Ask me and I will tell you I distinctly remember the trip down I-71 on a sweet summer evening like it was yesterday. A moment you wish you could bottle up and save for … well … forever. A moment a young man doesn’t forget, shortly removed from eighteen glorious holes on a beautifully manicured piece of earth with his favorite golfing buddy—his father. How the subject of Franchester Martin Brennaman arose I will never remember. What I do recall is reminiscing with my father on the subject of the the great Al Michaels and how lucky we all had been to have had him calling games for the Cincinnati Reds in those nascent Big Red Machine days; how crushed I remember being when he left to become the voice of the San Francisco Giants; and how I just knew nobody, and I mean nobody, would ever come along and take his place.
I will also never forget what Dad said next: “And then Marty came along and made us forget all about Al Michaels.”
Which, of course, is exactly what he did. You see, Marty Brennaman wasn’t just the voice of the Reds, he WAS the sound of Baseball itself in Cincinnati, Ohio, every bit as much as the crack of the bat or the thump of a ball plugging into a well-worn mitt on a bright Saturday morning. If you’re a fan of a certain age, I can almost guarantee you are nodding your head in recognition as you remember sitting in the driveway in the cool of the evening with the car radio on and the engine off, mere yards away from the family room recliner, but still unable to part company with Marty and Joe.
You listened for many reasons, not the least of which was that Marty told it like it was. I’ll never forget the night an umpire, I believe it was Eric Gregg, blew a call. It was Brennaman who, after surveying the diamond, said what no one else would—a moment as jaw-dropping as hearing your mother quote Lil Wayne—this umpiring crew was not just out of position and out of shape, they were downright fat. Oh, yes he did. And all true. The man didn’t mince words. Marty was as honest and real as the infield dirt. We loved him for it.
When I moved to New York City years later, I performed contortions of Cirque du Soleil-like proportions in order to listen to Marty’s familiar voice. All it took was the following—a clear night in Brooklyn, few feet of wire attached to the back of the receiver fed out the window and onto the ledge positioned just so, bent at an excruciatingly precise direction—to bring Brennaman into my apartment some 700 miles away.
But life intrudes after all, and but for a couple of weeks visiting family each summer, Marty was no longer a part of my baseball experience for many years. When technology brought WLW and Reds Radio back into my east coast life, I discovered a different Marty Brennaman. Maybe it was the toll taken by the loss of the ole Lefthander. Maybe it was years of adulation; the all too human failing of hubris. All I know is that this Marty seemed more strident, less forgiving. I would almost cringe listening to the beat reporters make their daily second inning sojourn to the radio booth, tip-toeing around the great man as if he might chew them up at any moment. To my ear, those encounters with the local writers felt tense. Awkward. Off.
I had missed much of the whispers about Griffey Jr. and his strained relationship with Marty. I heard the talk of years of rough treatment of Homer Bailey. But, I only discovered this different side of Brennaman first-hand when the subject turned to Jay Bruce. Jay’s cold streaks seemed to irritate Marty to a degree of unfathomable depth to me. Each at bat had the potential to become a cross-examination, ending with Jay walking back to the dugout. When will Jay Bruce ever get it?
His disdain for advanced metrics, the almost sneering tone whenever the subject came up, shocked and saddened me. When Marty criticized Bruce for being a poor hitter with runners in scoring position, how could Marty not know that Jay was actually hitting twenty points over his career average with RISP? This Marty not only didn’t know everything, he didn’t know what was transpiring on the field below him at this very moment.
Where had the Marty Brennaman of my youth gone?
Now, plenty of people want nothing to do with the Sabermetric movement. I get that. Different strokes. But, Brennamen isn’t just anyone. He’s the voice of the Reds. If it was my opinion that Marty had a responsibility to keep an eye open to a new, progressive part of the game that was taking over front offices all over Baseball, changing the way organizations chose, developed and paid players—well, it was more than clear that Marty didn’t share that view one whit. Baseball folks saw a Hollywood movie with a pretty-boy actor having fun at the expense of hardworking baseball men of a certain age. They had seen enough. Sabermetrics? Get that $%#$! out of here!
Which is a bit of a problem. Fifty-thousand watts of clear channel pouring out to Indiana, Kentucky, West Virginia and points beyond give Brennaman an evangelical reach. Mix in forty years of shared nights and Sunday afternoons and you have a rather potent cocktail, not to mention a large pulpit from which to preach to the faithful.
Which is why the latest crusade against the manner with which Joey Votto chooses to go about the business of hitting a baseball is so breathtakingly wrongheaded. There are enough fans out there that suddenly can’t deal with the ungodly amount of money Joey Votto is set to make in the next decade. Marty could help diffuse much of the irrational jealousy that hangs in the air like heavy, summer smog. Instead, logs are being tossed onto the fire:
“I definitely fall on the old school side. He’s not paid to walk,” says Reds Hall of Fame announcer Marty Brennaman. “Walking is a byproduct of being a good hitter. He’s paid to drive in runs.”
Many voices much smarter than mine would beg to differ. You would hope a man of such influence would listen with an open mind. Old School has it charms. Here? Not so much. The sloth-like and sedentary WALK has become a cudgel with which to bludgeon a rich athlete. OBP has become the couch potato of stats in the minds of the people who hold the keys to the kingdom. It’s deeply ironic that the baseball man whose approach to hitting Votto reveres above all others—Ted Williams—is not Old School enough for Marty & friends.
Last night in his pre-game interview with Dusty Baker, Marty once again leveled a shot across the bow at Votto, asking Baker why he wouldn’t consider moving Joey into the 2 spot, given that Votto placed walking above driving in runs.
Ouch. And so it goes.
If you are wondering, yes, I still listen, but without the same sense of awe. Maybe the boy in me got old. Perhaps it’s my ears that have gone tone deaf. But something is missing.
When Marty finished a game, it didn’t just belong to the Reds. Marty made it feel like it belonged to each and every one of us, no matter how far flung we were out there floating around in the Reds’ universe, be it the driveway or some barracks in Afghanistan. It’s not that way anymore. Now I just look around ….
… and he’s gone.