Longtime Red Sox TV color commentator Jerry Remy, 68, died this past October from lung cancer, which he had been treating since 2008. The Fall River native had worked as a broadcaster for NESN since the early ’90s; non-regional baseball fans may remember his pivotal role in the “Here Comes The Pizza” saga. Over time, Remy became something of a beloved figurehead for “Red Sox Nation.” With his death, NESN faced the difficult task of finding his replacement. Instead, it found four.
In March, the network announced that the 2022 Red Sox season would feature a rotation of color commentators alongside play-by-play announcer Dave O’Brien: Dennis Eckersley, Tony Massarotti, Kevin Youkilis, and Kevin Millar. That’s right: two Kevins. Depending on the series or road trip, Red Sox fans would hear a different guy in the booth. Sometimes, there would be more than one. This might be NESN’s way of holding unofficial tryouts for the long term, but whatever the plan is here, each of them have developed their own commentating tics and habits.
The quality of commentating is not an important factor in how much I enjoy a game. My strongest belief as it relates to sports broadcasting is that Don Orsillo is the most pleasant PBP baseball guy to listen to, and NESN, which is owned by the Red Sox and Bruins, treated him and continues to treat him poorly. But with all of these NESN announcing permutations, I’ve become more aware of the differences in a “good” or “bad” baseball color commentator. Since this is the time of the year when people are most likely to watch the Red Sox, I thought it’d be useful to do a little scouting report for each NESN color commentator. Ideally this will help someone decide whether to mute the game and play some music.
Eckersley isn’t actually a new face on NESN. The Hall of Fame pitcher has been with the network since 2003, filling in when needed, but his role grew over the last few years with Remy’s health issues and absences. Eck’s entertaining, and probably the most polished of the four for this specific role, but does that mean he’s good?
Here’s an example of what you get with Eckersley, and I’ll mainly have to rely on my own inexact memory: The Mets are playing the Red Sox at Fenway on May 22, 2009. In the bottom of the fifth, Mets starter Johan Santana tags Kevin Youkilis on the elbow with a pitch. Youkilis shouts something, which is natural for someone who’s been hit by a baseball, and Santana says something back. It’s a little tense, but nothing happens beyond that.
Eckersley’s role in the booth means he’s supposed to give some commentary on this HBP and the building tension. He did that, possibly too well. As the broadcast shows the instant replay of Youkilis getting plunked, Eckersley says something like, And look, you can see what he’s saying right there as he got tagged: “Shit.”
Whoops. The broadcast is silent for a few seconds, because someone pressed the cough button a little late, then everyone moves on.
That’s the kind of candor you’ll get from Eckersley, and it usually shows up when an opposing pitcher is doing badly. During a home game on June 15, he was complaining about how Oakland A’s starter James Kaprelian was still in the game, even after issuing six walks. (Kaprelian was pulled in the fourth inning.) One of Eck’s recurring complaints is about how if he were The Pitcher Playing Poorly, his manager would have already given him the hook. In 2021, he and Remy spent half an inning tearing apart the velocity of Ryan Yarbrough’s stuff:
Your mileage may vary on how entertaining this is. I enjoy it, but it could get tiring over 162 games. There isn’t a lot of range here. This is the kind of guy who, in 2022, will offhandedly reference skinny jeans while making a broader point about baseball pants, but he’s best when his booth partner keeps him on topic.
Eckersley is engaged with the action, although he’s noticeably grouchier during day games. He tends to talk more about pitchers, which makes sense since he’s drawing from a book of his own experiences. That said, his book is well-worn.
It is unclear if he has ever changed his haircut.
Pre-Defector readers might remember Tony Massarotti as one of the Boston sports radio chowderheads for the station 98.5 The Sports Hub. He still co-hosts Felger & Mazz, but this year he auditioned for the NESN gig and earned a spot. Massarotti is slated to work something in the range of 30 to 40 games for NESN this season, and it’s an unintentionally funny fit.
The main way to find sports radio success is to be unnecessarily and excessively hostile toward basically any talking point. This allows them to keep listeners engaged and stretch out a discussion over multiple commercial breaks. The key is to always be passionate, even where it’s not warranted. When the NESN news broke, Massarotti went on his own radio show to say that he wouldn’t hold back as a color commentator, that he’d more or less continue to be who he was. From what I’ve heard so far, he hasn’t lived up to that promise.
