Monday, June 13, 2011


I haven't had nearly as  much occasion to listen to baseball on the radio since 2007 as I did over the previous decade for a multitude of reasons, not the least of which being that none of the radio stations in this here hinterland carry Blue Jays games. Increasing availability of television and internet feeds have something to do with it as well, of course, but at the end of the day, ridiculous blackout restrictions have cost me the Jerry Howarth of my childhood.
The upshot of it all is that I haven't heard as much Alan Ashby as I'd like. Which is a shame, because I like Alan Ashby quite a bit. Part of Ashby's appeal has something to do with what one might call the "Rance Mulliniks effect"; while it's much easier to picture Rance's bespectacled countenance giving up his lunch money than taking someone else's, I imagine that if old Alan ever took advantage of anyone it was through cold, impervious logic rather than force. Players like Josh Hamilton, Bryce Harper and Brett Lawrie are baseball players, but you get the sense they only play baseball in particular because it happens to be the athletic endeavor that best suits their superhuman skill set. Old-timey backup catchers, platoon infielders and middle relievers, on the other hand, often project an everyman effect. But while a guy like Rance can stimulate social awkwardness quite well, what pushes Ashby a level above is his shrewd sense of self-awareness.

Ashby has a penchant for deadpan irony which escapes his boothmate, be it Howarth or Buck Martinez. Despite the constant interjections about all the guys he's played with, he's the antithesis of the mirror-gazing Rob Dibble type who filters his "analysis" through his personal memories. You get the sense that he truly is analyzing the game, taking stock of the situation and picking bones with a given manager's whatever - defensive alignment, hit-and-run strategy, lineup selection.

I like to draw analogies between baseball and billiards, and Ashby is every inch the pool player who plays the lie of the table rather than the ball he's shooting. Like every other ex-catcher, he rags on Jose Molina's lazy picks, but he'll also complain about outfielders who take bad routes or, as in Saturday's blowout, a baserunner who doesn't take an open base in a blowout. But to reduce it to on-the-field shenanigans doesn't do it justice - I just get the sense that Ashby is always the smartest guy in the room. The pool player who loses two three-dollar games in order to win one $100 game, the poker player who saves a million in career earnings rather than burning through billions. I'm not saying he's hustling his co-hosts, exactly...but by dancing circles around them psychologically, he renders their trite cliches all the more redundant.
Which is why I got a kick out of a certain exchange that went down late in Sunday afternoon's blowout. The Sportsnet camera wandered into the idle Red Sox bullpen, and Ashby made a throwaway comment about crossing paths with the Red Sox bullpen coach at some point or another.

"Was that back in your coaching days?" Tabler said.

"No!" Ashby almost screamed. His furious indignation as he defended himself for the next five minutes reminded me of a 35-year-old woman who'd just been offered the senior's discount at a movie theatre. Tabler reacted with a kind of calm bewilderment, which only served to antagonize Ashby further. Was Tabler playing Ashby's game right back at him, subtle revenge for all the times Ashby had inadvertently made him sound foolish over the weekend? Maybe Ashby had overstepped his bounds, so used to rolling over the cheerful Jerry Howarth that he forgot that some people took offense to that sort of thing. Or maybe Tabby had just said something unthinkingly...because, God knows, he's more than capable of that.

Either way, it was an entertaining moment - the kind of psychological insight that doesn't often carry through a baseball broadcast.

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