Thursday, August 18, 2011

Alpha Syndrome

I've seen fifteen minutes before, and it ain't pretty. Last June 26th, through some combination of random chance and threadbare acquaintances I found myself wandering the police-occupied streets of Toronto with a man who would later that night be among the hundreds thrown in the holding cells without cause. We were neither friends nor protesters, but through the camaraderie of the weekend and shared morbid curiosity we missioned towards the burning cars. Long story short: I ditched to smoke a bowl while this guy - let's call him Joey - and his girlfriend continued into the belly of the beast. Within thirty-six hours, his account of the miserable prison conditions was flooding major new websites and he was getting Facebook messages from southeast Asia.

The first time I had met him, I had gotten a mildly arrogant vibe: this was a guy who wasn't going to let me tell the crowd what to do. Now, since the crowd consisted of his girlfriend and his best friend, I backed off, and we had some interesting conversations in the sweltering heat. But I did make a note of it. A week later, when I went to the anti-police rally in Queens Park, Joey had become a different beast altogether. He was a keynote speaker. He proposed to his girlfriend in public. When I saw him afterward, he dismissed me with an acerbic comment and turned to someone who was asking him about the oppression of political refugees in war-torn Africa.

I emphasize: this was someone who was not a protester. When I think about what happened, how this guy turned what would have normally been a bizarre life experience to bore people with over beers into a personal vendetta against police oppression worldwide, I'm slightly offended. It stinks of narcissism, of someone who latched onto something relatively benign and used it to vault himself into public relevance. Is it about police oppression, or is it about being the one on the podium? Last week I returned to Toronto, over a year after the fact, only to find out the guy was still reenacting the experience in public. I don't mean to sound of sour grapes, but people who project an entire philosophical soapbox based on an isolated incident are something that really irritates me.

Anyway, Gregg Zaun is kind of like that. I wasn't necessarily opposed to him making the transition from ex-ballplayer to broadcaster, but based on early returns he puts the ballplayer in ex-ballplayer. If Alan Ashby is a thoughtful analyst who occasionally calls upon his experience as a major league catcher, Gregg Zaun is a major league talker who simply found his soapbox. The resulting exchanges are only slightly awkward when he's paired with Jamie Campbell, professional jock-sniffer, but I heard him on the radio for the first time last night and let's just say I was unimpressed. Say what you will about Jerry Howarth - he does get overly excited by the game at times, and you couldn't pay me to listen to the man orate about Jesus with that same fervor - but he's a consummate professional who has been doing his job with devotion since before I was born. He has his shtick, and it behooves his boothmate to roll with that shtick. Tom Cheek had his own, and the two of them found an uneasy alliance through two decades of professional partnership; Ashby has his own breed of analysis which interrogates Jerry's beat without breaking it; but Zaun has none of that fluency. By broadcasting standards, he's more of a rookie than Brett Lawrie is. Much more.

I can't imagine calling a game live is an easy thing. If it were, there wouldn't be so many sites devoted to bad broadcasters. Imagine all the slip-ups you might make during a three-hour-long coffeeshop conversation, and then not being permitted the appropriate adjectives to make up for those blunders, and you might have an idea how difficult live television is. Radio is even harder, because you actually do need to explain the action on the field. (I can't even imagine broadcasting a basketball or hockey game on the radio, because they move so fast you're bound to be at least five seconds behind the play at any given time, and there are no breaks to fill in the gaps.) The fact that Rogers decided to stick Zaun behind a mike less than a month after his official retirement suggests that this was something in the works all along, and that they were banking on Zaun's popularity and the fact that he was so recently a Jay to outweigh any potential struggles in the booth. They didn't send him out to Vegas to hone his game-calling skills, they just plunked him beside Jamie Campbell and said, "it's your show, Gregg."

On some level, I like that Gregg will call out a player for laziness or grunt in admiration of a good pitch. But at some point, you've got to be a pro and understand when you're being Bob Uecker and when you're being Rob Dibble. Maybe he'll learn. And maybe one day my G20 acquaintance will realize that human rights infringements in Toronto aren't quite the same thing as human rights infringements in Zimbabwe, and do something a little more productive with his newfound fame.

No comments:

Post a Comment