Musings: The Return Of Sean McDonough

By Dick Flavin

Boston Red Sox Poet Laureate

and New York Times Best Selling Author

THE RETURN OF SEAN MCDONOUGH

I don’t know about you, but the only time I listen to radio broadcasts of baseball is when

I’m in the car. When I’m home I watch on TV, never with the sound turned down. I’m a

big fan of Dave O’Brien, Jerry Remy, and Dennis Eckersley. That said, there are usually

a couple of times a week when I’m either going to or coming from someplace when a

game is on, and I’m always tuned in to it. Sometimes, if I’m close to home, it’s for as

little as half an inning; at others, such as the summer season when I often make day trips

to Cape Cod, I’ll have baseball to keep me company for four or five innings as I’m on my

way home.

I used to get a full diet of baseball radio broadcasts on Fridays thirty years ago when I

was living in Washington, D.C. In the summer I used to make weekly drives to my then

cottage in Wellfleet on Cape Cod. If the Baltimore Orioles had a day game, I’d listen to

Jon Miller’s call of the game, which would last through Delaware and onto the New

Jersey Turnpike. By the time I got onto the Merritt Parkway in Connecticut, the Red Sox

game would be starting and Ken Coleman and Ned Martin would keep me company all

the way to Wellfleet, first on the Hartford affiliate of the Red Sox network, then on the

Providence station, and finally on the Cape Cod outlet. Those games, with gifted

announcers at the microphone, greatly eased my nine hour commute. They gave me an

appreciation of how entertaining baseball on the radio can be when it’s in the proper

hands.

That’s a long-winded way to preface what a pleasant surprise it was recently when I

flipped on the car radio and heard the unmistakable voice of Sean McDonough calling a

Sox game. It was like unexpectedly running into an old friend you haven’t seen for a long

time. It’s been fifteen years since he’s been in the broadcast booth at Fenway Park but he

hasn’t lost anything off his play-by-play fastball. He was insightful, descriptive in his

calling of the action, and comfortably conversational with his partners, Red Sox radio

legend Joe Castiglione and former infielder-turned broadcaster Lou Merloni. He was, in a

word, terrific.

It was more than thirty years ago when, only in his mid-twenties, McDonough landed the

gig as play-by-play guy for Sox TV games. He quickly established himself as the real

deal and built a unique relationship with his partner, analyst Jerry Remy, that led to “the

Rem-Dawg” – remember those days? – becoming a major media personality in these

parts. So good was McDonough that he was soon hired by both CBS and ESPN to cover

high profile events such as the World Series, the NCAA men’s basketball tourney, and

the Masters golf tournament when not otherwise committed to his duties with the Red

Sox. In 2004 the New York Mets tried to hire him to be their play-by-play man. New

York, of course, is the largest media market in the country, and one would suppose that

the pay would have been considerably higher than the Red Sox job, but McDonough, the

son of the late Will McDonough, the legendary Boston Globe sportswriter, was a local

product, and he opted to stay with the team he grew up loving and for what he thought

was job security.

There is no such thing as job security in radio and television. Not even for someone like

Sean McDonough.

In those days TV coverage of the Sox games was split between over-the-air television

and cable, which was then just coming into its own. McDonough handled the over-the-air

games while a young announcer, Don Orsillo, did the games on NESN.

When it was decided to put all the games on NESN, there was room for only one play-by-

play guy. Orsillo had by then proven himself to be more than competent in the booth,

plus he was paid far less than McDonough, who had built a national reputation. The

bosses at NESN made the smart business decision; they decided on the less expensive

guy, and McDonough, who had just turned down the lucrative Mets job, was the odd man

out.

It’s not like we have to run any benefits for him. He’s been very busy these last years

doing all kinds of games on ESPN. In 2016 he was named play-by-play announcer for the

ratings powerhouse Monday Night Football telecasts; but after 2017, when analyst John

Gruden was convinced to return to coaching by the Oakland Raiders, ESPN opted to

totally revamp the MNF telecast, so that gig came to an end.

Meanwhile WEEI has decided to use a round-robin of broadcasters to work with

Castiglione this year – of which McDonough is only one – before choosing a permanent

partner for Joe beginning in 2020. Chris Berman, for example, will also do a number of

games.

For all the other sports that he has covered, football, basketball, golf, and more, his few

days in the radio booth illustrated clearly that he is a baseball guy. He obviously enjoyed

himself and that made his calling of the games more enjoyable.

For the record, I know Sean McDonough, but not very well. In fact, I don’t believe I’ve

had even a casual conversation with him since his Red Sox years. I have no idea if he is a

candidate for the job or if he could be talked into taking it. After all, it’s big step down to

be second banana on the radio from being the number one guy on nationally televised

events. I do know this, though: he was first-rate in the few games I heard in his brief stint

recently – he’ll be doing about twenty-five more during the year – and I hope, for our

sake if not for his, that he’ll be doing a lot more.

