John Smoltz, Hayden Nowkhah, Kara Lawson lead Media Power List
TBS announcer John Smoltz has been fantastic at first guessing this postseason
MNF singer Hank Williams was suspended by ESPN for his political commentary
The Man in the Red Bandana is a must-watch for viewers
(Each month SI.com highlights those in the sports media who have proved newsworthy, both for positive and negative achievements.)
1. John Smoltz, TBS MLB analyst: Preparation meeting reality is a thing of beauty, especially on a baseball broadcast, and Smoltz had a moment to remember in Game 3 of the American League Division Series series between the Tigers and Yankees. With Tigers outfielder Delmon Young batting in the seventh inning of a tie game, the analyst provided viewers with a first guess for the ages. Here's the transcript:
Announcer Brian Anderson: "And now [Rafael] Soriano will go to work on the middle of this Tigers order. Delmon Young and [Miguel] Cabrera to follow. Young has a hit. He's one-for-two with a walk. He singled in the third inning."
Smoltz: "Be careful on the first pitch right here."
Anderson: "First pitch swinging...a drive to right. Way back there. Swisher looks up and it is gone! A home run for Delmon Young! The Tigers have the lead!"
Smoltz: "[Young is] a first-ball, fastball hitter... really, he's a first pitch anything hitter. You had to throw a little wrinkle right there but his fastball has been good all night. [Young] goes with the pitch and gets the big home run."
Smoltz, who works as a TBS MLB game analyst during the regular season and has served as a guest analyst for Braves games, has been prescient much of this series and educated viewers nightly on pitching. My colleague Lee Jenkins called him "the rare ex-athlete willing and able to explain complexities of the craft on TV." New York Times Pulitzer-prize winning reporter Don Van Natta Jr. tweeted that Smoltz is "scary smart, [has] uncanny instincts and [is] always succinct."
Announcers, like hitters, sometimes find themselves in a groove and that's where Smoltz is in at the moment. He's having a postseason to remember.
2. Hayden Nowkhah: Though his time here was short, Hayden Nowkhah touched plenty of souls during his 39 days of life. Hayden, the five-week old son of ESPNU anchor Dari Nowkhah and his wife, Jenn, died on Sept. 20 while awaiting a heart transplant.
While I've been critical of some of ESPN's editorial and talent choices, the company is world class when it comes to helping its employees in times of family crisis. Dari Nowkhah said he heard from people at every level of ESPN during Hayden's time in the hospital and the network flew anchors from Bristol to Charlotte (where ESPNU is based) to help alleviate his work duty as the lead anchor for ESPNU. There was also an outpouring from his colleagues on social media. "It alleviated one major stress at the worst time of our lives," Nowkhah said.
Nowkhah said he and his wife Jenn wanted to do something to keep Hayden's name alive, and to help others. They decided to honor Hayden's life by raising funds to assist the Children's Organ Transplant Association families. The money will be used to help defray expenses for families, which can be exorbitant.
The link for Hayden's Hope is here:
Nowkhah moved to Charlotte two months ago after working out of Bristol for seven years. He is back to work at his network and focusing on his two young children, Nicolas, who just turned 6, and Nahla, who will be 2 next month. "We've had our days and hours and thoughts like "How does this happen to a baby born perfectly healthy?" he said. "It doesn't make sense and it never will. But when we put the story on the Caring Bridge website, I got email and phone calls and texts for days. It was awesome that we had a ton of support. I knew that we had friends in Connecticut but we honestly did not know how many."
3. Kara Lawson, ESPN analyst: This space has great respect for Lawson because she has approached her broadcasting career like a professional from the moment ESPN head of talent Al Jaffe brought her in for an audition while she was playing for the WNBA's Sacramento Monarchs in 2004. She has since become a smart and thoughtful voice on college basketball and WNBA coverage. But Lawson earns this spot for raising money to fight Alzheimer's disease in honor of her college coach, Tennessee coach Pat Summitt. She is running in the inaugural "New York Road Runners Dash To The Finish 5K" next month while her husband, Damien Barling, will run the New York City Marathon the next day. You can read about Lawson's efforts here.
4. Jennifer Gish, Albany Times Union columnist: Bravo to Gish for highlighting the gender-specific gruff she faced from anonymous commenters for her recent tongue in-cheek column on the Bills. I don't expect Gish's column to change the attitudes of those specific posters who wrote in, but highlighting her experience is important for the larger base of sports fans so they can see what female sports writers still face on a daily basis.
