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Analyzing the Pirates Broadcast Booth

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Brett Barnett

Photo retrieved from MLB

In baseball, one of the most important people to fans is the broadcaster. It’s the voice we hear over the radio or over the television, offering play-by-play or anecdotes. The voice of the broadcaster breaks up the low crowd murmur on a hot August afternoon. They are as much a part of the team as the starting pitcher or the catcher, the manager or the pitching coach.

The Pittsburgh Pirates have a history of noteworthy broadcasters, like Bob Prince, “The Gunner,” who was active with the Pirates for a 28-year stretch that included two World Series wins. There was also Lanny Frattare, who started in Pittsburgh in 1976 and was there for a stint that lasted through 2008, calling over 5,000 Pirates’ games. More recently, the Pirates had one of my personal favorites, Tim Neverett, who served for a comparatively brief term, being with the Bucs between 2009 and 2015 before departing for the Boston Red Sox.

As of late, however, the Pirates’ booth has received low marks from a slew of online evaluators (whether or not they’re qualified to judge them is another story). Going back to 2012 Bleacher Report ranked the Bucs’ broadcast team at 28th. In 2019, Awful Announcing ranked the crew 29th, dropping from their spot of 24 in 2018.

Greg Brown

“Brownie” has been in the Pirates booth for 26 years, and entering his 27th in a broadcasting role, but first gained employment with the Pirates in 1979 as an intern.

Brown has become a favorite for many, in part by virtue of being such a mainstay with Pittsburgh – only Prince and Frattare were around longer. Critics of Brown would suggest that he’s a “homer,” or an overly (and obviously) dedicated Pirates fan. This seems like strange criticism to me because that appears to be part of the job when you’re an employee of the team. Certainly, there’s room for criticism of the team, and perhaps Brown would benefit from appealing to the fans’ sensibilities in that regard, but overall Brown seems to do a good job as the primary play-by-play guy for the Pirates.

Here is a compilation of some of Brown’s greatest calls, which includes notable Pirates’ moments, such as Andrew McCutchen’s walk-off home run to beat the St. Louis Cardinals in the bottom of the 14th inning on July 11, 2015, the penultimate game before the All-Star Break. Or perhaps this clip from when the Pirates ended up clinching a playoff berth, the team’s first since 1992.

After an outfield bobble by Marlon Byrd, Andrew McCutchen picks up the baseball and fires towards home. The somewhat errant throw is fielded in Jeter-esque style by Justin Morneau and then relayed to Russell Martin at home, who then tags out Nate Schierholtz. Martin rolls to his knees and holds the ball up in triumphant victory as Jason Grilli comes to hug him, an image that will be immortalized in our collective Pirates’ memories.

Photo retrieved from Sports Illustrated

And still other moments, like Josh Harrison’s insane rundown evasion tactics against the Mets, and the “how could any of us forget” moment, when Johnny Cueto dropped the ball in the National League Wild Card game, which was then promptly met with a smattering of chants and a long Martin drive for a home run.

Perhaps the most notable thing worth mentioning from the Brown compilation is the sheer (and true) joy and excitement he experiences during the Bucs’ biggest moments – a trait that has endeared him to many Pirate fans.

Joe Block

Pun aside, Joe Block is still the new kid on the block. 2020 will be/would have been Block’s fifth season with the team, but he still hasn’t quite endeared himself to fans. Block is a Michigan native, but he had family ties to the Pittsburgh region. Block used to call games for the Milwaukee Brewers, and I’ve heard some fans suggest he still has somewhat of an allegiance to the Brew Crew. I can’t vouch for that, for obvious reasons – I’m not Block.

The primary critique of Block is his sheer lack of enthusiasm whenever something big happens, the exact opposite of Brown. It seems as though, despite the moment, Block has trouble mustering excitement. It could be true that his personality is just geared that way, and that’s okay, but it is something fans will notice. For some, it will also bother them.

Something I like about Block is that he tries to take somewhat of an analytical approach to the game, often citing certain statistics. More than that, he tries to make the broadcast entertaining. I know that sounds like I’m rewarding him for simply doing his job, but it can be tough, especially if the supporting crew is lackluster (I’m looking at you Wehner, but more on that later).

Bob Walk

Walk spent time in Pittsburgh as a player before moving to the broadcast side of things, as is usually the case for color analysts. He spent 10 years with the Pirates as a player, and then after promptly moving into the booth, he will be in his 27th season behind a mic. Walk offers some genuine insight into the game, but his value comes more from his rapport with Greg Brown, with both having done this part of the job for the same amount of time.

And of course, let’s not forget this gem, which of course birthed the bobblehead giveaway.

Photo retrieved from The Sports Daily

John Wehner

Like Walk, Wehner also spent time as a player in Pittsburgh. He spent parts of 11 years in MLB, with the majority of that time coming with the Pirates. Unlike Walk, he didn’t provide much to write home about as a player, registering a -1.4 WAR over his nine years in black and gold. It should go without saying that it’s impressive to make it to the major leagues regardless of how one performs once they get there, but I’ll make sure it’s said anyway: it’s impressive to make it to the major leagues regardless of how one performs once they get there.

Now that that’s out of the way.

I don’t know how the rest of the fanbase feels about Wehner – I don’t keep my finger on the pulse in that regard, but I think he is nothing short of bad. This will somehow be his 16th season in the booth. I understand that Wehner is a nice, likable guy, but his banter doesn’t get the job done. More than that, he seems to never have the valuable insight that fans seek from the color guy. When you look at some of the broadcaster rankings around the internet, the Pirates’ team consistently finishes near the bottom, and I can’t help but think it’s in no small part due to Wehner.

Once when Joe Block was talking about a player’s hair (it might have been John Jaso but I can’t find any evidence to corroborate this claim), he said, “You need a guy on the team with crazy hair,” simply trying to make conversation. Wehner’s response? “Well, you don’t need one.” Trying to muster conversation or insight from Wehner seems akin to pulling teeth. It’s painful.

Michael McKenry, Matt Capps, Kevin Young

This group of former players are just beginning to cut their teeth at the broadcasting level, although both McKenry and Capps have spent the last two years as pre and post-game hosts. Perhaps this is the broadcast team’s way of grooming a replacement for Wehner, as the three will rotate throughout the year.

They are all, of course, former Pirates, with most of their tenures coming during years of Pirate futility. Young spent a lot of time at first base through the nineties and early part of the 2000s. McKenry was a fan favorite in Pittsburgh, affectionately known as “The Fort.” Capps also had his best years with the Pirates, and I liked him quite a bit. I’ll hold any critiques of these three until they get some games under their belt, but I do remember cringing at McKenry’s robotic attempts at post-game commentary, most of which sounded like a deluge of sport clichés.

These are my subjective opinions about the broadcast team, but I would be interested in hearing what the fanbase outside of me thinks. Let me know!