Musings: The Baseball Season Is Underway - For Better Or For Worse

By Dick Flavin

Boston Red Sox Poet Laureate

and New York Times Best Selling Author

THE BASEBALL SEASON IS UNDERWAY – FOR BETTER OR FOR WORSE

Question: Should we be panic-stricken over the Red Sox’ slow start this season?

Answer: No. It’s a long season and there is plenty of time for the Sox to hit their stride.

Question: Should we be worried about the Red Sox’ slow start this season?

Answer: You better believe we should.

It might be early, but the games in April count as much in the standings as those in

September. The Sox’ slow break from the gate all but assures that last year’s franchise

record of 108 wins during the regular season won’t be challenged. Last year they charged

to a 17-2 record to begin the season and built upon that by staying hot all year. This time

their record is well below .500. Not only is 108 wins already beyond reach, but it also

looks like the 100 win mark is a fast-fading hope. That is of concern because if the New

York Yankees play as well this year as they did in 2018, when they had exactly 100 wins

(granted, the Yanks are having troubles of their own in the early going), the Sox could

finish in second place in the American League East. That would make them, at best, a

wild-card team and subject to the whims of a one-game playoff against the league’s

other wild-card, perhaps the Oakland A’s, who have already whipped olde towne team in

three out of four games this year.

Of particular concern is the starting pitching, heretofore considered one of the team’s

strongest assets. Through 13 games the starters had compiled exactly zero wins to go

along with their 8 losses. And the combined earned run average of Messers Sale, Price,

Porcello, Eovaldi, and Rodriguez was – are you sitting down? – more than 10.00. Oof!

Chris Sale, the erstwhile ace of the staff, has been especially alarming. His velocity has

been way down, from 98 MPH to the 91-92 range. Always a strike out pitcher, he has

been getting few if any swings and misses. It’s not that Sale or any of the others have

become smug, not that they aren’t giving their all. It’s just that, at least so far, their best

effort is not enough.

It’s instructive to go back to the last time the Red Sox were coming off of a one-hundred

plus winning season to see what happened then. It was more than 70 years ago. In 1946

they won 104 games in what then was only a 154 games schedule. Led by Ted Williams,

they were a terrific hitting team, but it was their starting pitching that really stood out.

Three men, Dave Ferriss (25-6), Tex Hughson (20-11), and Mickey Harris (17-11),

combined for 62 wins and led the way to an easy pennant victory. Though they were

upset in the World Series that year when Enos Slaughter stole the seventh game with his

mad dash to home in the eighth inning, the Sox were the odds-on favorite to repeat as

American League champions in 1947. But Ferriss, Hughson, and Harris all came down

with sore arms, and none of them ever fully recovered. The Red Sox were still a hitting

machine that year – Ted Williams won the Triple Crown – but pitching wins, and the lack

of it doesn’t. The Sox went from 104 wins in ’46 to, without their three top starters who

combined for only 29 wins, just 83 victories in ’47, good for only a third place finish.

Bobby Doerr always said that if it hadn’t been for the career altering sore arms suffered

by Ferriss, Hughson, and Harris in 1947 we’d be reading about the Red Sox dynasty of

the late forties and early fifties and not that of the Yankees. Maybe he was right.

Interestingly, none of the sore-armed trio ever won more than 7 games a season after

1947. Ferriss and Harris both won 7 in 1948; Ferriss never won another game in the

majors. The best Hughson could do was 4 wins in 1949, his last season.

This is not to predict that the Red Sox of 2019 are headed for disaster. They are not, at

least I hope not. For all we know it might be the Yankees who are doomed. After all,

they’ve already suffered more than their share of injuries in the early days of this season.

Alex Cora was the smartest guy in a baseball uniform last year. Mookie Betts was the

best player – better than even Mike Trout. J.D. Martinez flirted with a Triple Crown.

Xander Boegarts matured into a real leader. There is no reason that those guys cannot

step up again. If David Price can find the groove he was in last September and October; if

Eduardo Rodriguez can develop the consistency he needs to be the top-of-the-rotation

starter he is capable of being; if Nathan Eovaldi can provide the inspiration he did in the

World Series; if Chris Sale can figure out how to be Chris Sale again, the Red Sox will be

right in the thick of the fight until the very end again this year.

That’s why a baseball season is so compelling. Anything can happen and, in one way or

another, it probably will.

Meanwhile, watch out for Tampa Bay. Almost unnoticed, they won 90 games in the

American League East last year. If they can pick it up just a bit while the Red Sox and/or

Yankees slip a little bit – who knows?

That’s why they play the games. Some kid pitcher you never heard of could shut down

the opposing team’s best hitter. A gold glove infielder could inexplicably let a ball go

through his legs. You might catch a foul ball. I must admit here that I spent the first half

of my life praying that a ball would be hit in my direction and the second half praying

that one would not be hit in my direction!

