A couple of plot twists in the broad sports media world have left me thinking a lot about what it is that allows an analyst to succeed — in particular, an analyst who was once upon a time a superstar performer himself.
There are common characteristics for sure among great athletes who appear to transition seamlessly to a successful second career in the studio or booth. You have to be relatable to the audience even if your achievements in sports suggest you’re not actually relatable to any athletic mortal. Your passion for the sport has to come through, even if it often felt like a job (because, well, it was) during your playing career. You have to be engaged, alert, and anecdotal, with the ability to describe complex details in layman’s terms.
Oddly, it’s not always necessary to be articulate; affable authenticity is a much more important element in appealing to an audience. Self-deprecation goes a long way, unless it comes across as false modesty. Those of us on the couch can usually sniff out the difference in a hurry.
Dennis Eckersley, the Hall of Fame pitcher and NESN color analyst, checks all of these boxes in the most appealing way, which is one reason why there is such an uproar about Red Sox pitcher David Price’s misguided verbal ambush of him on a team flight last month. It’s rare anyone these days will side with the media on . . . well, just about anything, let alone against an accomplished athlete on the hometown team.
But then, that might be at the root of the entire issue. Viewers don’t think of Eckersley as the media. They think of him as their television companion Eck, who always tells it like it is in his own unique way. And the players, most of whom are at least vaguely aware of his Cooperstown bona fides, still think of him as a player, one who is daring to break the ballplayers’ code by criticizing them. How dare he puncture their thin skin with his sharp honesty? What has he ever done in the game, besides just about everything?
I dearly hope that Price and his teammates’ efforts to embarrass Eckersley don’t affect his approach to analyzing a game. I have written this here many times before, but perhaps it needs reiteration one more time:
I watch and listen to a lot of baseball. One game or another is usually the background noise when I’m working in my home office. There is no better baseball analyst in the country than Eckersley, regionally or nationally, save for perhaps his fellow Hall of Famer, John Smoltz of Fox Sports and the MLB Network.
I don’t believe this will change him; he experienced virtually every high and low imaginable during his 24-year major league career, never failed to be accountable even during the lowest of the lows, and emerged as a remarkably likable personality. But it would be a shame — not to mention a jarring indictment of the Red Sox’ clubhouse culture — if it does.
A sports fan doesn’t have to reconsider too many viewing experiences through the years to recognize that it’s difficult and rare to do what Eckersley, even on a regional scale, has done. There are very few ex-superstar athletes who become superb analysts. Smoltz is one. Troy Aikman on Fox Sports’s No. 1 NFL broadcast team is another. Fox Sports’s Howie Long is as good as it gets in the studio role.
I like CBS’s Dan Fouts, but from what I gather that puts me in the minority in New England. For the most part, though, no matter the sport, the biggest names don’t necessarily make for competent broadcasters. Joe Montana, Magic Johnson, Emmitt Smith, and Ray Lewis are among the iconic athletes whose microphones never should have been turned on.
Which brings us to that second media plot twist of the week, and a big-name hire that I’m already convinced is going to work. NBC announced that it has hired Dale Earnhardt Jr. as part of its NASCAR coverage team for the 2018 season. It is both a poorly kept secret — Earnhardt did some broadcasting with the network in recent years when he was recovering from injuries — and a stroke of genius.
It’s not just that Earnhardt, who has earned NASCAR’s most popular driver award for 14 seasons running, is racing royalty. He’s worthy of the admiration, a candid and charismatic personality who made an impression during his guest appearances on NBC.
“We hired this person to be himself. We want Dale to be Dale, and we don’t want him to change at all,’’ said Sam Flood, NBC Sports executive producer. “We just want to give him some tricks to make it comfortable on television. So when a specific replay is coming up or he wants a specific replay, he can communicate properly to make sure what he’s looking at is what the truck is looking at. I think that’s the part of the business that it’s important for Dale to learn and how that communication goes back and forth. But the most important thing is his voice. We didn’t hire him to turn him into an announcer. We hired him to be himself, and we’ve talked about that, because that’s the most valuable thing he has.”
Earnhardt acknowledges he has a lot to learn. I’m going to follow [Flood’s] lead on what I need to do to become as prepared as I can to do the job that he wants me to do,’’ said Earnhardt. “I’m going to make myself available as much as possible to allow him to give me the tools that I need to learn quickly in this process. I think as I gain confidence in myself, and continue to improve, and grow, and learn, and understand how this business works . . . as much as I’ve been around the sport, a lot of this is entirely foreign. I’ve always just drove racecars. This is probably the first real job I’ve had in 20 years.”
As is the case with Eckersley, Smoltz, and a precious few other superstars-turned-analysts, it won’t feel like a job for viewers to listen to him.Chad Finn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeChadFinn.