By Tim Baffoe–
(CBS) Fine, I’ll say it: I’m going to miss Hawk Harrelson.
This is meant as no slight to the ultra-talented Jason Benetti, who will see his role as White Sox television play-by-play man expand in 2018 as Harrelson calls 20 home games in what will be his last season. Benetti’s work next to Steve Stone has been fantastic and refreshing during what has been largely a tough stretch of baseball in his first season-plus calling games on the South Side.
But Hawk is a conundrum for me, and his announcement that next season will be his last in the broadcast booth brings a strange mix of emotions.
I’m a lifelong Cubs fan who has always lived on the Southwest Side, but when almost all your friends were consuming a team you’re indifferent to, you pretty much had to or else be left out of the conversation. The White Sox are part of me like a strange cousin I was never encouraged to talk to, but as baseball is baseball and my childhood appetite for sports would consume just about whatever, I grew to love Hawk and Tom “Wimpy” Paciorek games because of their rapport in the booth and Hawk’s cool home run call.
Hawk would, of course, age into the caricature that he is nationally now. He got crustier, ornerier and oftentimes whinier. With all that came sillier catchphrases and anecdotes that often never quite had a point or reached self-parody. White Sox games became “The Hawk Harrelson Show,” as Stone has dubbed it since the two have been booth partners, and with more lean years this century than not, it was sometimes hard to tell if the bad baseball exacerbated the Hawk or vice versa.
He became an announcer whom national fans hated once the internet allowed for access to any local broadcasts coinciding with Hawk’s obtuse stand against advanced metrics in baseball talk. Locally, he seemed to be more the guy you loved to hate, with fans across the city bemoaning Hawk’s constant bickering about umpiring, superlatives about superlatives and story after story about Yaz that created groans at home while adding to awkward silences between him and Stone or Stone’s predecessor, Darrin Jackson.
For me, it’s never been hate with Hawk. Do I enjoy his pouting and prolonged silences (i.e. not doing his job) after something bad happens with the White Sox? Of course not. Do I care who he thinks is the best left-handed Canadian hitter with an 0-2 count in 94-degree weather? Kinda, yeah.
And I like that he’s a homer. Local broadcasts are for homers, and the man lives and dies with every game the little sibling of a Chicago team plays. He’s raw and honest in a world in which we supposedly hate fakers. He’s the last angry man and a reflection of part of all us, whether we admit it or not.
“Living in the Eastern zone and working in the Central zone, after the games are getting longer, that makes my trip with my temper — semi-truck drivers and my temper don’t mix,” Harrelson told The Athletic on Wednesday. “Not at 3:30 in the morning, especially when it’s raining, because I’ve got an axe-handle in the back of my car along with some mace. And I’ve literally chased some of those guys before. I’m just glad I haven’t caught anybody because one of us would’ve been knocked out.”
That quote is great because Hawk is a character, and baseball needs characters. Yes, he’s a stubborn flat-earther when it comes to stats that actually matter today and rages against the dying of the old baseball light, but once you realize that nobody takes him seriously on that stuff and he’s not actually influencing classrooms full of children to believe that baseball’s equivalent of climate change is gobbledygook, it’s kitschy. (And the production crews have all begun incorporating advanced stats into the infographics on TV, and Stone talks about them, too, so a White Sox broadcast isn’t bereft of the smart stuff.)
Kitsch in baseball is a good thing. Something like this is pure garbage:
But it’s garbage not only because it’s flat out stupid, but also because it’s unearned. Hawk has put in his time, has grown into the red-assed lifer and our baseball grandpa who occasionally makes comments that are hardly politically correct but contain no malice (he loves the Latins) — and, again, he’d be problematic if the audience were nodding along with him at that stuff. Instead, we’re shaking our heads and letting out uncomfortable sighs or chuckles, especially when Stone cuts the tension by making fun of him. Do I want ethnic and racial stereotypes in my broadcasts? No, they’re very bad. Do I credit Hawk for seemingly learning from his ignorance these last few years? Yes.
(Please don’t make that paragraph haunt me by letting one slip on the next road trip, Hawk.)
And let’s not inter the man’s good deeds with his bones either, folks. Hawk was an early crusader against the semi-human stain that is Jay Mariotti way before it was cool to call him out in public. And if you hate Dan Bernstein and Terry Boers — who doesn’t, really? — the enemy of your enemy was your friend in this case. But Hawk always made a point to shout out the employees of golf courses and lots of other little people on the broadcasts. That he pulled his car over in a rainstorm to pick up my drenched caddy brother near Ridge Country Club years ago — a small gesture — will always stick with me. I got to the ballpark well before first pitch a few weeks ago and still missed out on obtaining one of the Hawk alarm clocks that were being given away.
Some hated figure he is.
“I still love it,” he said about broadcasting on Wednesday at Guaranteed Rate Field, getting emotional. “I do want to spend more time with the grandkids. I talked it over with my wife. This has been the greatest ride of my life. It has been a lot of fun. I will remember this forever.”
Sports needs its harmless villains, and if you were ever really bothered by Hawk, that’s what he was, you have to admit. If you tuned in to hate-watch him, he was still doing his job. That he hasn’t entered the broadcast wing of baseball’s Hall of Fame yet is a crock, but I’m guessing his retirement announcement Wednesday will speed up that process.
So down the road while you’re enjoying crisp, witty baseball broadcasts from Benetti and Stone, I’ll bet that you will pause at some point, feel a little hole in your heart, and lament, “Gosh, I wish Hawk Harrelson was here to call Joe West a disgrace to the game.”
I know I will. Mercy.
Tim Baffoe is a columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not CBS Local Chicago or our affiliated television and radio stations.