On October 23, 1993, Joe Carter hit a home run over the left-field fence of SkyDome to win the World Series. CBS’s Sean McDonough yelled, "Gone!" Then McDonough began to wonder whether he was, too.
The previous season, McDonough, at 30, had become the youngest man to call an entire World Series game for network TV. Critics dubbed him "boy wonder" and saluted his Costas-like precocity. A CBS executive said, "Over time, I think he’s going to turn into one of the greats." In fact, CBS was about to lose the rights to Major League Baseball, and McDonough was about to learn an essential lesson of sports broadcasting. It turns out an announcer’s career is determined as much by his network’s rights fees as his own talent. A guy like McDonough can be cast out without doing anything wrong.
When I met McDonough this summer, he had recently been named the play-by-play man of ESPN’s Monday Night Football. It was the end of a 23-year wilderness period where he’d been trying to regain a top announcing spot. "I just turned 54," McDonough said. "You start to realize that that level — the World Series level, the Monday Night Football level — may not come back again."
McDonough had been to an ESPYs afterparty the night before. He was hoarse — his voice had the same prepubescent quality it had when McDonough called the final seconds of last year’s Michigan–Michigan State game. McDonough is small, bald, and compact. He oozed humility. "I’ve always wanted to get back to that rung," he said. "I think in my mind … I just couldn’t see it happening."
During his CBS wunderkind period, McDonough could be a handful to deal with. "A lot of stuff happened to me really early," he said. "I’d done hundreds of minor league baseball games on radio by the time I was 22. … I was doing the Red Sox games when I was 25. I did the World Series when I was 30."
The Old Sean, as he jokingly calls his exacting former self, could be awfully tough on himself and his crew. "A big part of it was — and I’m sure Joe Buck can probably talk about this, too — is when you’re the son of somebody [legendary Boston Globe writer Will McDonough], you can try really hard to prove that you’re worthy of this opportunity, and [that] you didn’t get it because you’re the son of somebody," he said. "I think there’s more pressure to be good, especially right away. People are going to make instant judgments.
"My friends would say to me, ‘You’re so nice and pleasant and easygoing to be around — until you walk into the game!’"
On the air, McDonough got good marks, particularly for his call of Sid Bream’s slide into home during the ’92 NLCS. But the tectonic plates were shifting beneath him. CBS had paid more than $1 billion for four years’ worth of Major League Baseball rights beginning in 1990. The network was hurt by everything from a recession to the Blue Jays’ two trips to the World Series, which denied CBS the bigger audience numbers it would have had with a team from an American city. The network took a write-down of half a billion dollars. "It was a business disaster," said Neal Pilson, who was then president of CBS Sports. "Creatively, we did a pretty good job."
At CBS, McDonough had replaced Jack Buck in the World Series booth. After a few years, his job would go to — irony of ironies — Joe Buck, who called a World Series at age 27 and broke McDonough’s record. Joe Buck has since called 17 more World Series, the kind of number that McDonough once expected to put on the scoreboard. When I asked Buck how that came to be, he said, "I happen to be at the network that keeps writing checks to get the rights."
McDonough’s wilderness period was strange and often humiliating. In 1999, CBS dismissed him without explanation. Yet after joining ESPN full-time, McDonough called big college football games, some golf, and formed a jolly college basketball team with Jay Bilas and Bill Raftery. "There are so many men and women who would kill to do one thing in their life on ESPN," he said. "So I’m going to complain, ‘Geez, I’m doing Big Monday …?’"
Still, McDonough thought of the limbo he was trapped in. "Most of the time I was sort of one rung below the top," he said. For example, for the past three years McDonough called the ACC tournament for ESPN. But he didn’t call the ACC tournament final, which went to another announcer, Dan Shulman.
McDonough had come of age during a transition period in network TV. These were the last days when big events were divided among three networks, and an announcer like McDonough’s hero Curt Gowdy could do the World Series, the All-Star Game, the Super Bowl, and the Rose Bowl. "That’ll never happen anymore," McDonough said. "I think the best you can do now is sort of what Jim Nantz has, where you have some golf majors, you have the Final Four, you do a Super Bowl. … But how many of those jobs are there? I think the rest of us are all just kind of happy if we can get into one of these things."
A 23-year stretch of calling the Red Sox and regional basketball did a lot to iron out McDonough’s personality. He said he mellowed a lot. Now, if McDonough’s technical crew goes astray, they’ll hear a peeved-but-self-aware voice coming through the talkback: "This is the Old Sean talking right now. Why are we doing this?"
