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MEDIA VIEWS

Media Views: Stay-at-home policy leads to shoddy Cardinals road telecasts

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Bally Sports Midwest Cardinals announcers Jim Edmonds, left, and Dan McLaughlin are in a St. Louis studio to broadcast a game against the Twins in Minneapolis on July 29, 2020. (BSM photo)

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Do you care more about the Cardinals than do the owners of the company that holds their local television rights, Sinclair Broadcasting?

That could be the case, as the Cards' TV announcers remain tied to a St. Louis studio for road games while members of the team's radio crew have been traveling for two months. That creates shoddy, amateurish coverage in some telecasts, incidents so embarrassing that play-by-play announcer Dan McLaughlin has felt compelled to apologize on the air for gaffes that are largely out of his control.

By not being on-site, the broadcasters are at the mercy of what shows up on their TV monitors while describing the action. This certainly was understandable last year, during the height of the coronavirus pandemic when travel and access was limited. Just getting games played, and on the air, was all that could be asked. Fans were grateful for that.

But now, though the virus has resurged, travel and attendance limits have been lifted, and life is on a much more back-to-normal basis. Except, that is, for a lot of sports broadcast productions. Those include Cardinals telecaster Bally Sports Midwest — one of 19 regional sports networks the company has nationwide. Sinclair certainly isn't alone; it is on a long list of sports broadcast outlets that have sliced travel since the pandemic began.

And that can be tough on viewers.

A prime example of this occurred Saturday in the top of the ninth inning of the Cardinals' game in Kansas City. Nolan Arenado hit a ball toward the wall, and the camera angle that was seen made it look as if the ball had left the park.

"High fly ball, deep left center," McLaughlin told the BSM audience, his voice rising with anticipation. "And gone! It's a home run. Nolan Arenado!"

BSM also unfurled a graphic across the screen proclaiming it a home run and updated the game score accordingly. 

Just one problem. One BIG problem. The ball did leave the park — but on a bounce. It was a ground-rule double.

"Well, apparently it is a double," McLaughlin said, after a pause, something that became evident from a replay that aired.

Analyst Brad Thompson commiserated with his partner.

"Clear as day from the first angle," he said in support of the call.

"Thank you (for backing) me up on it," McLaughlin said.

He later added: "Well, what are you going to do? The camera follows the ball. They don't follow it out of the park. There you go."

Put in a bad spot

McLaughlin was left to have to explain the unprofessional situation — one that reflects on the employer, not the announcer. And this is not the first time he was left in limbo because of a lacking video feed.

"I think it's a good time to remind everybody that we are calling these games in St. Louis off monitors," he told viewers. "So we are at the judgment of the camera folks and trying to do the best we can.

"So I had no clue whether or not it was a home run or a ground-rule double," an obviously frustrated McLaughlin added.

In a strange twist, Cards radio announcer John Rooney — who was at the game — also called the play a home run. But that in no way justifies Sinclair's stay-at-home stance. It merely underscores that these games are broadcast by humans and mistakes can happen.

"I lost it in the lights out there in the auxiliary scoreboard," Rooney said on the air. "I saw the third-base umpire raise his arm like he was calling a home run."

But Rooney, who could actually see what was going on, corrected the call much faster than it was done on TV. Royals radio announcer Denny Matthews also called it "gone" but three seconds later said "it did hop ... over the fence."

Rick Hummel, who was at the game covering it for the Post-Dispatch, said he had difficulty seeing the ball, too. 

Would McLaughlin also have had trouble if he was on hand? There is no way to know — but we do know he had no chance while being about 250 miles away.

Moving forward

While it would seem on the surface that the no-travel policy is an industrywide cost-saving measure, BSM executive producer Larry Mago has said "that’s not the linchpin in this at all" with the Cardinals.

He has said it is a technical issue as regional sports networks have shared a feed rather than having more customized productions. That was done to simplify things, which was understandable during the virus-related restrictions when protocols could vary widely in different cities.

But what about now?

“The last 18 months have caused us to develop new technologies and be more adaptable," Mago said this week. "We realize it’s not perfect, but our crew and broadcasters have worked hard to make the best of it and continue to produce high-quality broadcasts.”

The no-travel policy is expected to continue.

“With the resurgence of COVID, we do not anticipate our baseball announcers traveling this season,” Mago said.

Bally Sports Midwest also is the Blues' local telecaster, and their season begins in about two months. Will those announcers go on the road, unlike last year?

“We don’t know yet," Mago said. "We hope COVID numbers improve, and we’ll keep you informed when we know more about fall travel.”

The bottom line, a nonfinancial one, is that quite simply the broadcasts are much better when the announcers are on hand.

There are many deficiencies beyond incorrect calls that are associated with the stay-home policy. One is the lack of the announcers' interaction with players and club officials. This deprives the audience of information and anecdotes that can augment the productions, elements that especially are valuable in baseball because of the time to fill between pitches.

Shortchanged are people who are paying for these inferior productions. And Cards telecasts, like many television programs, have experienced significant viewership declines in recent years. Why agitate those who remain?

There is an old adage that a good company places its employees in positions to succeed, and this no-travel practice chafes against that philosophy.

McLaughlin is the one put into an awkward spot, the one left to address it on the air, thanks to corporate decisions. He did not want to elaborate on the current situation when reached by the Post-Dispatch. But he did discuss the matter in June, when the radio crew — which is paid by the team, not Sinclair — began traveling.

“I’d love to be back on the road because that’s the best way to do my job and deliver the best product,” McLaughlin said then. “I care so much about the craft, and I take great pride in doing the best I can for the fans. Every game, no matter the circumstances, I owe it to them to deliver the best I can.

“I’m beyond thankful and appreciative to be back working,” he added. “(Until last season began in July,) I was out of a job and just hoping we would have baseball. So if this is how we have to do it, so be it. I’ll give fans the best I got.”

Cardinals and Blues fans can only hope that Sinclair is interested in providing the best possible product, and that entails hitting the road again.

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