"Why would you try to put your own voice above the roar of the crowd?"
Tom Hamilton is talking about walk-off home runs, and he's talking about the greatest sound in sports, and he's indirectly asking why his colleagues in other booths would try to compete with a sound that is close to natural perfection. "I'm a firm believer in spontaneity," he adds, responding to the notion that some broadcasters (we're looking at you, Jim Nantz, and you, John Sterling) plan what they'd like to say in a dramatic moment. "I don't feel like that would work for me," Hamilton says. "It wouldn't feel natural."
At age 57 and in his 24th season with the Tribe, Hamilton has gained the trust of Cleveland Indians fans. This is no small point. Many broadcasters -- most, certainly -- never cross the rubicon that cements their credibility with fans. Hamilton did so long before his remarks about Aroldis Chapman made headlines earlier this season. Indians fans trust Hamilton because he is blunt, almost cantankerous at times, especially in describing poor umpiring or lack of effort. Broadcasters often hesitate to criticize their team or organization, but Hamilton feels that it's his responsibility to do so when criticism is warranted.
There is very little chance that Hamilton is a regular dining companion of umpire Angel Hernandez, for example. When Hernandez made one of the worst umpiring decisions in baseball history during a May game at Progressive Field, Hamilton was ready to state the obvious, even though it might not please Tribe fans listening to his call: Adam Rosales had just hit a game-tying home run. Chris Perez had served up a pitch in the middle of the plate (a chronic problem for Perez of late) and Rosales had sent a rocket to left-center. The ball had cleared the wall and hit the railing.
After a long review, Hernandez emerged to declare the ball had not cleared the wall, and the play would stand as called: double. Hamilton asked, "Are you kidding me? I don't know how you miss that call." That was just for starters. Meanwhile, on television, Matt Underwood and Rick Manning straddled the fence, indicating that the play looked like a home run, but you never know, and it's hard to really tell, and Go Tribe!, and...
"Unbelievable," Hamilton huffed.
But the veteran broadcaster explains that he's careful to differentiate when tough words are warranted. "I'll never say a guy is an idiot for swinging at a ball in the dirt, because guys swing at balls in the dirt all the time," he says. "It's part of the game, even if it's frustrating. But if a player isn't running a ball out to first, I'll point out that he's not hustling. The least you can do is run hard to first."
Ultimately, Hamilton has become what the best play-by-play broadcasters become: a master storyteller. There is an art to collecting interesting information about a team, a place, a player, and then weaving that information into the structure of a game. Most broadcasters read a list of facts that seem interesting to them. Hamilton understands how to build a narrative. He is not particularly interested in the broadening of the statistical understanding of baseball, because he feels "you can number people to death. People will go numb if you use too many numbers. I know I do. If I hear a broadcast and they're stuck on numbers, I stop listening."
So which numbers does he prefer? "I prefer the numbers that fans recognize and can relate to. Home runs, RBIs, runs, batting average, on-base percentage. Some of these newfangled numbers, I'm sure they have a place. But I don't get into the wins and replacement numbers -- it's too much. You can make numbers say whatever you want them to say. I'm not saying these new stats don't have a place, but I hear some broadcasters talking about a guy's ERA on Tuesdays under a full moon while pitching left-handed. Who cares? Fans are not accountants."
If all of this sounds like a man resistant to change, understand that Hamilton's job is not Chris Antonetti's job. His job is telling the story of the game. Would it help if broadcasters embraced the broadened statistical analysis that is unfolding all around them? Probably, if they understood how to use that information to tell a story. But Hamilton feels that kind of approach would lead him away from his mission, which is to tell an accurate, enjoyable story that's easy to understand. "This is still a people business," he says, "and I think sometimes people forget that."
His stentorian home run calls have become a nightly staple for Indians fans, and if you pay attention, you'll see that whole trust thing playing out in the biggest moments. Yes, Hamilton wants fans to trust him. But it's also clear that he trusts fans as well. In those walk-off moments, when the crowd is roaring, Hamilton trusts fans to be able to see the picture in their mind without his voice carrying every second of the action. The irony is that this is a radio man, with no benefit of video, and he trusts fans more than television announcers trust fans. The best recent example came when Jason Kipnis delivered a walk-off, three-run blast to beat Seattle in front of 34,000 fans, and it was Hamilton who understood that a thunderous stadium provided the only commentary necessary.
The television call:
And just for fun, here's another Hamilton classic -- a very similar call that allowed the crowd to carry Travis Hafner around the bases:
Hamilton spoke to Let's Go Tribe last Friday about a wide range of topics, including playoff baseball, the worst road facility in baseball, Facebook, his daily preparation, and whether the team management ever pays him a visit following some pointed commentary. Oh, and he also explained why he thinks the 2013 Indians are "going to be fine." Here's more of our Q&A with Hammy.
LGT: Every broadcaster has their own approach to preparing for games. Can you describe how you like to prepare?
TH: I do three hours of research a day on the Internet. I'll make phone calls to scouts, other GMs, just trying to get more information or gain a little insight. I like to arrive at the ballpark at least three and a half hours early, typically four hours. I'll talk to players and managers, talk to scouts. It's remarkable what you can learn just from talking and listening, and sometimes you can pick up little things that will help you during the game.
LGT: Any specific websites you prefer?
TH: Just a wide range of stuff, trying to learn as much as I can.
