The Whiff

After 18 years on the job, Dan Patrick has decided to leave ESPN. And while somewhat unexpected, it's a move that begs the obvious question:
Can he please take Chris Berman with him?
I don't know -- maybe it's it just me, but it seems like there was a point somewhere in the last couple of years where the all-sports-all-the-time-network made a shift from being one of the few things I adored enough to easily leave on my television for hours at a time to becoming the more or less a necessary evil when I need to find out how the players on my fantasy football team did on any given Sunday.
And even then, it's still hard to deny the fact that my once
beloved Sportscenter has become utterly unwatchable.
I suppose there are a lot of people who never really watched it anyway, or aren't that into sports -- but you gotta understand there was a time not so long ago when Sportscenter was basically required viewing for anyone who cared anything about professional and collegiate athletics.

But more than the realization that ESPN's flagship news program has shifted from being a fun source of information to some sort of variety hour filled with talking heads, flashing lights, music montages (and the occasional score update) -- is the fact that gone seem the days when all the people at the network didn't take themselves so damn seriously -- or perhaps better said there was a time when ESPN really couldn't take itself as seriously as I guess it wants to now.

In it's early years (despite their enthusiasm for covering mainstream sports) the network simply didn't have the rights to broadcast or even film actual sporting events they way they wanted to (leaving them to fill airtime with coverage of lumberjack contests, world's strongest man re-runs, bike racing, and tractor pulls). They suffered their growing pains along the way, but eventually it reached a point where you watched a game on one of the major networks to see what happened, but as soon as it was over you jumped over to ESPN to get their take on things.

In fact for many years it seemed like the whole point of the network was to have some guy sitting behind a newsdesk saying:
"Oh man, did you see that!?"
And you'd be there on your couch saying "Yeah, I did!"
I don't know -- it sounds retarded when I type it out like that, and maybe Sportscenter was always just a fan-boy validation theater -- but there was always something special about catching national sports highlights and news updates for an hour instead of waiting through the news just to listen to a hurried two minutes where the local sportsjerk prattled on about the "Fact-O-Bake Scholastic Performer of the Week"

But beyond that -- there were times when it was simply impractical (and probably annoying) for me to personally call up friends who had moved halfway across the country at all hours of the night and say "Dude, did you see what my Broncos did to your crappy Redskins this week?"

Not that Spruill wouldn't have taken the call, but that there was a basic disconnect there that always got in the way of it being a pure moment. Perhaps in a way that's what made ESPN so addicting for a while --- it was always there, it was always interested. Your team may not have always had a chance, but they always got coverage, and even if it was just a score recap sometimes it felt like they put it on the screen just for your benefit.

Moreover, there was a personality to the thing that made it seem like it was all right to really really love football, that you weren't the only one who wanted to see what the NBA draft looked like. At the same time, Sportscenter in its heyday never made me feel like only being a casual fan of different kinds of sports was a that huge of a crime.
I don't know -- it's hard to explain.
I'm not a baseball guy. I didn't play it as a kid, my dad only became a fan recently, and there really wasn't a team anywhere nearby worth paying attention to when I was growing up (the Braves in the 80's? thanks).

It also didn't help that sometimes I got the sense that over-the-top baseball people were kind of a pain in the ass. Not that the game itself isn't worthwhile or can't be enjoyable -- but that I spent a lot of time growing up around dudes who felt I was somehow flawed as a person because I didn't know (much less care) what a slugging percentage was. The kind of people who actually tried to defend the snail's pace of the game, or anytime you said you felt baseball just kinda boring and not your type of thing ended up lecturing you for hours on end on how it's a shame more people in this world aren't capable of understanding the fineries and nuances of a thinking man's sport.
You know -- the kind of stuff that makes you want to break out a
hockey stick and crack it over people's shoulders whenever they talk.
ESPN wasn't like that. For better or worse, Sportscenter took three-hour baseball games and said "Here's the two minutes that actually mattered." And even if I was just some knuckleheaded football guy who apparently couldn't appreciate the depths of wisdom it takes to manage a two hit inning with a man on third and a switch hitter in the box -- there was something enjoyable and visceral about seeing key strikeouts, double-plays, and home runs presented in that manner.

Somehow Sportscenter helped me appreciate just how talented baseball players were, even if I didn't have any real interest in watching or following the game itself.
Unfortunately that's also at the heart of what's really wrong with it.
There have always been stars in sports, always been standout players who did exciting things or could be counted on to be clutch when the team needed them most -- and in the beginning it was kinda cool how ESPN focused in on that so specifically. They gave you names you could connect to the big plays. Faces and jersey numbers that you had to watch out for, especially if they didn't play on your team.

And it was in that pocket of turning big game players into personalities where overgrown cheerleaders like Chris Berman and Dick Vitale thrived.

Once upon a time you wanted Berman to nickname the guys on your team. If a guy had a Berman nickname that meant he was someone special. You wanted him to match some retarded rhyming word with the last name of your team's third-down back. Just the same way Dickie V's little-kid-hopped up-on-sugar-cereal style of delivering commentary made watching mid-week Atlantic 10 college basketball matchups seem like something to get pumped up about.

