcasts, said "no-hitter" many times during two thrown by Nolan Ryan, and "perfect game" during Kenny Rogers' successful pursuit of one in 1994. But Nadel was the No. 2 announcer during those games and therefore didn't call the final outs. When he had the chance to do so during Yu Darvish's near-gem in Houston on April 2, he decided he would change things up, just to see what would happen.
"I said it every way you can possibly say it without using the word," Nadel said. "I said 'Darvish has allowed no hits.' 'Darvish has allowed no baserunners.' 'It's been 24 up, 24 down.' 'The Astros have not gotten a runner on base.'"
Marwin Gonzalez singled with two outs in the ninth, and that was the end of that.
"I'm going to go right back to saying no-hitter and perfect game," Nadel said.
His broadcast partner, Matt Hicks, a longtime Minor League broadcaster in his second season with the Rangers, is less definitive.
"I probably have always danced around it, but have not shirked the responsibility of saying just exactly what's going on," Hicks said. "I just haven't used the phrase perfect game or no-hitter. I don't want to be that guy. I think there's a part of me that feels, stay in line and don't mess things up."
If jinxes are real and baseball gods do exist, that's probably the safest route to take.
Just in case.