Reasons to watch the Red Sox this season were scarcer than victories, which is saying something considering they won 24 games, or as many as the 1986 version of Roger Clemens.
Tanner Houck’s September splash was encouraging. Alex Verdugo performed like the complete player we thought Andrew Benintendi would be. Xander Bogaerts was his usual self, a fine player and a true pro.
But beyond that, the most fulfilling reason to watch the Red Sox was hearing Dave O’Brien, Jerry Remy, and Dennis Eckersley call the games on NESN.
They’ve always been good, of course. Any subjective ranking of broadcast teams that doesn’t rate them among the best in baseball simply isn’t paying attention.
But this season, with the degrees of difficulty amplified — they called the games from the NESN studios in Watertown, during an abbreviated season, while the ball club was lousy — they were exceptional, their candor and camaraderie transcending the usually uninspiring action on the field.
The best baseball broadcasts I’ve ever heard — or at least the two that jump first to mind — were Game 5 of the 1986 ALCS, with Al Michaels and Jim Palmer on the call for the famous Dave Henderson game, and Sean McDonough and Tim McCarver’s work on the Braves’ win over the Pirates in Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS. I will also hear a case for any game in which Vin Scully was in the vicinity of a microphone.
NESN’s Red Sox broadcasts this season — and especially as the team played out the string in the final week with games against the Orioles and Braves — fit in a different category of excellent.
Because there were no stakes, O’Brien, who has always balanced deftly navigating the game action while also sparking conversation with the analysts, left plenty of room for Remy and Eckersley to expound on an assortment of topics and share anecdotes that may not fit during a more competitive ballgame.
Two of the broadcasts in the season’s final week — Tuesday and Thursday games against the almost-as-hapless Orioles — are among my favorite I can ever recall hearing, during any baseball season or circumstance. If you were watching, you’ll know I’m not dealing in hyperbole.
The topics in the early innings of Tuesday’s broadcast included wondering whatever happened to Jonathan Papelbon, the lost art of bunting, J.D. Martinez’s inability to catch up to a decent fastball, Eckersley’s reasons for rooting against low-payroll teams (it encourages teams not to spend in free agency), and, hilariously, reminiscences about how legendary PA announcer Sherm Feller, who liked to make a wager or two, would pester Remy about which inning he might intend to bunt in a game, and would drive players nuts by announcing who had just made an error over the PA system. “Rooster [shortstop Rick Burleson] would look up,” said Remy with a laugh, “and say, ‘You so-and-so …’ ”
The third inning Tuesday brought a particularly poignant moment, when sideline reporter Guerin Austin reported on the status of Trey Mancini, an Orioles slugger who missed the season while being treated for colon cancer. The image of Mancini looking over a team photo framed with inscriptions from his teammates clearly affected Remy, a lung cancer survivor.
“That’s touching, you know when you’ve been away from a club all season long, going through a battle like that, you come back, and you have little messages like that,” said Remy. “You’re remembered. You’re remembered.
“It’s not easy when people leave this game, through injury and whatever it may be, and you feel like you’re not part of anything.”
Such candor was also weaved into the Thursday broadcast, with Remy and Eckersley talking candidly about their insecurities as players, with guest Jim Rice joining them later in the conversation.
That conversation blossomed out of a simple question from O’Brien.
“Who was the guy you couldn’t get out?” he asked.
“Can I guess?” said Remy. “George Brett?”
“Yesssss,” said Eckersley, noting that he might have said Rod Carew, but he didn’t have the power Brett did.
O’Brien mentioned that Brett, a Hall of Famer who spent his entire career with the Royals, seemed to find joy playing the game.
“Yeah, he had a good time,” said Eckersley, a 2004 Hall of Fame inductee. “I’d have a good time, too, if I was that good.
“Wouldn’t it be great, Jerry, to have a good time. I never had a good time. Well, I looked like I did …”
“We talk about this all the time,” said Remy. “Neither one of us had a good time.”
That led to another branch of the conversation, in which they decided that Fred Lynn was probably the teammate that played with the most joy.
An inning later, Rice was brought into the chat, which led to a thoughtful and revealing back and forth about how they viewed their own careers and how disappointment can linger even when by practically all measures you’ve been a tremendous success.
“People would think because I had a great career that I sit here and gloat on my career,” said Eckersley. “It’s funny, I’m left sort of always thinking of the bad stuff … It’s not like I’m sitting around thinking about bad games, but I wish I had a better sense of what I did.”
“I cried the day they let me go,” said Remy, who was released by the Red Sox in December 1985, his knee injuries finally too much to overcome.
“I mean, if you’ve got anything in you, you’re always trying to do your best. You’re always trying to do better … I tried to outwork everybody [as a player], and I’ve carried a lot of that into this. It’s the same thing.”
The result of that hard work this year for Remy, and Eckersley and O’Brien, too, was a winning broadcast in a season that was otherwise lost.