Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Sounds of Summer

Don Orsillo salutes the fans at Fenway Park for the last time, September 27, 2015

“It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops."

Those words were written by A. Bartlett Giamatti in 1977, before he was President of Yale, or the Commissioner of Major League Baseball. He was a lifelong Red Sox fan and he died before seeing a season that ended in anything but heartbreak. 

Red Sox radio announcer Joe Castiglione read those words at the close of the last game of the season this past Sunday. Joe (those of us who have spent many summer evenings listening to him cannot help speaking as if he were one of the family) traditionally reads that passage at the close of every season. Joe is currently tied with the late (and very, very great) Ned Martin for the longest tenure among Red Sox broadcasters at 32 years.

And Joe will be back next year.

Baseball broadcasters tend to have long tenures. The Dodgers recently announced that Vin Scully will be back for his 67th season next spring. He was calling the games when the Dodgers were still in Brooklyn. I remember listening to him calling World Series Games when they were still in the afternoon. “Pull up a chair,” he would say, “if you’re just joining us, we’ve got good one.” And then he would tell us what had happened while I was riding the bus home from school.

Scully is the best ever. The Babe Ruth of broadcasting. Ned Martin was never so well known, but I loved the way he could weave together Shakespeare and baseball. So Martin is my number two. But Joe is right up there. And I’m glad he will be back again.

On the television side, there is grief and despair in Red Sox Nation. Don Orsillo will not be back. He was unceremoniously dumped after fifteen years. Fans are irate, in part at least because it seems utterly bizarre that after a terrible season in which the team was often unwatchable, they seemed to think that the answer was to fire Don Orsillo. The team was not just bad. They didn’t just lose. They were often unwatchable. On the TV side, Orsillo and partner Jerry Remy did their best to give fans a reason to stay tuned. But there is only so much you can do when the team seemed unable to hit, or field, or pitch, or even remember how many outs there were.

Orsillo will be replaced by Joe Castiglione’s radio partner, Dave O’Brien. That is both good news and bad news. O'Brien is one of the best play by play guys in the country. But his talents for description and storytelling come through much better on the radio than on TV. His TV announcing on ESPN is excellent, but his radio announcing is even better.

And baseball is a game for radio. There are very few announcers who live up to the possibilities of baseball on the radio. Scully, Ned Martin, Jon Miller, Joe Castiglione, and Dave (again, he’s like family). The folks who filled in over the summer when Dave O’Brien was doing TV games for ESPN did not fill me with confidence.

Don Orsillo will be calling games for the San Diego Padres next summer, replacing the legendary Dick Enberg, who is retiring. It sounds like a dream job, unless you grew up in New England rooting for the Red Sox, and studied under Joe Castiglione at Northeastern (Joe teaches broadcasting in the off season) and interned at Fenway Park, and your dream job was announcing for the Red Sox.

It was a sad ending to the season. Joe and Dave have often seemed like brothers. If they are not friends, then they present a good facsimile of friendship. And Don was Joe’s protégé and star pupil. 

A few weeks ago, not long after the news came out that Don would not be back, the Red Sox were playing the Yankees at Fenway. Jerry and Don carried on as if nothing was wrong. They were, as always, themselves. Late in the game, with the Red Sox trailing 12-3, the action on the field was less than riveting, but that did not deter them. They were busy analyzing video of Orsillo shagging fly balls last spring at Jet Blue Park, the Red Sox stadium in Fort Myers, Florida. Orsillo was in left field, in front of the wall that copies the Green Monster at Fenway.

Richard Sandomir recounted the exchange in an article in the New York Times.

“That ball you caught up against the wall,” Remy asked with feigned seriousness, “was that hit or was that lobbed?”

“Oh, it was hit,” Orsillo said insistently. “Driven.”

It was classic. Dave will be good, maybe even great. But we will miss Don.

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