There are few more qualified to speak on baseball and how much it’s changed over the past half century than longtime play-by-play announcer Jon Miller.
Miller, who got his start as a major league announcer in 1974, has been a prime spectator for some of the game’s most notable changes over the decades, including the dawn of free agency and the rise of advanced analytics.
Miller sat down with USA TODAY Sports at Nationals Park in Washington to discuss some of the most notable changes he’s seen since entering the industry, as well as his personal career path and where he thinks it ends up.
Q: We’ve seen pace of play pick up, we’ve been through a steroid era and back. What would you say have been some of the most significant changes you’ve seen in the game in your time covering it?
A: Well for me, the main thing is about the way the game is actually played. The first year I did baseball, 1974, with Oakland, they were the best team in baseball, they had three (primary) starting pitchers who pitched every fourth day, (two) made 40 starts. Catfish Hunter threw (3181/3) innings and (23) complete games. That’s a big change. Rollie Fingers was the closer and he threw (119) innings. … To me, that’s a very significant change in the game.
Now, with analytics, (hitters) have a lot of things where they try to train themselves to maybe hit differently or hit with more power or get the ball airborne more. Now, they crunch the numbers. It used to be that a good, flat swing was what you wanted to be a line-drive hitter. If you had a lot of speed, you wanted to hit line drives and even ground balls were fine, because you could beat out a lot of them.
It used to be that maybe Willie McCovey would be a guy that they’d shift for, sometimes Reggie Jackson, when I started, but that was very rare. Now, it’s almost every hitter there’s some kind of shift.
Q: What would you point to as some of the most positive changes you’ve seen in the game?
A: There’s a lot more people at the games. In 1974, my first year, Oakland had just won the World Series two straight years and they had almost all the same players back and they won it again for the third straight year, and their attendance for the year was 840,000 — their paid attendance at home. They played Baltimore in the championship series, and Baltimore had been in the postseason year after year, going back to 1969. They were the two most successful franchises by far. Baltimore drew (about) 930,000 that year as their home attendance. … Now, it’s a big story if there’s any empty seats for a postseason game, like ‘What the hell happened, they have 48,000 seats and they only (drew) 47,000!’ … It was not unusual for (Oakland) to have 3,500 people on a weeknight. …
We had two broadcasters, me and Monte Moore. We did all the radio and we did the TV. We televised 24 games a year, that was it. So that was a big difference …
(1974) was the first year that they had arbitration. That became a big difference. The next year, you had (Dave) McNally and (Andy) Messersmith played out their contracts, then all of a sudden, guys were going to be free agents. Fred Lynn and Jim Rice were the two great rookies in 1975 and it looked like they could actually go auction themselves off to the highest bidder after that year, after one year. I would say, probably, all these other things are differences surrounding the game, but the player’s ability to go on the free agent market is one of the most significant changes in all that time.
Jon Miller at Oracle Park in San Francisco in April 2019. (Photo: Darren Yamashita, USA TODAY Sport)
Q: In an era of advanced stats and analytics, do you think it makes it harder for fans to keep up or is that a good resource to have?
A: Well, I think it’s a really good resource and I think fans want all the information they can get. Back in the 1980s, Bill James had his book, “Baseball Abstract,” and he didn’t even have access to the real stats and whatnot. It was a big seller … he was kind of the godfather of analytics. He was the guy who said that batting average, home runs and RBI are not a good way to evaluate productivity. … I think (James) shined a light in the darkness and people followed him, even to the extent of people saying ‘Well, maybe we should be able to quantify how much ground a guy covers (in the field), how can we do that?’ And people figured out was to do it.
So I think that’s what all makes the game more sophisticated and whatnot, but at the same time it’s not what I think a lot of fans enjoy about the game. It doesn’t translate on to a broadcast. So I might be personally interested in it, but it’s more interesting if I’m a GM trying to put a team together. Should I sign that free agent or not? (If I’m a general manager) I want to have some predictive analytics to show me what he’s likely to do at his age now, not what he has done, also what he’s likely to do in my park, versus the park he’s been playing in. It’s kind of amazing that (analytics) took so long to actually happen …
Whereas when I was kid, I would root for a guy to get 100 RBI or win 20 games, I don’t know that anybody is rooting for a guy to lead the league in WAR. People who are into that appreciate that and understand that, and any of us can understand that Mike Trout got 11 WAR or whatever that that’s a great year! I get that. But I don’t know that any general fan even knows how to figure it out …
Teams used to make trades for guys based on (pitching) wins! The Giants traded Orlando Cepeda for Ray Sadecki in the 1960s, which still most Giants fans who were there at the time — I was a teenager — thought was the worst trade in Giants history. … In 1968, (Sadecki) had a 2.91 ERA, which is not too bad, but he was 12-18. The main thing for Giants fans is that he was 12-18!
But if you cover baseball, a guy’s WAR or his FIP+, I mean you need to be conversive with those and you can write and analyze what’s going on at a very sophisticated level.
Q: Shifting the focus to your career, do you enjoy being on the local scene more than the national scene?
A: The most fun is doing local and watching that story as the season goes along, the ups and downs of the team.
The most interesting thing about baseball that has never changed is that, because it’s every day, baseball reflects life itself. Every day, if you have kids, you have to take care of the kids, even though maybe you’re too tired or you’re not up to it or you have to go to your job — you gotta work, you gotta make a living. Even though you’re just not feeling up to snuff right then, in baseball it’s every day! You have to play that game every day, even if one of your star players is out with an injury, well those are the games on the schedule. I think that’s one of the great things about baseball that’s completely different from every other sport, is that it’s every single day. … It can be a three-hour vacation from the trials and tribulations of your regular life. You care about your team, you root for them, you feel joy if they do well. But your taxes don’t go up if they lost. You don’t have to sell your house because they lost! If they lost, you go, ‘Well, dammit’ and then you go on with your life.
To me, that’s the essence of the game, and that hasn’t changed.
Q: Is there anything that you miss about being on the national scene?
A: Oh, all that was fine, I did that for 21 years. I did the World Series 13 times. I enjoyed all of it.
I’d do a Friday night game at Dodger Stadium, Giants and Dodgers. Fly to New York, and Sunday I’d do Red Sox-Yankees at Yankee Stadium. I’d do Giants-Dodgers and Yankees-Red Sox the same weekend, who gets to do that?
Or I’d fly to Boston and do Yankees-Red Sox at Fenway, then Monday I’d fly to Chicago and pick up the Giants at Wrigley Field. So I went from Fenway to Wrigley in consecutive days, who gets to do that? If you’re a baseball fan that’s a dream!
Q: Is your plan to stick it out with the Giants for the rest of your broadcasting career?
A: Well, it’s my 23rd year with the Giants. I mean, my plan before that was to stick it out with the Orioles (laughs). I grew up (in the Bay Area). The Giants were my team as a kid.
I didn’t really know what I was doing when I wanted to stay in Baltimore. I should have definitely wanted to go home. But, I always thought, well, Vin Scully, Ernie Harwell, Jack Buck, guys who were in a city for a long time and were so identifiable with that team, I thought, well that’s what you want. I was there (in Baltimore) for 14 years and I was hoping that would be my place, but I was pretty disappointed when all of a sudden I didn’t even get an offer (to return). Now, I look back and say, ‘What was I thinking?’ I can’t even imagine if I had stayed, because the whole organization seems like it has gone downhill so badly.
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