“How can you not be romantic about baseball?” Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane once asked in the book (and later movie) Moneyball.
It’s a legitimate question that comes from a rather curious source. Billy Beane is famous for, if nothing else, trying to remove all the romance from baseball. His system of complex analytics called sabermetrics (adopted from forerunners like Bill James) attempted to remove the human element as much as possible from baseball decision-making.
Still, he’s not wrong. It’s hard not to be romantic about baseball. It’s just that what we deem romantic about baseball varies from person to person.
Baseball is romantic because it’s American culture’s grandest blank slate. It’s a tightly-regulated game where players don’t deviate from the baselines and rarely deviate from their prescribed positions on the field. The experience of watching a baseball game from the nosebleeds can often look more like a particularly sparsely populated mod of Sim City than it does a sport.
We bring the romance to baseball – whether that be memories of childhood to, or just have some pleasant background noise while getting day drunk.
No one understands baseball as America’s tabula rasa better than Jim Brockmire (Hank Azaria, in one of the best roles of his career), disgraced play-by-play announcer. Brockmire doesn’t so much call baseball games as he does hold philosophical lectures that happen to occasionally be interrupted by a pitch count. Brockmire likes to talk (and talk and talk and talk) about all manner of topics – racism in America, fear of terminally ill children, and occasionally the baseball game happening in front of him.
That’s how he chooses to be romantic about baseball. He injects the scattered, yet poetic contents of his mind into the many quiet moments throughout a game. And because of him the second season of IFC’s baseball comedy that bears his name, Brockmire, is a remarkable achievement and profanely profound love letter to America’s pastime.
In season one of Brockmire, Jim Brockmire was a great character on a good show. In season two Jim Brockmire becomes a truly classic character on a great show.
Season two of Brockmire finds Jim and his young ward Charles (Tyrel Jackson Williams) in New Orleans where Jim is calling games for fictional AAA minor league franchise the Crawdads. Brockmire is every bit the mess we met in season one – he’s a barely functional alcoholic, occasional drug user, and sexual deviant.
Still, due to the leveling influence of Charles, Brockmire is able to maintain his jobs as both a baseball radio announcer and a prolific podcaster. In fact, the latest episode of Brock Bottom has reached #3 on iTunes. “Remind me to ask that Marc Maron how my ass tastes,” Brockmire tells Charles. Brockmire and Charles even hold live shows around New Orleans where Jim steps on stage with a bottle of whisky, solicits a topic from the audience and then improvises a 90-minute (or however long it takes to drain the bottle) monologue about it.
The podcast fame is nice but Brockmire’s ultimate goal, however, is to make it back to the Major Leagues, calling games for New Orleans’ parent team in Atlanta. Long-time Atlanta announcer Art Neely is retiring and the franchise is indeed looking to replace him from within.
The two options are Brockmire, who calls all New Orleans home games, and away game announcer Raj (Utkarsh Ambudkar). Atlanta’s PR director Whitney (Dreama Walker) informs Brockmire and Raj that the rest of the season will be an audition to see who will get called up to the bigs. So Brockmire must keep his shit together long enough to realize his dream…and just generally stay alive and functioning.
The best gift that Brockmire Season 2 gives itself is that simple goal-based plot. Brockmire’s desires are clear – he wants to be back in the Majors – so the season’s over arcing story takes care of itself. With that narrative neatly in place, the show is able to expand and evolve in fascinating ways. Season two is much, much darker than season one. Brockmire at times is more self-destructive and difficult than ever. He’s rarely seen without a drink in hand or naked woman nearby.
Beyond being just darker though, season two carries more depth. Brockmire Season 2’s closest thematic cousin is BoJack Horseman, which is fitting given Azaria’s extensive animation history with The Simpsons (he voices Apu, Moe, Chief Wiggum, and many more). BoJack and Brockmire are both aging legends in the entertainment industry, seemingly desperate to blow up rather than fade away.
Like BoJack Horseman, Brockmire Season 2 is a shockingly adroit portrayal of how some people just come out of the box dysfunctional and why those people are still worth caring about.
Azaria has truly never been better. Portraying a character who has an obnoxiously enunciated “announcer voice” without it ever seeming tired is Emmy-worth on its own. The fact that he’s also able to believably portray one charming man’s equally charming descent into complete oblivion is just gravy.
Brockmire Season 1 was buoyed by the remarkable chemistry between Azaria and Amanda Peet’s character, Jules James. Jules turns up sparingly in season two’s eight episodes and the two still do great work together. The real relationship at the core of season two, however, is the one between Jim and Charles. Tyrel Jackson Williams goes from complementary millennial throw-in to being an essential part of the show and Jim Brockmire’s journey. Any moment Azaria and Williams share on screen is not a moment wasted. New supporting actors Becky Ann Baker (Freaks and Geeks) as Brockmire’s sister Jean and Carrie Preston (True Blood) as Jim’s nihilistic counterpart Elle do excellent work as well.
The origins of Brockmire, the character, are humble in an increasingly common new media way. Azaria debuted him in 2010 for the third episode of Funny or Die’s sports comedy web series Gamechangers. The concept at the time was simple and purely comedic. Azaria guessed correctly that the notion of a baseball announcer having a meltdown in the booth over his wife’s infidelities while still calling the game in front of him would be funny.
It may seem surprising that a character created only to provide a quick comedy lesson in contrasts developed into an incredibly believable and touching depiction of self-destruction. But really that’s all you need to develop a great character: contrasts. Jim Brockmire is erudite yet crass; progressive yet reactionary; empathetic, yet selfish. It would only make sense that he would be drawn to America’s grand blank slate in baseball because he has so much to bring to it.