5. Welles Crowther: It needs to be said again: Of the many terrific sports-related features on 9/11, ESPN's 13-minute piece on Welles Crowther, a former Boston College lacrosse player who was killed in the South Tower of the World Trade Center after leading people to safety, stayed with me the most. If you have not yet seen The Man in the Red Bandana, it represents the best of ESPN's storytelling capabilities. I'm linking it here one more time because I want people to see it.
6. Brian Anderson, TBS play by play announcer: Thrust into the lead baseball announcing role at TBS after Ernie Johnson stepped away to deal with the illness of his son Michael, who has muscular dystrophy, Anderson has performed like a pro working with Smoltz and Ron Darling. Last year he rightfully earned praise for his beautiful call of Roy Halladay's playoff no-hitter, and he's been solid against this postseason.
He's a young announcer (40) with a good voice and a nice sense for the flow of play. "I know there will be a lot more people watching and talking about me, and criticizing or praising," said Anderson, who calls Brewers games for FSN Wisconsin during the regular season. "But I'm not going to change my style or be anyone else. I have my rhythm of how I call a game and wouldn't dare mess with that."
Anderson said he's exchanged text messages with his colleague Johnson. "He's a friend and someone I really look up to and respect," Anderson said. "I want to do right by Ernie because I know the pressure that comes in having to skip work or miss a job as significant as this because of family. I told Ernie I wanted to take as much stress away as I could from this side of it, hopefully do a good job, make the right calls, and make Ernie proud."
(Note: Turner Sports is in partnership with SI.com and runs the site's business operations.)
7. Andrew Bucholtz (Yahoo! Canada), Emma Carmichael (Deadspin), Ty Duffy (The Big Lead) and Sebastian Pruiti (Basketball Prospectus, SB Nation and NBAPlaybook.com): The fourth annual Blogs with Balls conference was held last month in New York City (recommended to anyone in sports interested in social media) and the four names above came up most frequently when the subject was up-and-coming talented sports bloggers/thinkers/tweeters/writers. If you are active on Twitter, each are recommended. Get on the bandwagon now.
8. Gonzalo LeBatard, co-host, Dan LeBatard Is Highly Questionable, ESPN: The entertaining history of parents and relatives appearing on talk-shows includes the charming Dorothy Letterman and Jimmy Kimmel's late and beloved Uncle Frank. In a bold attempt to break away from other ESPN afternoon shows and perhaps form its own sports genre (Bleep My Son Says), the producers of this show cast Dan LeBatard's 72-year-old father to appear alongside his son on a daily basis.
The result is surreal, though Gonzalo, who Dan LeBatard writes about lovingly here, is the best part of an odd show that suffers from its time slot as much as anything else: By 4 p.m. Eastern, so many of the show's topics have been grounded and pounded by ESPN's army of overkill. For example, on Tuesday LeBatard did a quick segment on Dirk Nowitzki's tweet defending Tony Romo. By then, even German chancellor Angela Merkel had probably seen the comments.
The premise of LeBatard's show isn't radical: LeBatard offers his take on a series of PTI-like sub-topics (The show's capo di tutti, a bright guy named Erik Rydholm, is also the executive producer of Pardon the Interruption and Around The Horn). There's also an interview segment with a newsmaker, some back-and-forth with Gonzalo, and random voice drop-ins from an off-camera producer. The show is heavily edited -- the jump cuts will have some searching their pharmacy for Ritalin -- and like any sports-based show with a dominant host (i.e. Jim Rome Is Burning), viewer enjoyment is predicated on the host's personality and likability/hateability
The interview segment is where DLIHQ shows the most promise. In an interview with UFC president Dana White on Tuesday, LeBatard went the narcissistic route by asking the unoriginal question about how long he would last in the octagon. But the host soon moved onto better questions, including asking White if he had been a bully in high school. He then followed up by asking White which person he turned to for advice.
It was a terrific question and White froze for a second, a rare honest moment on shows like these. White said there was no one he turned to and LeBatard smartly picked up on it and followed up again. Gonzola then followed by asking White about romance, and again White was stumped. It was interesting television.
ESPN2's new afternoon block debuted Sept. 12 and LeBatard's show has averaged 152,000 viewers, according to tvsportsratings. The same slot on ESPN2 the month prior averaged 417,000 viewers with a mix of programming that included live sports (soccer, U.S. Open tennis, auto racing, Little League World Series, etc.). Clearly, live programming will always draw better, but it's also much more expensive to produce. Numbers Never Lie, the show that serves as a lead-in for DLHIQ, is averaging 134,000 viewers. Rome is Burning, which follows LeBatard, is averaging 185,000 viewers.
