Henning: Remote Tigers broadcasts a challenge conquered as we await ‘all clear’

Detroit News

Nice, it was, having baseball back last summer. Having actual big-league games on radio and TV, even if a pandemic was barring folks from MLB ballparks.

Soothing — that’s the word — having those broadcasts from Comerica Park and other big-league ballparks flowing into living rooms and vehicles as Matt Shepard on Fox Sports Detroit (to be rebranded Bally Sports Detroit on March 31) and Dan Dickerson via the Tigers network’s radio airwaves kept an audience updated on all on-field doings and atmosphere.

Except it wasn’t like that. Not at all. Not when the Tigers played away from Detroit.

Shepard was doing his road-game work from an FSD studio in Southfield. Apart from a single three-game series at Cleveland, Dickerson worked from his booth at Comerica Park — whether the Tigers were home or away.

And most fans seemed never to notice that often Dickerson and Shepard were seeing pretty much the same thing they were seeing on their flat-screens during half of a 60-game season that began in late July.

“It was nice to hear, and I did hear that,” said Dickerson, talking earlier this week about fan feedback that suggested most folks either weren’t aware of, or weren’t bothered by, remote broadcasts.

Except he didn’t like them.

“I was just frustrated,” said Dickerson, who for 19 seasons has been the Tigers radio play-by-play chief. “I felt I couldn’t do my job the way I wanted to do.

“My job is to paint a picture and put people (imaginatively) in the ballpark. As much as I think I did that — and I’m glad for so many that it sounded like I was there — from my vantage point, I just felt like I was doing, I don’t know, 60, 65 percent of the job I could do in terms of describing things well.”

Shepard was in Year Two of his new niche as FSD’s Tigers telecast captain. He is a man who adapts — Shepard has broadcast all the prime-time sports — and he shifted deftly last season to viewing games on monitors. Also, to working with a road crew about half the size of pre-COVID away games. Often, two teams shared cameras and audiences by way of a single production truck.

They filled two studios in Southfield. One of those studios housed Shepard and analysts Kirk Gibson and Jack Morris. The other was converted, suddenly last summer, from storage space to a high-tech laboratory filled with a range of producers, directors and graphic wizards who were asked to replicate a ballpark broadcast at a suburban TV headquarters.

“It has its challenges,” said Shepard, speaking of the two-dozen-plus staffers who combine to pull off a COVID-era Tigers road telecast. “I think last year was almost a case of, ‘Man, we miss baseball so much, we’re just happy to get it back in any form.’

“And I suppose I feel the same this year.”

The practical problems imposed by coronavirus in 2020 extend, for now, into 2021. There are no immediate plans for radio or TV to begin their old road habits. BSD isn’t yet planning on traveling to away games, BSD executives have said. Jimmy Powers, who is program director at CBS Radio/97.1 The Ticket, has said plans — for now — are undetermined in terms of travel for Tigers radio broadcasts, which originate with WXYT-FM (97.1) and WXYT-AM (1270). What is known is that driving distance could bring Cleveland, Chicago and more regional towns back into the Tigers radio lineup, perhaps soon.

The tighter travel radius in part is due to budgets, but more because of COVID protocols. Flights and airports, for example, can present the kind of coronavirus-exposure MLB isn’t wild about inviting, even on the fringes, to its venues.

It’s an issue from 2020 that lingers. And it hasn’t been only a matter of putting players at risk. Networks have had to be careful that their own people weren’t vulnerable as coronavirus infections, and deaths, began to steadily soar a year ago.

“Our first priority is to keep everybody safe,” said Greg Hammaren, the TV broadcast network’s senior vice president and general manager. “That’s hard to do during a pandemic, but we’ll be cautious and judicious before we send people on the road, and before we send back our traditional crews. We’ve got to keep everyone safe.”

COVID’s threat has been lessened as vaccinations rise, which has factored in teams allowing, to greatly varying degrees in 2021, fans into ballparks that were vacated in 2020. Until something approaching an all-clear arrives, a carefully regulated tier system — it dictates who has access to a particular baseball venue — has been overseen by MLB and applied to all 30 big-league teams.

Broadcast personnel have carried Tier III status that has kept them from clubhouses, dugouts, on-field interaction and from most broadcast sites. They also have been knocked out of team flights on which the primary TV and Tigers radio talent (and a few technical staffers) otherwise trek to other big-league towns and ballparks.

