August 12, 2016

John Saunders, R.I.P.

This isn't really the time nor the place to complain about ESPN; there will be plenty of opportunity to do that later. But it is worth noting that one of the reasons ESPN arouses such animosity among so many sports fans is because of how far away they've gotten from their glory days, when if you were a sports fan there was only ESPN, and it was as dependable as MTV was when all it did was show music videos.

The group of announcers who epitomize that golden age has been small for years, and it got even smaller this week, with the death of John Saunders at the much-to-young age of 61. Most of you have probably seen the stunning video of Hannah Storm announcing the breaking news live on Wednesday, so there's no point in replaying it again. What it does do, however, is serve to show the regard with which Saunders was held by his colleagues, and the tweets and statements that poured in during the subsequent hours show the respect and affection with which he was viewed by his contemporaries, others in the sports world, athletes, and just plain fans.

There was a good reason why people who never knew anything more about John Saunders other than what they saw on television reacted the way they did. The interwebs were flooded with shocked messages from people who were unanimous in their description of him as a nice man, a family man, a friend, colleague, and mentor. Most of us will never have known him that way, of course. We know him from how we saw him on television. Chris Berman, one of the true dinosaurs of ESPN, said that "John was old school, even Old World," and I think that describes well a man who never made himself bigger than the events he covered, who always remembered that the point of it all was to tell those people watching him on TV what was going on, and why. One colleague remarked that the true measure of a pro was that absolute chaos could be going on in his earpiece, and the viewer would never know it. There's a lot to be said for that - again, a reminder that it's not about you, it's about the game. I suppose only Bob Ley still epitomizes that approach at ESPN, where, as I've so often remarked, most of their on-air talent sounds as if they're trying out for open mic night at The Improv.

Perhaps ESPN boss John Skipper said it better than anyone, when he described Saunders' "friendly, informative style" that made him "a warm welcome to sports fans for decades." Friendly; warm. That's exactly what he projected, what the best announcers do, and it's why people are comfortable inviting such personalities into their homes. Mike Lupica, one of my favorite sportswriters and a frequent companion of Saunders' on The Sports Reporters, remarked how people were always stopping Saunders in the airport, telling him how they felt as if he was speaking to them. "Somehow he had the gift that the very best broadcasters have, in that the people who watched him felt as if he were their friend, too. He made them feel like they were part of our conversation." So many announcers from my childhood had those qualities, which is why they made enough of an impression on me that I wrote about them at their passing.

So does mourning the death of someone who didn't really become known to most of us until the '90s qualify as classic television? Well, of course, as I commented on the Facebook page the day of his death. How could John Saunders not represent classic TV? The word "classic" describes something timeless, something that hearkens back to a better day, perhaps, and makes us remember our better selves, if only for a moment. Especially in this day and age, surrounded by the "look at me" screamers who troll the public and believe there's no such thing as bad publicity, anyone who epitomizes style and grace is bound to stand out.

But make no mistake about it. John Saunders was a classic in any era. And that never goes out of style.

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