Can the show succeed for the long haul? It depends on what ESPN defines as success. DLIHQ is never going to enjoy PTI-level success because few solo sports hosts can get a mass audience outside of someone with the gravitas of Bob Costas. LeBatard also seems unwilling (thankfully) to go the demagoguery of Skip Bayless. That kind of television does draw eyeballs, but also is soul-sucking for viewers. As fun as Gonzalo is, he can't go toe-to-toe with his son on major sports issues of the day because he's not of that world. The show would probably improve with a second host and Gonzalo as the third wheel.
While I'm unlikely to make this destination viewing, I actually admire the effort, and this comes from someone who often finds LeBatard's sis-boom-bah-ing of Miami sports teams (while also trying to cast himself as Johnny Journalism) at times infuriating. If nothing else, LeBatard and his producers rolled the dice on something different and bravo to that. And if Gonzalo LeBatard has any interest in replacing Craig James on ESPN's Thursday Night football coverage, I'll start the campaign tomorrow.
9. Chris Russo, SiriusXM Sports: We usually wait until the end of the year to issue awards, but Russo has likely clinched the competition for the most inane sports-talk radio comment of the year when he proclaimed that Red Sox fans would exchange the 2007 World Series title for not collapsing this season. That font of genius can be seen here, and Russo spent plenty of time on it last week, including asking Costas what he thought of it. (Costas, to his credit, politely told him he wasn't buying).
Naturally, Russo didn't poll Red Sox fans, nor does he work out of Boston to glean such insight (SiriusXM is based in New York). It's no fun to criticize SiriusXM because the network features terrific sports programming, including on Russo's own Mad Dog Radio (Dino Costa being the best of the lot for doing something unique nightly, which is commenting on his own network). But the face of a sports radio network should be much better than the comment above, which gives credence to those who have said Russo would be served better by having a co-host to mitigate his occasional irrationalities.
In an attempt to provide context and fairness, I emailed the Boston Globe's terrific sports television critic Chad Finn to get his take on how a Red Sox fan would see this: "You can hear some pretty absurd things on sports radio in Boston after a random Red Sox loss to the Blue Jays in June," Finn said. "Just about every show deals in hyperbole to some degree, and its often exaggerated even more in this market. But in the aftermath of the Red Sox collapse, I haven't heard anyone -- even the most reactionary and hysterical hosts, let alone the mainstream media -- suggest anything along those lines. It's been called the biggest regular season collapse in history, and that's fair -- it probably is. But on the Boston sports pain scale, it's nothing like Bucky [Dent] '78 or [Aaron] Boone '03 or even [David] Tyree '07, and no one I've heard has suggested that it is, or that it detracts from what previous teams have accomplished.
"There's actually been a collectively reasonable perspective on all of this. I suppose I can see where Russo would assume that given the old woe-is-us perception of Boston fans and media. But 2004 changed things, and 2007 -- and the five other sports championships this decade -- erased a lot of that attitude. He should know better."
10. Hank Williams Jr., ESPN Monday Night Football anthem singer: Are you ready for some Hitler analogies? Well, that's what we got from Williams earlier this week. As covered in every publication and outlet short of China Central Television, Williams was pulled from the Monday Night Football opener prior to the Colts-Bucs game for using an analogy to Adolf Hitler in discussing President Obama with the Fox News morning show, Fox and Friends. He also called Obama and Vice President Joe Biden "the enemy." The singer ultimately issued a a clarification followed by an apology. To its credit, unlike the situation involving writer Bruce Feldman, the network handled a dicey incident with thoughtful precision. ESPN's PR arm issued a forceful response, which also left open a return for Williams.
Williams has every right to speak his mind, and his employer has every right to pull him if it contends he went over a line of decency or political advocacy. Two weeks ago I wrote about the intersection of politics and sports broadcasting and asked each of the major networks that broadcast sports what their policy is on political advocacy among its talent and content providers. As I wrote then "Independent contractors such as [Mike] Lupica and [LZ] Granderson present challenges for all networks because those contractors might have primary employers who have zero problem with political advocacy."
Williams, too, is an independent contractor employed by ESPN, and I can only promise you one thing: This won't be the last time we see people on a sports outlet dip their toe into political commentary.
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