The expectations of the gig got in the way of Massarotti’s plan. He can’t maintain the same tone for both jobs. Hypothetically, if he started arguing with Dave O’Brien about whether Bobby Dalbec can ever be That Guy for the Red Sox, that would be insufferable, and also bad TV. Viewers want to watch Dalbec strike out in peace.
Maybe daily Sports Hub listeners enjoy more Massarotti, but this guy’s insights have done nothing for me. Whenever O’Brien would bring up the Boston Celtics during their playoff run, Massarotti sounded more interested to talk about that. All of his contributions are vague, dull, and obviously restrained. If anything, being in the NESN booth has harmed Massarotti’s career: Trying to be normal on TV has made it more obvious that what he does on the radio is a forced shtick.
Of the four options here, Youkilis is the least seasoned in the booth, and the least removed from his playing career. (I’m not counting Kevin Millar playing for the St. Paul Saints.) One point in his favor is that he sounds like he actually wants to be there, so that’s good.
Overall, it’s a mixed bag. Youkilis’s analysis can be legitimately valuable, but I wish there were more of it. He’s a bit rigid. Sometimes, he tries to be funny, and that’s not his strongest attribute. He’s actually funnier when he’s not trying. For proof, check out this moment from a game on May 4 when he inadvertently introduced the concept of a pitch called the “slutter,” coined by former Red Sox reliever Jonathan Papelbon. “Yeah, that’s dirty,” Eckersley said, moments before Xander Bogaerts crushed a homer over the Green Monster.
What that clip shows, aside from that Nick Castellanos isn’t the only player with good timing, is that Youkilis opens up more in a three-man booth. When he can chat with another player, it gets him to share more stories and feel less rigid. Ideally, he’d learn to do this without having to be coaxed, because most three-man booths suck, but maybe he just needs more reps. I’m probably being too sympathetic here, because I liked Youk as a player and I like that he’s now a guy who wears flat caps. He looks like he’s waiting for an audition in front of Ben Affleck. It’s really adorable.
The experience of listening to Kevin Millar is listening to the guy sitting on the corner seat of a dive bar. Sometimes he’s fun, other times he’s not, but one thing’s certain: He will talk, loudly, and it’s not always clear who he’s talking to.
That’s the closest thing resembling a compliment that I can give to Millar. He sure can talk. He’s a veteran talker. He honed his talking on the MLB Network show Intentional Talk. If you’re watching a Red Sox game on NESN, and he starts talking, you can mute the game, count to 30, and unmute, and he’ll still be finishing up his thought. No one can talk like this guy can talk.
He’ll talk about former Red Sox he played with. He’ll talk about former Red Sox he didn’t play with. He’ll talk about living in Texas. He’ll talk about his neighbor John Lackey. He’ll talk about his other neighbor Clay Buchholz bringing him some chili. He’ll talk about Las Vegas. He’ll talk about how Trevor Story’s going to hit a homer on this pitch. (He was right.) He’ll talk about absolutely anything. Do not challenge this man.
The three-man setup only exacerbates this. Millar is a distraction to himself and others in class. When NESN trots out the two-Kevin combination, this helps Youkilis because he chats more, but he also causes Millar to chat more, and you end up with Dave O’Brien trying to tell viewers what the count is while the baseball buddies are giggling and goofing. Stop talking over everybody!
I will try to say one nice thing about Millar: His cadence is Fieri-esuqe, and it’s endearing when he stumbles during an ad read and beats himself up. OK, that’s all I’ve got.
If I were writing this blog five years ago, I might have only written “Shut the fuck up!” for Millar’s section, but I’m trying to engage with the material here. Mostly I am astounded at how much this guy can talk. He talks like he’ll explode if there are 15 seconds of uninterrupted silence. I am exaggerating none of this. It’s good to be earnest and enthusiastic as a commentator; that’s why plenty of people love Tony Romo calling NFL games. But the enthusiasm has to be complemented with some actual analysis. If a guy only has catchphrases and stories about his old teammates, he’s not bringing much to the booth, and eventually viewers are going to want him to shut the fuck up.
What Have We Learned?
O’Brien and Eckersley are the best and least distracting combination for Red Sox games. The O’Brien-and-Youkilis combo is the quietest. Avoid the two-man booths with Millar or Massarotti. Only try the Eckersley-Millar three-man combo if you’re drunk or high. The four-man booth where Roger Clemens showed up for an inning was excruciating and reminded me that he’s a short-tempered creep. NESN desperately misses Don Orsillo.