I made the transition from fan to Superfan shortly after my 14th birthday, in August of 1989, when the Royals – on their way to winning 92 games, still their winningest season since 1980 – went on a nine-game winning streak against the White Sox, Mariners, and Angels. What made that streak special was that, for the first time in my life, I was listening to their games on the radio. (At least the ones that weren’t on TV, which in those days was pretty much all of them.)
I had no idea what a radio broadcast was supposed to sound like. I had no idea if Denny Matthews was the best or the worst announcer in the business. All I knew was that the voice on the radio described the details of the game in such a way that I could recreate the game in my own head with almost perfect detail. Which pitches were thrown, where they were thrown, how the infield was positioned, which way the wind was pushing the flags – all this information came through the set with perfect cadence, keeping me constantly informed without overloading me with information.
Listening to the Royals on the radio quickly became an addiction. I was only home in
I moved to
A pitch would be thrown, and all I’d hear was “ball” or “strike.” I had no idea if the first baseman was playing behind the runner or not, whether that foul ball was lined into the seats behind the first base dugout or drifted lazily in the upper deck. I remember vividly the broadcaster telling us the pitch was popped up and that the shortstop was moving under it…and then five seconds later telling us the ball landed way back in the seats. And in between, we had no idea that the popup was in foul ground, let alone whether it was catchable.
A few minutes later I realized I was listening to Ernie Harwell.
I’m sure I caught Harwell on a bad day – I would later be introduced to other Tigers announcers, and Harwell on a bad day was better than almost all of them. Harwell, I should point out, really is as nice as they say; it’s hard to find someone in
But if I hadn’t been convinced already, that’s the moment I realized what a gem we have in Denny Matthews.
Don’t listen to me. Listen to Bill James, who years before I ever heard Matthews’ voice had this to say about him, in the 1983 Abstract:
“Among the pleasures of being a Royals’ fan, few rank any higher than turning on the radio each evening to receive the greeting of Mr. Denny Matthews. My goal about each team is to try to bring to light something about the team which is not generally known. After years of post-season play [editors’ note: this book is 25 years old] with basically the same team, not much about the Royals has slipped through the network of the country’s information services. [editors’ note: again, this book is 25 years old] But behind their microphone, all but unknown to the nation, sits one of the most skilled and gifted men that the craft has ever produced.”
James spends the next page-and-a-half explaining, in far better terms than I ever could, what makes Matthews such a great announcer. If any of you readers have ambitions of becoming a broadcaster in any sport, it’s absolutely essential reading.
The Royals canned Matthews’ partner, Fred White, after the 1998 season. White didn’t deserve it; he wasn’t as good as Matthews, but he was better than 90% of the announcers around the country. The problem, if there was one, was that they had exceedingly similar styles. Every radio and TV broadcast in the country seems to pair a play-by-play guy with the ex-jock that mixes rare bursts of insight with a long stream of clichés and non-sequiturs. Matthews and White provided very little contrast, which was fine with me. I’m not listening to the set of an NFL pre-game show; I’m listening for someone to describe a baseball game to me, and they both did it very well.
Anyway, White was replaced by Ryan Lefebvre, and for the first year or two Lefebvre was awful, or at least awful by the standard of what Royals fans were used to. But then a funny thing happened: broadcasting game after game with one of the greatest broadcasters in the country, Lefebvre improved. He learned the nuances of the craft from one of its masters, and over time he started to sound more and more like Matthews while still retaining some individual flourishes. He started engaging in witty banter with Matthews during downtime – and with the Royals over the last 10 years, there have been plenty of 12-3 games that needed filler in the late innings. The generational gap between the two added just enough tension to make it interesting. I don’t live in Kansas anymore, and I don’t have summers off, but I do have XM radio, and I do have a 30-minute commute, and I’m just as sure to listen to the Royals in my car as I was 15 years ago.
Lefebvre won’t be working with Matthews anymore, because the Royals have been so pleased with his occasional forays onto the team’s TV broadcasts that they’re moving him over to that side permanently. Paired with Paul Splittorff, this has the potential to give the Royals one of the best TV tandems in the majors.
Splittorff has been doing color for the Royals for something like 20 years, which is amazing when you consider how many different play-by-play guys he’s been paired with. The PBP guys generally sucked, which is why there were so many of them, but Split is as serious a student of broadcasting as he was about pitching, and is one of the better color men around. (I’ve never been able to figure out how Splittorff won 166 games – most in team history – despite striking out 100 batters in a season exactly twice. One of my favorite pieces of stat trivia of all time: Paul Splittorff has more career wins than Sandy Koufax.) He’s also willing to call out the home team when they do something wrong, a trait found in precious few ex-jocks.
The additional upside here is that this takes Bob Davis out of the TV booth.
The downside here is that this puts
The one regret I have with Matthews is that I’ve never really heard him call a meaningful game. There were the 14 wins in a row in 1994, when the Royals were in the hunt all the way until the strike killed the season. And there was 2003. But other than that, the Royals have simply never been closer to the playoffs than they were during that nine-game winning streak in 1989 that got me hooked in the first place.
Matthews’ style doesn’t exactly lend itself to animated theatrics; he’s no Dave Niehaus. The most excited – maybe incredulous is a better word – I’ve ever heard him was at the conclusion of this game on April 11th, 2000, when Rey Sanchez hit a walk-off three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth to improve the Royals to 7-3; it was the third straight game in which the Royals won on a walk-off homer. (Brian Johnson hit one in the 12th the night before; Johnny Damon led off the ninth with a homer the day before that. Incidentally, those three games are what brought the term “walk-off” into the baseball lexicon. That’s right – the Royals are responsible for making “walk-off” popular, and more incredibly, they were the ones hitting them.) I believe Matthews’ call after Sanchez’s flyball floated inside the left-field fair pole was, “What is going on?” That’s about as animated as he gets.
So far as I know. Of the many, many, many things I plan to enjoy if and when the Royals start contending again, getting to listen to an excited Denny Matthews ranks high on my list. Matthews is no spring chicken; he’s been behind the radio for the Royals since day one, and even though he was just 26 when he started, he turned 65 last November. Let’s hope that the Royals turn things around while he’s still around to enjoy it. And while we’re still able to enjoy him.