Review: FSD's 'players-only' experiment for Tigers games features plenty of hits, misses
Detroit — Matt Shepard, widely considered the hardest-working person in Michigan broadcasting, enjoyed some odd down time this week.
With Fox Sports Detroit unveiling its new "Players-only" broadcasts of Tigers games, Shepard spent a couple days this week being a dad and a husband. He watched his son play lacrosse. He watched his daughter play lacrosse. He accompanied his on-the-mend wife to a doctor's appointment — "I still can't believe you're alive," the doctor keeps saying of the head-on car accident Lisa was involved in back in early January. He went to the dentist. He raked his front yard.
And, like so many Tigers fans, Shepard tuned into the three games against the Indians on FSD.
"Enjoyed watching the games," said Shepard, in his first year as the lead play-by-play voice of Tigers TV, "Just like you did."
Shepard's right. I did enjoy the broadcasts. Well, mostly, anyway.
Judging by social media — because, well, how else do we judge anything these days? — I seem to be in the minority.
I get it. Sports fans are, by nature, resistant to change, especially the history-appreciative baseball crowd. And as long as we've known baseball broadcasts, we've known there to be a play-by-play person — typically a non-athlete who attended some esteemed journalism school — and an analyst or two — usually former athletes.
(That said, it is worth noting, the Tigers' once employed one of the most-legendary "Players-only" television broadcast teams of all-time, in George Kell and Al Kaline.)
FSD, knowing this Tigers team is in rebuild mode and thus knowing luring eyeballs is going to be more of a challenge, decided to throw convention on its head, opting to turn 17 Tigers broadcasts in 2019 into more of a high-top table of buddies watching the game at the bar.
It's a unique experiment, and like with any experiment, the formula will need tinkering, and it will evolve over time. But it's off to a solid start, maybe a C+ or a B-. It could've been worse, as it was for the "Players-only" debut, on Tuesday.
But there still was a lot to like.
Among the highlights:
►The rapport of the core four — 1984 teammates Kirk Gibson, Jack Morris and Dan Petry, and Craig Monroe, who had Gibson as a coach in the early 2000s — is evident and comfortable. It makes for easy conversation, again just like you'd experience tossing back a few on a Friday or Saturday night with your best buddies. They needle each other, but they respect each other. And it's mostly an enjoyable listen, especially when they get into story-telling mode.
►It's quickly become evident Petry, 60, who's made his home in Metro Detroit for decades, should've become a regular on Tigers broadcasts years ago. For some unknown reason, it took until this offseason's booth shakeup to finally make it happen. His insight and analysis is excellent and succinct, and he's also comfortable deferring to his booth mates — sometimes, even a bit too much. Don't be surprised if he's Dan Dickerson's radio partner someday, when Jim Price retires.
►Gibson's humor often comes through on broadcasts, but he's definitely more comfortable letting loose with his former teammates. He told some great stories during the three-game series, including that epic claim that the Twins used to toy with the "wind" in the old Metrodome. Gibson claims that back when he was coaching, he tied a string to a vent behind home plate, only to notice it was blowing out when the Twins were batting, and limp when the Tigers were batting. In a hilarious back-and-forth, Morris, the former Twin, denied it.
►Monroe, 42, was a surprising asset in this format. He provided some keen analysis during a stint in the photo well near the dugout, pointing out Nick Castellanos' lack of his signature leg kick during his at-bats against the tough right-hander, Trevor Bauer. Then, when Monroe joined the booth, he actually and surprisingly took command of the broadcast — which had definitely been lacking a lead voice. He asked good, timely questions of his partners, boosting the quality of the broadcast. Monroe also did a very nice job on a taped interview with Josh Harrison, as Gibson did with Niko Goordrum.
