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Take me home to the ball game

Cable and streaming company headaches lead Wisconsin baseball fanatics back to broadcasting basics.

Photo credit: “‘Just a bit high’ -Bob Uecker” by Ken Mattison is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

This is our newsletter-first column, Microtones. It runs on the site on Fridays, but you can get it in your inbox on Thursdays by signing up for our email newsletter.

At the beginning of April, legions of people were sent scurrying in a panic to find that dusty radio they hadn’t used in ages. That panic wasn’t launched by the start of tornado season; it was because it was the start of baseball season.

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Season openers generally don’t launch a panic unless you’re a New York Mets fan. But it wasn’t until that moment that many Milwaukee Brewers fans discovered they couldn’t watch their team on TV, making them just the latest would-be viewers left in the dark as the spats between TV networks and providers have clearly traveled from cable to streaming.

In 2019, Sinclair Broadcasting Group acquired the 21 regional Fox sports networks that included Fox Sports Wisconsin. FSW had been on most cable, satellite and streaming services and was previously where local sports fans could watch Brewers and Milwaukee Bucks games. This spring Sinclair Broadcast Group, which has a way of making everything it touches worse, rebranded FSW as Bally Sports Wisconsin and couldn’t reach an agreement with anyone covering the network except most cable providers, DirecTV and only one streaming service—AT&T TV—which with its sports package costs $84.99 a month. Streaming services are the only providers that aren’t shedding subscribers, but those subscribers are getting to experience all the things that made them flee cable and satellite.

Sports is an easy hostage for TV providers. It’s the only remaining consistent must-see money-making live TV. If you absolutely must watch that sportsball game, providers pretty much have you by the nose hairs to pay up and/or put together an Excel spreadsheet to see which service carries which channels for which sports. And it’s only going to get worse. God only knows where one might find the Olympics this summer if they actually happen. 

I would imagine there are a lot of sports fans like me who have simply waved the white flag. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a Brewers fan and it’s pretty much what would be on in the evenings and definitely Sunday afternoons if I’m home. Baseball was the first sport I loved, my gateway sport, and I’ve come back around to it over the years. That’s not necessarily for its history or the inflated mythology and romanticism that surrounds it, but because I rather like a sport I can take a nap to.

That nap actually goes better with radio than TV anyway. The shift is a good reminder of what Brewers fans have known for, oh, about 50 years: Because of Bob Uecker, the games are way more fun on the radio than they are on TV. In Madison, they’re on WOZN, 1670 AM or 96.7 FM.

Baseball and radio already go together like pedal pubs and drunk bachelorettes. The announcers aren’t screaming all the time and drawing all over your television screen. You’re not stuck watching endless replays and there is never, ever a mention of a Cover-2 or a nickel package.

Beyond that, Uecker has entertained Brewers fans since 1971. He doesn’t work every game, and he doesn’t work every inning—hey, the guy is 87 years old. Most baseball announcers have the skill of talking about something else—a previous game, roster moves, details about a player—while calling the game—but Uecker long ago elevated that to an art form. A couple years ago I was listening in my car and was lucky to hear an exchange that went something like this:

Uecker: We’ve got a long homestand coming up, so I can finally get my garden planted. Curveball missed inside, ball 1.

Other guy: What are you planting?

Uecker: Fastball down the middle, strike 1. Well, I’ll plant some corn. Sometimes it grows nice and tall in my garden. High and outside, ball 2. And then I’m going to plant some jicama.

Other guy: Jicama? What the heck is jicama?

Uecker: Swing and a miss, strike 2. It’s Mexican. You can use it in salads. You can even make jicama fries. Just missed the outside corner, ball 3.

And it went on from there.

Uecker is a connection to an earlier time in baseball—when the sport was far more popular, when ballplayers were public figures even non-fans could name, when everyone listened on the radio. Sadly Uecker won’t be around forever, and a slice of Wisconsin entertainment will, like baseball’s popularity, fade away.

In the meantime I’ll chop up some jicama, toss it in a lovely salad, tune in to the Brewers on the radio, and listen to the musical sound of a ball on a bat and Uecker’s goofy stories.

I’m already looking forward to the nap.

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