LGT: You've said several times this season that the 2013 ballclub feels special, feels different. Why do you feel that way?
TH: There's a lot more talent now than in the past, for one thing. You bring in Swisher, Bourn, Gomes, the veterans, and you bring in Terry Francona. He might be the best manager in the game. People have to remember that in Boston, no one was winning the World Series. Well, Terry Francona did it twice! And he's made a tremendous impact here. Last year, there were days when you'd walk into the clubhouse before a game, and you would know they were already beaten. This year, even during the recent stretch when things weren't going well, the clubhouse never changed. So I think this team is going to be fine, I really do.
LGT: For fans, nothing is better than playoff baseball. It's just a different feeling. Is it different in the booth as well?
TH: Oh, every time you do a playoff game, it's special. And I have much more appreciation now. In the 90s it was easy to think that, you know, no problem, we'll be back in the playoffs next year. It was easy to take it for granted, and it seemed simple, but of course it's not. Now it's enjoyable just to be in contention. It's fun. So let's hope we can get back to that point soon.
LGT: You have been unafraid to be critical, whether it's the Indians or their opponents or the umpires. How do you view your role when it comes to that kind of honest, firm criticism?
TH:The most important thing you can have is credibility. If you lose it, no one is going to believe a word you say, positive or negative. I don't think it's my job to be god, judge, and jury, but I have no problem pointing out the truth. But you have to make distinctions. I'll never say a guy is an idiot for swinging at a ball in the dirt, because guys swing at balls in the dirt all the time. It's part of the game, even if it's frustrating. But if a player isn't running a ball out to first, I'll point out that he's not hustling. The least you can do is run hard to first.
LGT: The front office appreciates your work, but I wonder if they've ever stopped by your office the day after a game in which you made a particularly strong comment. You know, just to say that they were listening.
TH: That's the best thing about the job I have, and it's the reason this is the only place I'd ever want to work. They are so good to me. They know that it's paramount that I'm factual. You have to be factual about what you say. And you know, I hope they continue to appreciate my work, because if they don't, then I'll have to go look for a real job.
LGT:There's a Facebook page called Tom Hamilton Has the Best Home Run Call in Baseball. Are you aware of it?
TH: I don't do Facebook. My kids do. I don't do twitter. Now, I do have a computer. I do internet and email, but I don't do a lot of that new stuff.
LGT: Well, the guy who put together the page has thousands of people who check it out every morning, wanting to relive your calls.
TH: You're kidding. That's really very nice. Very nice. I'm just amazed that someone thought to put something like that together.
LGT: Along those lines, how often do you go back and review your own calls?
TH: I don't go back and do that as much as I used to. I guess I'm older and I trust myself more now, but I also hate listening to myself. I don't want to hear my voice over and over. So I don't hear it very often. I'd rather listen to other broadcasters and learn from them.
LGT: Fans love the calls, and of course they love the home run calls. There have been a lot of those big-moment calls this year, but your calls never seem to be scripted or plans. Some broadcasters, Jim Nantz comes to mind, have said that they'll try to plan out how they want to call a big moment, should that moment unfold. How do you feel about that?
TH: I'm a firm believer in spontaneity. I think part of the job is being able to respond to the moment. You just hope the good Lord gives you the right words. I know that some guys script out what they might say, but I don't feel like that would work for me. It wouldn't feel natural. I have to trust my ability to deliver something real, and I hope that's what comes across.
LGT: On walk-off home runs in particular, you tend to let the crowd noise carry the call, rather than talking over it. Are you cognizant of that?
TH: I think you try to be cognizant of the moment. There are certain times when maybe something needs explanation, but I don't think there's anything greater than hearing the roar of the crowd. Why would you try to put yourself above the roar of a crowd? There are times when silence is truly golden, and the crowd tells the story. So sure, there will be times when you have to explain this or that, but if you can leave it alone, that's great.
LGT: There's been a kind of evolution in statistical analysis and understanding of baseball. How much weight do you give to this broader statistical analysis?
TH: We get all the statistical information we need in advance of games. But I really think for my purposes, you have to be careful. You can number people to death. People will go numb if you use too many numbers. I know I do. If I hear a broadcast and they're stuck on numbers, I stop listening. I prefer the numbers that fans recognize and can relate to, home runs, RBIs, runs, batting average, on base percentage. Some of these newfangled numbers, I'm sure they have a place. But I don't get into the wins and replacement numbers -- it's too much. You can make numbers say whatever you want them to say. I'm not saying these new stats don't have a place, but I hear some broadcasters talking about a guy's ERA on Tuesdays under a full moon while pitching left-handed. Who cares? Fans are not accountants. This is still a people business, and I think sometimes people forget that.
LGT: Favorite road city?
TH: Oh, I would say Seattle. I just wish it weren't so darn far away. But it's a great city and a great ballpark.
LGT: Worst road amenities?
TH: Without question, Oakland. It's a dump. It really is. They don't care about it, either. It's a shame.
LGT: When you look at fan polls or various rankings, you do very well against your peers. I grew up with Nev calling the Browns, Joe Tait calling the Cavs, and you've become such a cornerstone with the Indians. Do you think about your place among your peers?
TH: To be honest, I don't think about it. You hope people like your work. Everyone wants to be liked. But you can't go on the air consumed with it. You have to do the game the way you think it should be done. Some people will like you, some will not like you, and that's okay.
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