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Assessing Tim McCarver’s legacy: Longevity, candor, and critics

Fox Sports held a  teleconference for its World Series coverage earlier this week. Naturally, one of the first questions was directed at Tim McCarver, who will be calling his last series for the network.

“I don’t mind answering a couple (personal) questions, but the emphasis should be on the Series and the players involved,” McCarver said.

McCarver then went on to praise Fox Sports executives and began to get sentimental about his long-time partner Joe Buck.

When it came time for his turn, Buck, trying to lighten the mood with perfect timing, said, “I can’t wait for this to be over.”

Everyone laughed, and Buck paid tribute to McCarver. Then after a couple more baseball questions about the Red Sox and Cardinals, McCarver was asked again to reflect on his career.

McCarver answered and then made another plea: “I would prefer this be the last question about my final World Series, please. I respectfully request that.”

Indeed, if this whole thing feels awkward, it’s probably because it is. It gets to the core of a somewhat complicated broadcast legacy for McCarver.

I’m not so sure McCarver, 72, wants to walk away from his duties at Fox. He continues to emphasize that he isn’t retiring from the booth.

Last week, he told Chad Finn of the Boston Globe, “I’m not retiring. I’m cutting back on what I’ll be doing. I won’t be doing the World Series, playoffs, All-Star Game, but I’ll be doing something, stuff that will feed my passions. Plural.”

So why not just stay at Fox? The network could have reduced his regular-season workload, allowing him to be its signature analyst during the postseason.

It didn’t work out that way.

With McCarver’s contract set to expire this year, perhaps he had enough of hearing from critics who haven’t always been kind in recent years. There’s also the sense that Fox wants to bring in new blood in the analyst’s chair to freshen up its baseball broadcasts.

At some point, it’s just time to move on.

So whenever the final out is made next week, McCarver likely will be wrapping up the portion of his career that is unmatched in baseball broadcast history. This marks his 24th World Series as an analyst, a record. Remarkably, he did it for three different networks, beginning with ABC in 1985, when he teamed with Al Michaels and Jim Palmer for the St. Louis-Kansas City series. He followed the national TV baseball package to CBS and then Fox.

You don’t become the lead analyst for a generation without having some considerable talent. Once moving to the broadcast booth, McCarver quickly became known for an uncanny knack of anticipating what would happen in a game. Buck says there’s nobody better.

Then there is McCarver’s candor. Sometimes his pointed comments even rubbed his old friends the wrong way.

Last year, during an interview with me, he recalled an incident with Mike Schmidt.

“One night, I did a Phillies game and Mike Schmidt hit a ball off the top of the wall,” McCarver said. “He always hustled, but he watched the ball and got a double. I said, ‘Schmidt should be on third base.’ Then I said, ‘Often, hitters are like artists. They step back and admire their work. They don’t run as hard. It’s understandable why he’s on second, but he really should be on third.’

“Mike and I are close friends. The next day, he was acting cool towards me. Common sense says you should deal with it right away. I said, ‘Schmidty, is everything OK?’ He said, ‘No, it’s not. Don’t ever on the air say I didn’t hustle.’ That’s what his father told him I said.

“I said, ‘I didn’t say that.’ I explained to him what I said and we were fine.”

Of his approach, McCarver said: “Listen, I played with a lot of guys who were very direct and honest. Bob Gibson, Bill White, Curt Flood. They said what they felt. I learned it from them. I always approached playing the game in a candid way. I guess it carried over into broadcasting.

“Some players may be upset with me from time to time, but overall, nobody can question my fairness. I have no regrets in the way I approached things back then and the way I approach things today.”

The approach worked to universal raves for a long time. In addition to his national duties, McCarver worked New York Mets’ games during the heyday of the franchise in the 80s. He was considered a must-listen.

However, somewhere along the way, McCarver became a target for critics. He began to get knocked for being preachy and long-winded; making somewhat obvious observations; and for generally being out-of-touch. At the top of Awful Announcing, a sports media site, McCarver is prominently featured among its Mt. Rushmore of least favorite people in media.

It is difficult to say what prompted the criticism to turn. McCarver certainly didn’t change his approach.

More than likely, a weariness sets in among some sports viewers with announcers whose careers span decades. It happened with John Madden. Even arguably the greatest analyst of all time had his critics during the last part of his run.

During my interview with McCarver, I asked him about the criticism.

“Whenever you hear the term human nature, it’s always for something negative,” McCarver said. “Nobody will ever say, ‘He’s a great guy, but that’s human nature.’ What is it about we humans that we tend to use that term negatively?

“I try not to get caught up in it. I don’t read the blogs. I’ve got a job to do. I don’t pay attention to the negative stuff.”

Yet it is impossible to ignore. Whether it led to him deciding to wrap it up at Fox, only McCarver knows for sure.

However, on this point, there is no doubt: McCarver is universally beloved by the people who work with him at Fox. Buck expressed his appreciation Monday.

“As great as these games are, we have just as much fun preparing, going to eat, going for a glass of wine and just talking about baseball,” Buck said. “I’ll miss the time away from the booth as much as in the booth, and that’s saying a lot.”

Next year, Buck will be calling the World Series with a different partner. Who will it be? Cal Ripken Jr., John Smoltz, Harold Reynolds or someone off the radar?

Regardless, the new analyst will be stepping in some big shoes. Consider this: In order to match McCarver’s 24 World Series, that person will have to be on the call for baseball’s biggest games each year from 2014 through 2037. Mike Trout and Bryce Harper might be beginning their managerial careers by then.

When you put it in that context, it has been a remarkable run for Tim McCarver.

For more Ed Sherman on sport media, check out ShermanReport.com and follow him on Twitter.

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