There, for Shepard, has been the heavy penalty — home and away. No more kibitzing with players and staff. No more boning-up on locker-room or batting-practice info and anecdotes, the kind of yarns and insights that help make a nine-inning baseball telecast more than play-by-play moments.

“The thing I enjoy as much as anything is just walking around the clubhouse and talking with players about everyday life, making sure they’re doing OK, checking with them on whether there’s anything they want us to mention, or maybe they’ve got a gripe,” Shepard said. “And, of course, sitting in the manager’s office before the game. So often, that’s where you get your best stories.”

The games themselves? Tough duty, especially Dickerson says, when he’s handling road events from the Comerica Park booth, relying on three monitors as his play-by-play eyes. While it’s more of a visual presentation than fans get on the TV broadcast screen, Dickerson says it’s like broadcasting a game wearing an eye-patch.

Yes, he has the monitor that provides a picture the TV audience sees. On his left, he also has an “all-nine” panoramic view of the players and field. He has a bullpen visual, a scoreboard shot, etc., none of which is available to fans watching at home.

“That all-nine view should be doubly valuable to helping me paint the picture,” Dickerson said. “The problem is that the players are about a millimeter and-a-half tall on the screen. So, it became kind of worthless for me.

“I probably should have used it more, but I couldn’t train my eye to go to a screen that wasn’t going to help me a great deal.”

Dickerson is an analytics expert who might also be baseball’s best broadcaster at identifying pitches. He learned last year that any attempt by the most sophisticated cameras or monitors to offer him a pleasing glimpse at what was going on at a given moment was hopeless.

“A runner on first — is he going back to the bag with a good lefty move?” Dickerson asked, speaking hypothetically about a left-handed pitcher and his duel with a baserunner. “I like to be able to describe things.

“Or, seeing that infielders are moving out of a full three-man shift with two strikes. These are things I’m not catching with an all-nine view.”

The list, Dickerson learned, was long.

“Could you see that ball hit deep to left was knocked back by the wind? Or the pop-up that was all over the place because of a swirling wind was nearly missed?

“Those are the details I’ve tried throughout the years to include while I’m painting that picture. And it was a frustration for me, not being able to describe at the level you want to describe.”

The TV gang can relate. Just ask Jeff Byle, executive producer. He oversaw that mixed bag of technical crews, of cameras being shared on the road and “world feeds” working to serve two audiences from a single truck.

And, of course, that new world of Shepard and analysts Gibson and Morris viewing games by way of technology — somewhat like astronomers studying planets from afar.

“It’s difficult, it’s not as easy as you would think,” Byle said. “When you’re watching a ballgame on site, your eyes can go wherever. You can look into dugouts. You see the way outfielders are positioned.

“It’s a more fluid cadence for them (Shepard, Gibson, and Morris). It’s been a transition, to see everything off monitors.”

Shepard found that his socially distanced sidekicks, ex-players with the sharpest of eyes for a game’s nuances, did what they used to do when they were playing: adjust.

“I thought they did a really good job,” Shepard said. “Gibby always brings a lot of information and passion. Jack hits specifics with the way guys throw a baseball. Every analyst is different, but they did a nice job transitioning.

“We didn’t try to do too much. And that’s one error you can make – over-calling or over-analyzing. But, overall, I think we let the game breathe and I thought they particularly did adjust very, very well.”

Doing it all minus fans in the ballpark, a visual as much as an audio necessity in baseball’s pre-COVID days, proved to be particularly tricky.

And that was true, home or away.

“We didn’t have any of that last year,” Shepard said of the crowd din, absent for those 60 games. “Even at the ballpark (Comerica), as special as it is to look out at right-center field and see the skyline, not to have fans there when a hitter goes yard (home run), or a player makes a real good play, or a pitcher gets out of a jam — it’s just not quite the same thing.

“Our producer can cut to faces when people are in the stands, pumping fists and high-fiving. Look at a World Series — cutting to shots of disappointment or celebration. That’s a big deal on television.”

Dickerson hated the detachment overall that came with doing a road game from the relative desolation of Comerica Park.

“You have to be at the game,” he said. “That’s true for Matt Shepard, or for me, or for anyone in this job. You’ve got to feel the game.

“It’s why I open the window on a 32-degree day. I have to feel the game. And if you’re removed from it, it’s a big challenge to call the game the way you want to call it.”

But they did it. Managed it. And, to a heavy extent, conquered it.

“When you think about the energy they have to bring in that environment,” Hammaren said, “not feeding off the crowd, adapting to new visuals – across the board, these guys have been doing an amazing job.”

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.

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