The problem is that Len Kasper is a friend. I mean, I guess I barely know the guy at all personally. But that’s not how it feels. He used to ask me why I was so anti-analytics in baseball. “I saw what you wrote today,’’ he once said at Wrigley Field. “Do you really mean it? I’d like to talk to you about it.’’
Kasper has been the Chicago Cubs TV announcer for the past 16 years, and he left Friday to become the Chicago White Sox radio guy on local ESPN, WMVP AM-1000. TV broadcasters of popular teams have a personal relationship with people watching. The TV guy is the face of the team as much as the players themselves. Maybe even more so in Chicago, where media types are celebrities.
But if you’re a fan, you’re excited about your team, and the TV guy is there excited with you, in your living room or on your phone or at your tavern.
So Cubs fans are going to feel betrayed today and a little shocked. To oversimplify: their friend just went over to their enemy. Their fellow Cubs fan just decided he’s now a White Sox fan.
Why would he do that? Is he a traitor? Sports fans need to realize that they follow teams with their hearts, but it’s actually a professional thing for the announcers. It’s a job. And getting excited for an Anthony Rizzo or Javier Baez home run is part of the job when you’re the Cubs TV guy. Kasper was paid to do that. Now he’s going to be paid to get excited for Jose Abreu’s home runs.
Kasper is a really nice guy, sort of a baseball stats nerd, who did a really good job with the Cubs, mirroring the excitement of Cubs fans for three hours a day. He surely made a lot of friends with Cubs players and executives, and he wanted those friends to win. But Kasper grew up in Michigan, listening to legendary Detroit Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell.
It’s hard to say for sure why Kasper made the move. Maybe he just always wanted to emulate Harwell and do radio? Kasper invoked Harwell's name in explaining the move.
“Broadcasting baseball on the radio has always been my dream,” Kasper said. “I am happy the White Sox were interested in having me handle their play-by-play responsibilities, and I am appreciative that the Cubs were willing to let me leave that organization on such great terms.
"I have always been fascinated by the creative freedom radio allows its broadcasters, and baseball is such a great game when presented on the radio. I have been dreaming about doing this since I was 12 years old, listening to Ernie Harwell, and I didn’t want my career to pass without experiencing this great game nightly from the radio booth. I want to thank both the Sox and Cubs for allowing me to live out this baseball dream.”
In Chicago, the suspicion will be that it had to do with the Cubs’ new TV network, the Marquee Sports Network, which took over this past season and did a decidedly mediocre job in its first year. Their pre- and post-game shows had ex-Cubs who aren’t Chicago legends and aren’t even necessarily identified with the team.
They tried to put ex-Cub Mark Grace, known in the old days as the Mayor of Wrigleyville -- the bar district -- in a little box in the corner of the screen during games. That didn’t work, as Grace was too disconnected and didn’t even look like his old self. He also upset people when he told a story about his ex-wife and said that his pet name for her had been “the dingbat.’’
Marquee had better be careful not to lose Cubs fans now. Rumor is that former FOX guy Chris Myers is going to replace Kasper. That’s going to be a bad move if Myers stays as professionally stiff as national guys tend to be. Local fans want their announcers to be excited, too.
I’d have a hard time believing that Kasper had a bad relationship with Marquee. He worked hard, was always prepared, seemed genuinely nice and personable and was popular among fans and colleagues.
This is actually a big moment in the popularity of both teams. In the past 50 years, the Cubs have been Chicago’s first team, mostly because it made better decisions regarding TV. In the late 1960s, the White Sox actually were the city’s top team until the Cubs put their games on local WGN-TV every day.
In the early 1980s, the White Sox tried to put their games on pay-TV while their announcer, Harry Caray, left for the Cubs just as WGN was becoming a Superstation on cable TV. It took the Sox out of view and turned the Cubs into America’s team and Caray into America’s TV sports character.
It was a shock to Sox fans when Caray left for the Cubs and suddenly became the world’s biggest Cub fan.
Kasper was never going to be the next Harry Caray. Let’s hope Marquee doesn’t think Myers will be.
Best guess is that Kasper left to be part of the Sox story. The White Sox have just jumped to ESPN and likely want to make a splash. The Sox are the better story in town now. They are a bunch of young players -- and old manager Tony La Russa -- ready to win. Plus, as a radio guy, Kasper can call a World Series. A local TV guy can’t.
The White Sox need a popular announcer, too, after they made such an unpopular hire at manager.
Meanwhile, the Cubs’ story is about rebuilding and trying to continue winning. Kasper told their incredible story, including their 2016 World Series win. And now Cubs architect Theo Epstein has left, and the Cubs are starting to break up their World Series core, having let Kyle Schwarber go this week.
It’s going to feel like a culture shift for both teams. White Sox fans hate the Cubs, but they are going to have to fall in love with a Cubs guy now.
Don’t worry, Sox fans. Kasper is one of you now.