ROCKET LAUNCH?

Iconic Houston broadcaster hints at jarring changes to playoff presentation

Iconic Houston broadcaster hints at jarring changes to playoff presentation
Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images.

Nothing is decided, and maybe won't be announced for weeks, but a pretty likely scenario has NBA teams holding training camp 2.0 starting next month in each home city, then everybody moving to Orlando for more practice and scrimmages, before concluding the regular season, and heading to a 16-team playoff format. Every game will be played without fans at Disney's ESPN Wide World of Sports complex. Teams will be re-seeded for the playoffs by their regular season record regardless of conference.

If the playoffs started today, the Houston Rockets (seeded 10th) would open against the Utah Jazz (seeded 7th).

How will this play with Rockets fans? More important, on what channel?

"The games will be played in hermetically sealed arenas at Disney, and Rockets games will air on AT&T SportsNet Southwest. I hope we can get back to playing games sometime in July. They will send a blank (silent) feed to us in our Houston studio, and the local broadcasters will call the game," said play-by-play man Bill Worrell, who amazingly is entering his fifth decade calling Rockets games on TV.

With the league in a quarantine bubble at Disney, teams will be allowed to bring only players, coaches, and a limited number of family members and staff. Not making the cut: TV and radio announcers, Clutch the Bear, Power Dancers, Red Rowdies and those guys scalping tickets outside Toyota Center.

"We will get to work some regular-season games (along with ESPN and TNT) and first round of the playoffs. It won't be as exciting without fans, but we are playing with the idea of piping in some crowd noise to keep you from hearing basketballs hit the court in an empty arena," Worrell said.

Piping in crowd noise also will keep viewers from hearing players letting fly with some pretty rough language. Either that, or there will be a seven-second delay with a designated bleep button pusher.

This won't be the first time that Worrell has announced games from hundreds, even thousands of miles of social distance.

"We did a couple of games played in China last trip, and the quality in our Houston studio was excellent. I have done remote telecasts on several occasions while working for Home Sports Entertainment (HSE), Fox Sports and AT&T SportsNet, especially for European tour golf matches and gymnastics events."

Fun facts about Worrell. He grew up in Houston, went to Lamar High School on Westheimer and graduated from the University of Houston, where he made the baseball team as a lefty pitcher. He was the sports anchor on Channel 2 from 1974 to 1980, when he joined ESPN and began announcing Rockets games for the Houston market. The most fun fact: his father "Dub" Worrell was the Rockets team dentist and is credited with convincing Houston pro athletes to wear mouthguards.

Announcing live sports events from a remote studio isn't Worrell's first choice, but it's not anything unusual in sports. The Tennis Channel often covers smaller European and Asian tournaments from its home base in Culver City, Calif. Yet somehow the announcers always make themselves available for Wimbledon in London and the French Open in Paris.

"Sweetening" the sound of sports broadcasts by adding fake crowd noise isn't a new trick, either. Pro wrestling regularly pipes in pre-recorded hoots and hollers, especially when an uncooperative crowd is jeering a good guy wrestler and cheering a villain. Wrestling fans, you can't trust 'em.

Adding fake crowd noise and announcing "live" games from distant studios harkens back to the beginning of sports broadcasting. In prehistoric days, before televised sports killed the radio star, baseball announcers "recreated" away games on radio without hitting the road themselves. Here's how they did it.

Home team announcers would sit in a studio and read bare bones reports from the away stadium, sent by a stats person over a teletype machine (think fax machine with bells and typewriter chatter). The reports would simply read, "Smith K" (for strikeout) or "Johnson FO left" (fly ball out to leftfield). It was left to the announcers to make games interesting by imagining out loud what was taking place on the field. A studio engineer would play crowd noise, recorded from a recent home game, raising or lowering the volume depending on whether the teletype indicated ground ball or home run. The sound of bat hitting baseball was recreated by striking a large pencil or toy bat against a wood block.

Creative announcers were so skilled at embellishing games from a simple scorecard that fans huddled around a radio in their living room couldn't tell the difference between home and road play-by-play.

Of course, Worrell and his AT&T SportsNet partners will have the advantage of watching a silent feed of Rockets games in real time. Or seven seconds later if the trash talking turns blue. We're looking at you, Russell Westbrook.

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With both Luis Garcia and Lance McCullers making their way back from surgeries that sideline that Astros pitchers last season, and given the team's thin depth in their starting rotation, Houston fans and media have waited on bated breath for scraps of information to leak out of the notoriously secretive organization regarding their progress.

In a week full of mostly Hurricane Beryl-related bad news, the Astros organization had some discouraging news of their own when manager Joe Espada told the media that Lance McCullers has been shut down from pitching after his arm did not respond well to his latest bullpen session. The team says they are "formulating a plan for what's next."

Another Astros starter making his way back from injury is HOF-bound Justin Verlander. Verlander has been on the IL since June 16th with neck discomfort and, while there was initial hope that JV would only miss a start, his status has become increasingly murky as he is still apparently not close to returning.

Shifting from the health questions of the starters to the performance questions of the bullpen, some Houston fans have voiced concern via social media that Astros big-ticket 9th inning pitcher Josh Hader is not looking like a "shut-down" closer. Hader gave up more home runs in the first week of July (3) as he did the entire month of June (2).

In this week's episode of Stone Cold Stros, Charlie Pallilo and Brandon Strange discuss how the fluid dynamics of Astros pitching is impacting the competitive landscape of the division race. To watch the conversation, just click the video YouTube embedded in this article. To listen to the entire episode on podcast, search "Stone Cold Stros" in your favorite podcast app or click one of the following links.

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