The 2019 baseball season is underway, along with all of the questions it brings. Six

months from now we’ll have the answers.

Musings: Baseball, Basketball, And Changing Times

By Dick Flavin

Boston Red Sox Poet Laureate

and New York Times Best Selling Author

BASEBALL, BASKETBALL, AND CHANGING TIMES

The opening of the baseball season this year happened to coincide with the second

weekend of the NCAA basketball tourney, popularly known as the Sweet Sixteen. The

two sports are very different from each other. They both require great athletic skill, but

throwing a large ball through a hoop is very different than hitting a much smaller one

with a bat. Still, both sports compete for the public’s attention - and its money. That’s

why it was so instructive to see the two games go head to head against each other on our

TV sets; to see how they have adapted – or failed to adapt - to changing times.

Admittedly, the college basketball season was headed toward its climax, only the best

teams in the country were still alive, and every game was do-or die, while the baseball

season was just getting under way after a casual spring training in the sun of Florida and

Arizona. The intensity levels were in no way alike.

Neither were the games.

The basketball games were filled with speed and athleticism, the players running on high

octane, while, on the other channel, the baseball games were sleepy by comparison,

pitchers taking seemingly forever between deliveries and long periods were nothing of

importance was taking place.

I’m a baseball guy and always have been, and I don’t pay a lot of attention to college

basketball until the NCAA tourney rolls around, so I stuck with the Red Sox games. But

between innings and during pitching changes I’d switch over to the basketball game and,

if something compelling was going on, and there often was, I’d stay with it until someone

called timeout, even if it meant missing a half-inning or more of baseball.

It got me to thinking that if I were a teenager, with the limited attention span and thirst

for action that’s so prevalent these days, there would be no way that baseball could hold

my attention when pitted against a good basketball game.

It wasn’t always that way. Back in the nineteen fifties – the olden days – baseball was the

king, the master of all it surveyed. Basketball was merely an afterthought, a blip on the

radar scale. But some NBA basketball guy came up with an idea, “How about a shot

clock?” The idea of making it mandatory to put up a shot within a prescribed period of

time was revolutionary back then. Teams often passed the ball around the perimeter for

literally minutes at a time before making an offensive move. Not everyone thought the

shot clock was a good move, including me. After all, the Celtics had Bob Cousy, a wizard

with the ball, someone who was capable of dribbling it and keeping it from opposition

hands seemingly forever. But the NBA went ahead and installed the 24 second clock

which not only changed the game, but also it improved it dramatically. As for Cousy, the

new rule made him an even better player, his unrivaled passing skills and his leading of

the revolutionary fast-break offense came to the fore and made everyone forget about

dribbling out the clock.

Basketball became a better game, especially for spectators. The NCAA saw what was

happening and it, too, instituted a shot clock rule, at first for 45 seconds, then, in the

nineteen nineties, lowered to 35, and now it’s set at 30 seconds.

Basketball has not been shy about adapting to the times. Twenty-five years after the shot

clock rule went into effect, the NBA, taking a page from its upstart rival, the ABA,

installed the three-point shot. Again, there was serious opposition to it. It was making a

basic change in the long-established scoring system. But it opened up the game,

unclogged the area under the basket and made basketball a still better product to market.

The NCAA quickly followed suit and installed its own three point line.

Meanwhile, what has baseball done while basketball has made radical changes to speed

up and open up the pace of its game to stay in tune with shortened attention spans and

growing needs for action?

By its nature the most leisurely paced of all major sports, baseball has managed to slow

down its game down even more.

What used to take an average of two and a half hours to play now takes more than three.

And that extra half-hour plus is not time that is filled with exciting action. It’s more

pitching changes, more time between innings for commercial breaks, more time between

pitches, and batters going deeper into pitch counts. There are now more strike outs than

there are base hits in a typical game. None of these things help. Attendance has been

slipping for the past several years, not by a lot, and not in places like Boston, but trending

down, nevertheless.

It’s clear that some changes have to be made. It won’t easy. The players association has

to sign off on any change of substance, and getting people to agree to change is always

difficult. Bryce Harper spoke for a lot of his peers when he told ESPN Magazine that

people coud stay at home if they weren’t satisfied with the product they were getting at

the ballpark. That’s easy for him to say, he’s got a guaranteed $300 million contract in his

back pocket. Even those at the bottom of the payroll at the major league level make more

than half a million dollars a year. Why would they want to put that at risk by instituting

changes?

I love baseball and think it is the best of all games. But I also think it needs some

sprucing up. It used to be the number one sport, well ahead of every other game. It’s now

back in the pack, behind both basketball and football in popularity. Its main competition

used to be boxing, which has fallen even farther than what we all usd to call “the national

pastime.” The heavyweight champion used to be the most famous athlete in the world.

Now most people, including me, couldn’t tell you the name of the current champ.

We can only hope that the grand old game can pull itself up by the bootstraps and find its

way into the twenty-first century.