McDonough leaves light fingerprints on a broadcast. A reader once wrote to a New England paper to ask if the McDonough he was hearing on Red Sox games was the same McDonough that had called the Bruins years before — leaving open the idea that a second Sean McDonough from Hingham had emerged in the interim. You remember a McDonough call as much for what he doesn’t say as what he does. "When I watch tapes of myself and other people," he said, "the thing I find often is that we’re all talking too much."
During this period, McDonough’s reputation among other play-by-play men actually improved. It was a lot like what happened to good sports columnists who saw their newspapers go under. People in the business — most notably Mike Tirico, in a speech at Syracuse — pointed at McDonough and said, "You want to know how to call a game? Watch him." McDonough became an announcer’s announcer. "He’s not a wall-to-wall guy and he doesn’t have to tell you how much he knows," said Monday Night Football producer Jay Rothman.
"Sean does all of the basics all of the time," said Tirico. "Identifying players, both offense and defense, game situations, strategy — the basic nuts and bolts of the job. He never compromises."
McDonough getting Monday Night Football was almost as inexplicable as losing the World Series. Last season, McDonough wasn’t even the no. 1 college football announcer at ESPN. Yet McDonough wound up calling the season’s most mind-blowing play: the ending of Michigan–Michigan State. Michigan just needed to punt the ball down the field to win the game. When Michigan’s punter bobbled the snap, McDonough let out a Verne Lundquist–style "Whoa!" and then quickly and perfectly narrated Michigan State’s Jalen Watts-Jackson’s rumble into the end zone. "He handles the biggest of moments as good as anybody," said Rothman.
During the same period, McDonough’s pal Tirico was telling him he was thinking of leaving ESPN for NBC and that, if he did, the Monday Night gig might be McDonough’s. (McDonough deadpanned: "As my friend, it is your obligation to leave.") In May, when Rothman told McDonough he’d be the fifth play-by-play man in Monday Night history, the congratulations poured in from former partners. McDonough noted that Bill Raftery’s phone call came after 1:30 a.m. Raftery had just finished a night on the town — it was his first chance to reach out.
ESPN employs two Jon Grudens: the furrowed-brow instructor of the QB Camp segments and the zany Professor Football of Monday Night. Another way to say this is that in the first case Gruden talks like a coach and in the second he talks like an ESPN announcer.
Just before he was hired, McDonough happened to be watching a QB Camp marathon. He was struck by Gruden’s looseness, his ease. "He’s in his element, talking football, showing tape," McDonough said. "You see his charisma and his sense of humor and personality and quirkiness. I think a lot more of that could come out during the game."
When I ran that idea by Gruden, he told me, "I keep hearing I need to be more conversational during these games. But if you really sit down and look at these games, we have 14 penalties, three instant replay challenges, and injury timeouts; we get the officials involved to tell their side of the story; and we have 23 commercials to go to break to. What kind of story do you want to tell in nine seconds?"
Asked about his new partner’s tics, Gruden sounded like Mike Zimmer trying to size up Sam Bradford. McDonough and Gruden were so confident they’d mesh that they took the unusual step of declining to do a test game — an exercise in which a new announcing team watches a game on tape and provides the commentary. But the August 7 Hall of Fame Game, one of the duo’s two preseason games, was canceled when the field disintegrated. "There’s nothing like reps," Gruden said, sounding like an anxious coach. "Real, live reps."
"I just got to not screw this up," he added. "I got to be a good listener and see where Sean takes the ship. … There’s a lot going through his cage when the whistle blows."
Announcers play stock characters just like the troubadours in commedia dell’arte. As a pregame appearance on ESPN before the canceled Hall of Game’s planned kickoff seemed to confirm, the new Monday Night booth will have McDonough cast as the gently ironic wordsmith; Gruden — minus the Spider 2 Y Banana stuff — will be the voice of Joe Sixpack. In June, the Monday Night crew gathered at Gruden’s office in Tampa to watch tapes of various broadcasts. McDonough saw himself on tape saying something awkward and said, "That was woefully deficient." He recalled, "Gruden looked at me, kind of with the Chucky face, and said, ‘You mean that sucked?’"
On a recent golf trip, McDonough’s pals took his cellphone and changed his ring tone to the Monday Night theme. It could have been a song of redemption. But the New Sean wasn’t having any of it. "I’ve since changed it," he said. "It was pretty obnoxious when you’re walking through an airport and it rang and people walking by would look at you. Oh, he doesn’t want anybody to know he’s Mr. Monday Night Football!"