The Astros are soon to hit the halfway point of the season. And while the baseball team is playing somewhat better baseball, when it comes to the radio broadcast, they still come off as one of the laughingstocks of baseball.
A review of the new booth tandem, Robert Ford and Steve Sparks, could have been done a lot sooner, but that would not have been fair. The two were thrust into the jobs on the eve of spring training, and they've had to learn the team, and each other, on the fly.
But that was February. It's now the end of June and the duo's been calling games for five months. So the amateur-hour quality of the broadcast can no longer be excused by their being new to the job.
To be fair, Robert Ford, the new play-by-play voice does a serviceable job. He gets the facts out. His descriptive detail is adequate. The listener's not lost on what's actually happening as was often the case when Milo Hamilton was blathering away about his lunch, hitting on female guests and talking about the good old days.
Ford's got a good voice, one of those voices you hear and know that the guy must speak on the radio for a living. He's knowledgeable about the sport, though he's understandably still a bit iffy when it comes to Astros history. But he's a guy one can see growing into the job and becoming a longtime mainstay.
But there is a Milo Hamilton-sized problem with the broadcast. It's a problem that Ford's powerless to solve, and that problem is color analyst Steve Sparks.
Sparks is a former major league pitcher. He's been a pre and post-game analyst for Fox Sports Houston the past several seasons, but was mainly kind of a "meh" presence -- Art Howe was the best of that revolving group used by FSN. Sparks did a game with Bill Brown last season when Jim Deshaies took a day off, but otherwise, he doesn't have much broadcast experience. So it was kind of a surprise when he was thrust into a prime broadcasting job this off-season.
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Sparks sounds as if he's a really nice guy, but he's got that bland quality of the really nice guy with a voice made for television. At times it's almost like you can hear Ford smacking himself in the head when he sets Sparks up for a perfect jewel of wisdom to only get a "yeah" in response. And his extended analysis is generally nothing more than empty cliches which are so worthless that it would have probably been better had he uttered just the "yeah," though, to be fair once again, he can offer up some decent discussion when talking about pitching. But then there are the fourth and seventh innings which tend to wipe out any of Sparks's positives. This is when Ford generally steps back and lets Sparks handle the play-by-play while Ford throws out some thoughtful analysis. This is an often painful experience as Sparks stumbles through the play-by-play, attempting to describe the game action. It is unlistenable radio, and only the most dedicated of fans can power through it. It's not all Sparks's fault. He's clearly trying, but there's no improvement.
There was absolutely no need for new broadcasters. When they were unbridled from Milo Hamilton, Brett Dolan and Dave Raymond formed a fan-friendly team that made a nice use of stats, social media interaction and accurate game descriptions with strong, sometimes critical analysis of the team when it was called for. They patiently bided their time, built a rapport with listeners, and did their jobs they best they could, especially since they had the whole Milo Hamilton thing with which to contend. But instead of being rewarded, the Astros punished them. And now the Astros are punishing the listeners with a broadcast that, hard to believe, makes one long for the days of Milo Hamilton drooling over attractive women, talking about how much better it was in the days of Hank Aaron and discussing anything but the actual game on the field.
The Astros are a bad team. Bad, but improving from game to game. The radio broadcast shouldn't be bad, especially with most of the city still unable to watch on television. Yet the radio broadcast is so bad it's almost unlistenable, as if Astros brass made a conscious decision during the off-season to drive away any people who might want to follow the team on the radio.
The team deserves better. The fans deserve better. So here's hoping that Reid Ryan's listening in from time to time and planning a few changes for next season.