And there was something cool about that. Something cool about the way the personalities on the network seemed genuinely excited about the sports they were covering, something in the way that excitement seemed to sweep you up when you watched Sportscenter. The guy who made the killer dunk on the Top 10 Plays was the one you'd tune in to see on a Wednesday night. The homerun hitter they did the interview with was the one who you felt got "robbed" when they didn't make the all-star team. As if somehow you'd grown to know them -- even though you didn't.

Love it or hate it, ESPN ushered in the era of names in sports. The unfortunate side-effect of which was that after a while just being good wasn't enough. Players were expected to have personalities. The ones who did were adored, the ones with too much were demonized, and anyone who didn't have any didn't make highlight reels, so who really cared?

You always wanted your team to do well, but as Sportscenter became a big deal it was like you didn't mind free agency so much as long as the players involved were one's whose names you recognized.
But then they got greedy.
From the flim-flam pretense behind the creation of ESPN2, to the endless hiring of anchormen/personalities who's sole purpose seemed to be coming up with catchphrases to use during highlights, to the practice of taking meaningless events and pumping them up as world-ending spectacles (home run derby much?) -- ESPN traded being the guys who were into sports just as much as you were to constantly reminding you of the fact that they knew and lived sports every day and no matter what you might have previously thought --- you didn't.

Not to mention the fact that Chris Berman has apparently blown a fuse and now feels the need to nickname everything and everybody in creation. I just imagine him standing by his front door in the mornings saying things like:
"Hey hey, it's Karl The Mailman Malone come to deliver my Letters of the Lawyer
Milloys. Could I interest you in a Stanley Cup of Paul Coffee before you have to get
back-back-back-back to work? It's fresh, so you ..could ..go ..all ..the ..way!!"
And so the ESPY's became some kind of big deal. Then they started shoving soccer down our throats, and belittling those who said they didn't like it as being close-minded. Finally they secured the rights to do their own NFL coverage, instead of sniping the work of the big 3. But Worst of all -- they began hiring kinda-been athletes in droves, subtly turning the fan's network into the all "you've never been there, you don't know what it's like" show. The jock-ocracy has reached such ridiculous proportions that it seems like anyone who disagrees finds himself doing drive-time talk radio updates instead.

If it's not Sean Salisbury yelling full-blast at me about my NFL team, It's John Kruk shrugging his shoulders because he doesn't really have the patience to explain things to people who didn't spend time shagging grounders in the minor leagues.
And while I'm at it -- what the hell is going on with Barry Melrose?
Sure he was always kind of a slimeball, but am I the only one concerned
about his slow transformation towards becoming Colonel Sanders?
Half of the time the network is proving it's journalistic integrity by exposing the steroids cover-ups and reporting on the law-breaking activities of anyone currently wearing a Cincinnati Bengals uniform, only to turn right around in prime time to show me touchdown dance after mile-long home run after 700-mile Tiger Woods golf shot after human interest segment where someone "hangs out" with Sean Merriman while he shows off the 15 Rolls-Royces he bought last week.

Don't get me wrong here -- I love that there's a network that has the resources to cover almost every college football and basketball game played. I love the way I can get a snapshot of how my NFL and NBA teams are doing all in one place instead of waiting for halftime and hoping that Greg Gumbel will take ten seconds to read the score.

What I don't love is the way ESPN feels it needs to create the sports landscape nowadays instead of giving us all a place to revel in it. And don't try to deny it Bristol -- the X-Games are something you made up. The NBA slam dunk contest was supposed to be a way to kill time before the all-star game. Lee Corso will always fucking disagree with Kirk Herbstreet, and as long as Michael Vick continues to play in the NFL his beyond detestable dog-fighting practices will be "alleged."

The year labor disputes shut hockey down was a travesty, but the simple fact is that when hockey -- the one legitimate sport ESPN carried during the dark years before the college basketball and football contracts opened the door for everything else they have acquired -- when pro hockey finally got back on it's feet and desperately needed something to help it gain ground with it's already weak US viewing audience, ESPN demanded top dollar for broadcast rights, and then turned it's back on the league, banishing them to middle of the night broadcasts on a network no one ever heard of, setting the sport's American visibility and accessibility outside of it's core fan base almost down to nothing.

Is it any wonder Dan Patrick felt he was starting to "take his position with the network for granted?" It may not seem like it sometimes the way he's used, but Patrick is a journalist. There's good money in announcing and reading the word "booyah" off a teleprompter -- but at what point do you get sick of them changing the number of colored flashing lights on the Sportscenter set and leading the night off with whatever hissyfit Pacman Jones has thrown this week when baseballs most hallowed record is about to fall under the murkiest of skies and the sport itself is suffering a crisis of authenticity?

Remember when MTV drank Dr. Jekyll's formula and came out on the other side a music-less reality show/celebrity hype machine that only featured music artists as presenters at award shows and interview guests on TRL?
Well it's happening again, except this time it's seems like Jimmy Kimmel and Terrell Owens are holding the floodgates open.
..And I'm not really so sure how I feel about that combination.

[Listening to:    Motograter"No Name" ]