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It is the seventh inning of a scoreless sixth game of the World Series, the Pirates' Tim Foli at bat, one out and speedy Omar Moreno on first. Foli hits a grounder over the mound to second base that Baltimore Shortstop Kiko Garcia tries to grab with his foot on the bag for a force play that might start a double play. But Garcia is unable to come up with the ball and both runners are safe. At the television microphone, Don Drysdale says Garcia should have moved up on the ball instead of hanging back at the base in hope of starting a double play. Howard Cosell says, "I think Moreno was in anyway, he was on the move," and drops that subject to extol Foli's ability to get his bat on the ball. Drysdale persists in making the baseball man's point, saying that Garcia should have made sure to get at least one out on the play. Cosell says, "Yes, you are right about that. He could have gotten the runner out at first."
What is significant here is that Cosell hadn't understood the import of the play at once. By the next inning, though, and through the remainder of the World Series, he was expounding on the Garcia mistake, declaring with Cosellian cocksureness what Garcia should have done, as if it had been obvious to him all along, as if the significance of the play had never eluded him in the first place.
That piece of business is at the heart of Cosell's genius in dominating a sports broadcast, to grab hold of a moment or an issue and to project himself as the expert. Or as somebody once said about an opportunistic politician, "He's always quick to see a parade going by and jump on ahead of it."
Don Ohlmeyer, the executive producer of sports at NBC, who used to work with Cosell on Monday Night Football at ABC, says, "Cosell's value is that he forces the focus." Indeed, he is the catalyst who piques and goads and draws attention, and that has made him one of the most significant factors in the phenomenal prime-time success of Monday Night Football. If this was not evident before, it should have been brought home to even the Cosell haters on three nights of prime-time football when Cosell was absent because of the World Series. Without him the football telecasts floundered. The team of Frank Gifford, Don Meredith and Fran Tarkenton, the three ex-athletes, couldn't go beyond X's and O's.
If Cosell's value as a once-a-week Monday Night Football gadfly was being substantiated elsewhere, Cosell, seven days out of eight during the Series, was too much of a bad thing. Though he did several good interviews and helped put some of the drama and action in sharp focus, Cosell talked so much, at such high intensity, launching such a barrage of questionable opinions and expertise, that he was continually being second-guessed by viewers. As usual, he overshadowed his partners—Keith Jackson, who seemed eager to return to a college football game, and Drysdale, who dropped some baseball insights when he wasn't saying, "That's exactly right."
But it was Cosell who once again turned out to be as much a central figure in an event as any of the athletes. In the first game, after Pittsburgh's Bruce Kison was driven from the mound, Cosell mentioned that Kison had told Coach Harvey Haddix he wouldn't mind if they started another pitcher. Cosell said, "It makes you wonder about his confidence." It also made perceptive viewers wonder why Cosell hadn't reported this at the start.
Cosell overused the term "there's no quit in..."—for the teams, managers, even the fans. And when Baltimore Manager Earl Weaver was desperately matching a lefthanded pitcher to a lefthanded hitter, and right to right, to quell a Pirate rally in the ninth inning of the last game, each change by Weaver would be accompanied by an exhortation from Cosell: "There's no quit in Weaver..." "Give credit to Earl Weaver, he's pulling out all the stops..." "Weaver is giving it all he's got." Question: What would a manager of a team fighting for its life be expected to do?
Announcers who are on the air for such long periods are bound to make errors, and Cosell made his share. But when his own lack of expertise on some fine points of the game was being exposed, it became a further irritant for a viewer to hear him pontificate, as he did after Dave Parker, a superlative hitter, grounded out, "That's a pitch you should go inside out."
On the other hand, and as is often the case, he was frequently criticized for the wrong reasons. He was faulted in Pittsburgh and particularly in Baltimore—where some anti-Cosell newspaper stories stirred local yokels to menace and damage Cosell's limousine when he was being driven from Memorial Stadium after the sixth game—for being biased against each city's team. Some people are so used to the mindless, accentuate-the-positive attitude of house announcers toward the home team that they don't understand the down-the-middle approach of national broadcasters, who are interested in good, close games. Professionals like Cosell will root, if they ever do root, for the good story, because good stories, i.e., good games, keep people interested, and viewer interest pays off in higher ratings—the game television people really care about.