►The guest list was pretty strong, most notably with Nate Robertson (who told a funny story about how he sold his Metro Detroit home to FSD's John Keating) and Brandon Inge, who offered some quality analysis, even explaining how outfielders had to adjust to wind changes after Ford Field went up next door. Both would make good additions to Tigers broadcasts down the road; Robertson appears to be trending that direction, having joined Fox 2's Opening Day coverage with Dan Miller this year, taking over the role Petry previously occupied before FSD came calling. Alan Trammell was good, too, ribbing Gibson, 61, and Morris, 63, about their roles in the media, which they infamously despised during their playing days. Gordon Beckham and Tyson Ross joining from the dugout was a nice touch, too, especially Beckham.
Of course, there were some things that didn't go as well:
►The first day of the "Players-only" broadcasts, Tuesday, was absolutely rough, as was probably expected by the FSD brass. It seemed early that Gibson would take on more of a lead role, then it was Morris, then it was who-knows-who. They were talking over each other, or interrupting each other — and when they did interrupt each other, sometimes halting one story, the conversation never would circle back to said story, leaving listeners hanging. It was awkward. To Morris' credit, he acknowledged as much after Wednesday's broadcast, saying he didn't feel very good after Tuesday's. Morris also apologized during the Tuesday broadcast for mistakenly calling Eric Stamets' "Little League Home Run" an inside-the-park home run, when it actually was a single and an error. So, props for being honest, and getting it right.
►The timing could've been better to kick this thing off. Shepard was just 10 games into his run as the new, full-time TV voice of the Tigers when, all of a sudden, fans were thrown a curveball. It might've been more wise to push the "Players-only" debut back into May or even late April, just to allow the fans to get comfortable with Shepard taking over for long-time TV man Mario Impemba. (The Tigers have 14 more of these "Players-only" telecasts planned, the next ones for the May 7-9 home series against the Angels.)
►While most of the guest interviews were solid, the Lance Parrish segment was painful. Parrish isn't the most animated interview anyway, and his time on Monday's broadcast was made worse by the poor video quality (was he speaking from a bathroom?). It also went on way too long. Then there was the Kent Hrbek interview on Thursday's broadcast, and that one didn't make a whole lot of sense — the pitch was he was on to preview this weekend's Tigers-Twins series, but really he probably only was on because he's a pal of Morris'. Hrbek kind of did some play-by-play during his appearance, which was doubly strange. His live shot of the foot of snow dumped on his Minnesota deck was a nice touch, though.
►While the quality of the broadcasts got significantly better with each game, they never did seem to come to a resolution whether they wanted some semblance of play-by-play, or not. Sometimes, someone would cut off a story to call a play on the field, sometimes they wouldn't. For my money, don't try to force the play-by-play. It's TV. Fans can see the score, they can see the outs, they can see the counts, they can see the action. Call the big plays, like the home runs, and fill the rest with analysis and storytime.
►Gibson long has been a favorite of mine, first as a player, then as a broadcaster (his time with Josh Lewin — "Gibby and the Geek" — was widely underappreciated.) As a former player, coach and manager, he brings tons of knowledge to the broadcast, and in the past has been willing to criticize play on the field. A couple times this week, I noticed him tempering such criticisms, like on a clear mistake pitch by Spencer Turnbull. This is worth monitoring, given Gibson's strange agreement to both worth on Tigers TV and in the Tigers' front office. I'm hopeful his on-air honesty won't take a hit.
►Look, when you put Gibson and Morris — two men known for their extreme machismo, especially during their playing days — side by side, you're going to get some colorful banter, like so-called "locker-room talk." It took less than 10 minutes into the first broadcast before Gibson dropped an uncomfortable "slump-buster" reference, later a photo of Beckham and his wife on a hunting trip drew an awkward comment from Morris, and there were other jockish back-and-forths. Those can be benched moving forward.
►And this is just a pet peeve of mine: Nobody cares about your fantasy football team, nobody cares about your NCAA Tournament bracket, and nobody cares about your "Pick the Stick" scoreboard. Thanks.