Last week, Jim Kaat, a man who has been broadcasting baseball games so long he was once fired by George Steinbrenner in a flap involving Billy Martin and then-Yankees manager Lou Piniella, said the sort of thing you might expect an 83-year-old man with a live microphone on him for several hours every day to say.
While Kaat was calling a Twins-Guardians game for the local Minneapolis station, he began discussing the Yankees pitcher Nestor Cortes. Suddenly, out of nowhere, he referred to him as “Nestor the Molester.” It was weird. It was definitely weird.
This comment sparked the sort of exhausting backlash we’ve all gotten used to over the past half-decade. Social media made a whole thing out of Kaat’s comment, which led to the Baseball Hall of Famer — who has no social-media presence, and thank goodness for that — reaching out privately to Cortes to apologize. (Cortes, who must have been as bewildered as the rest of us, said in a statement that the apology was unnecessary.) It became enough of a thing that Joe Buck felt the need to reach out and defend Kaat on Twitter as “a good guy and a one hell of a pitcher,” adding, “People misspeak on live tv. It happens.” That led to another round of discourse in which many people pointed out that Kaat has had some, uh, problematic verbal missteps before, particularly a big one during last year’s American League Division Series.
Kaat is not blameless, though I find myself more bothered by the “40 acres” comment last year (another one he had to apologize for) than the “Molester” one, which, frankly, I’m not sure why people are actually upset about. I mean, no one actually believes that Kaat — in the midst of praising Cortes, one of the best stories in baseball this year — was launching an actual allegation of molestation against a Yankees pitcher, do they? Kaat blurted out “Nestor the Molester” because the words rhyme and because he’s 83 years old, and sometimes when you’re 83 years old and talking on live television for four hours, you say something without thinking, something that has probably been resting quietly and undisturbed in your brain for six decades before deciding to just leap up out of nowhere for no real reason. Obviously, Cortes didn’t see it as an accusation, and how could he? Not only is he a smart enough person to understand that a broadcaster was not using his live-television platform to accuse him of atrocities, but he also, surely, has heard that joke before. His name is Nestor, after all. He was a teenage boy once.
Kaat’s latest flub isn’t actually dissimilar from his “40 acres” comment. In that case, Kaat was trying to articulate that the White Sox would want “acres and acres” of players like Yoán Moncada, but his brain reached for a specific number and, well, of all the number of acres in the popular culture and American language, 40 is probably the one most people would come up with first. Poorly phrased? Definitely. Offensive? Sure. But what’s the goal here? To drag an old man who sees the word meme and probably thinks you’re referring to President Eisenhower’s wife?
I ask in all sincerity: What exactly is the point of this? And are we sure people are really that upset in the first place, or does it just look that way when you Advanced Twitter Search #jimkaat?
Sure, making fun of announcers is a grand fan tradition, and even the good ones get mocked. (Especially the good ones: Ask Buck.) A large part of the fun of having broadcasters in the first place is yelling at them through the screen. There’s a reason that one of the most well-read sports-media sites is called Awful Announcing and that one of the first viral sports hits of the internet era was the still incredible “Boom Goes the Dynamite” clip. I am certainly not immune to the charms of a commentator going face first.
But there has been a certain “Get him!” quality to announcer missteps in the past couple of years, and I think that’s entirely because of former Cincinnati Reds announcer Thom Brennaman. The longtime broadcaster had enjoyed a successful career calling both Reds games and NFL games on Fox until August 19, 2020. During a fanless pandemic-era afternoon game that day, Brennaman, who thought his mic was off, referred to San Francisco as “one of the f- - capitals of the world.” The clip got around social media so quickly Brennaman was suspended in the middle of the game. His awkward and futile apology, interrupted by his half-hearted call of a Nick Castellanos run, quickly became a meme that seems likely to outlast the controversy, Brennaman, and all life on this planet.
(A highly comical addendum: Castellanos has since made a habit of homering at inopportune times.)
The reason that Brennaman moment resonated — the reason the anger felt justified — was it did feel as though it told us something about him. The type of guy who would so casually drop a slur like that at his workplace, surrounded by people who work with him every day and had done so for years, is the type of guy who really would casually say things like that all the time when microphones aren’t on him. It’s why there’s really nothing Brennaman could do to make us ever trust him again. The episode was similar to Brian Kinchen being suspended by ESPN for saying that talking about wide receivers having “tender” hands was “kinda gay” in 2006. Kinchen’s broadcasting career ended instantly, though you could find him on The 700 Club two years later. As with Brennaman, his offense seemed less like a verbal mistake and more like a brief slippage of the mask. Somewhere in the middle of these two, you might find Howard Cosell’s infamous “Look at that monkey run” moment, which understandably caused a huge uproar when it happened in 1983 but in retrospect does not seem to be an overarching indictment of Cosell’s character.
That’s not what Brennaman’s moment was. And that moment, and its subsequent memeing, has led to something of a cottage industry for finding and distributing verbal gaffes online. It’s less “canceling”— I haven’t seen anybody say Kaat should be fired for the “Molester” comment — and more empty outrage cycles like this one in which Kaat is forced to apologize for something he obviously didn’t mean to a player who had nothing to do with it and wasn’t actually offended (and didn’t want or need the apology) in the first place. The hunt for the next Brennaman — the next scalp, really — has led to this: hectoring an old man for one stupid word choice in a four-hour live broadcast.
I am sure this trend will continue, and we’ll all have fun with it because, again, it’s fun to make fun of announcers, though of course if any of us were to do that job, we’d be kicked off the air before the first commercial break. I have no doubt every announcer now lives with this constant fear, as Buck hinted at, of slipping up for one half-second and never, ever being able to live it down. I’d love to tell them it’ll get easier, but I’m sad to say I suspect there’s a drive into deep left field by Castellanos, it will be a home run, and that’ll make it a 4-0 ball game.