This is Bill Brown’s 30th season as the television play-by-play voice for the Houston Astros. That’s longer than Milo Hamilton was around, and it’s longer than Gene Elston, the man Brown was hired to replace, served the team. The Astros have been rather quiet about this landmark, which is rather fitting because that’s what makes Bill Brown the broadcaster he is — it’s never about him; it’s always about serving the broadcast and the viewer.
While Astros fans have been lucky to have Brown for such a long time, nobody has been better served than the men with whom Brown has worked the most. His easygoing style has allowed him to mesh perfectly with the more intellectual tone of Larry Dierker, and with the more humorous Jim Deshaies. He’s superb when it comes to letting his analysts shine, setting them up well to provide appropriate insight to viewers. Neither ever had to step over Brown’s calls, and neither of them ever sounded as if he were being forced to rush through comments before the next pitch. (And when it came to Deshaies, Brown was the ideal straight man, always able to follow Deshaies's digressions on unrelated matters when Astros games were blowouts.)
That said, the current TV broadcast team for the Astros does not appear to be working. And this is not Brown's fault. He still calls the game the same way, still tries to set up his analysts for cogent points at the right time, but Alan Ashby seems to be a poor match with Brown. Ashby also seems to be a poor match with Geoff Blum, who primarily works as the analyst with Ashby on road games when Brown doesn't travel.
The broadcast also seems to have been dumbed down a bit, with a greater emphasis on non-game matters, spending way too much time on things like out-of-town ballpark food concessions rather than on what's happening on the field.
There's also the increased homerism of the ROOT Sports broadcast. While the Astros TV crew has yet to reach a Chicago White Sox-Hawk Harrelson level of rooting on the home team, the broadcast has seemed more inclined toward a team-friendly approach than in providing factual analysis of the game.
And it should be noted that, at some point in the future, Brown will be retiring. When he does, what is going to become of the television broadcast? Does it fall into the Rockets TV level of awfulness, or is it given a chance to return to the level of the Brown-Deshaies booth that was the best in baseball?
With Ashby having recently missed time because of voice problems, ROOT Sports has scrambled with the broadcast. Mike Stanton, the former pitcher who has become a mainstay of the Astros postgame studio show, filled in as analyst for several games. Stanton was a welcome revelation, and he easily picked up on Brown’s questions and provided intelligent analysis that has been missing from the Astros since Deshaies left. And when the Astros went on the road, studio host Kevin Eschenfelder and radio play-by-play voice Robert Ford filled in for Ashby, working with Blum as analyst, and once again, the tone of the broadcast was far better than anything that generally comes from the Ashby-Blum booth.
Here’s hoping, when the time comes to replace Brown, that the Astros go to Eschenfelder or Brown to step in and replace him. Eschenfelder, the team’s longtime TV studio host (and the play-by-play guy for UH football), sounded like a man who has been doing MLB TV play-by-play for many, many years, and any broadcast booth with him in command would be a very good booth. And while I’ve never been much of a fan of the Robert Ford-Steve Sparks radio booth, those issues have always been centered more around Sparks, who has just never clicked with me. There should also be more of an effort made to get Stanton more time as game analyst.
But I hope Brown sticks around for many, many more years. He’s been the ideal TV play-by-play voice for the Astros for a long time. Fans have been well served by his excellent work, and his past work with Dierker and Deshaies is the stuff of legend.