No-Hitter Etiquette for Radio Guys

I was 12 years old when I first learned of the no-hitter “jinx.”  The New York Mets were hosting the Boston Red Sox in one of the first ever interleague games.

After nursing a 1-0 lead for much of the afternoon, the Mets created some breathing room with a three-run fifth, highlighted by a home run from their starting pitcher, Mark Clark.  A pitcher going deep is a rare occurrence in its own right, but Clark’s homer was overshadowed by the fact that he was throwing a no-hitter.

I was right around the age where I understood the rarity of an achievement such as a cycle or no-hitter, but not yet experienced enough to know when such an event was unfolding just by watching the game.  Somewhere around the sixth inning, I looked up at Shea Stadium’s gigantic right field scoreboard and noticed a “0” in the Red Sox’ hit column.  Former Mets’ great Dwight Gooden had thrown a no-hitter for the crosstown rival New York Yankees less than a year prior.  I remember the imagery of Gooden being carried off the mound by his teammates and the excitement the moment created for the city.  The goose egg on the scoreboard caused me to think a similar moment might take place in this very game I was attending, and I excitedly blurted out, “Wow, Clark’s got a no-hitter!”

There was a nice crowd on hand that day, and our section in Shea’s Mezzanine level was especially packed.  If you’re one of the many Baseball God-fearing mortals like I am, then you know exactly what happened next.

The words “no” and “hitter” had barely rolled off my tongue when about a dozen die-hard Mets fans wheeled their heads and started glaring at me from every direction.  Their facial expressions fell into one of two categories: utter contempt or sheer disbelief.  The stares probably lasted for less than two seconds, but it felt like they had lasted for several minutes.

It felt like I had committed an unforgivable crime, and to be fair, I had.  Witnessing a no-hitter in person is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and the scarcity was compounded even further given that the Mets had never thrown a no-hitter in their entire history (and wouldn’t until 2012).  This could very well have been the day it finally happened, and here’s this uninformed, inattentive 12-year-old ruining it for everyone.

Eventually, a kinder fan realized it was an innocent mistake.  He turned to me and politely said, “never mention a no-hitter while it’s in progress.”  The no-hitter was eventually broken up, but not until the eighth inning.  Sometimes, I wonder if I would still be alive today had Clark’s no-hitter been broken up immediately after my faux pas.  Lesson learned.  For life.

Why exactly does the no-hitter/perfect game jinx exist in the first place?  As one of baseball’s most cherished unwritten rules, there is no precise answer as to when or where this ritual of silence originated.  After consulting various players over the years, the consensus belief comes down to respect and paying attention to the game.

A no-hitter is one of the most spectacular feats in all of sports.  A no-hit bid can infuse a meaningless blowout in July with the same level of drama as a winner-take-all playoff game.  Every single play contributes to keeping the bid intact.  If you’re paying attention to the game, then you’re fully aware a no-hitter is taking place.  Mentioning it will draw even more attention, and might cause an unwanted distraction for the pitcher.  The players simply want to support their teammate and appreciate the moment for however long it lasts, because the bid can be taken away in the blink of an eye.

The same premise extends to fans, either at the ballpark or watching/listening from home.  If you’ve been paying attention, you know what’s happening.  There’s no need to say it aloud to the person next to you.  Unless the game has significant impact on the pennant race, even fans of a team on the receiving end of a no-hitter are secretly wishing for it to happen.  A no-hitter or perfect game is so rare that witnessing one live from start-to-finish becomes a lasting memory.

But what about broadcasters who are tasked with painting the best possible word picture?  Should the radio guy mention a no-hitter while it’s in progress?

Yes.

There are elements of the game, both written and unwritten, that everyone needs to adhere to, broadcasters included.  What is seen in the clubhouse stays in the clubhouse, respecting your elders, and being on time for the bus are just a few prominent examples.

At the same time, a broadcaster’s job is to keep the listener informed and tuned in for as long as possible.

I’ll reiterate that I do believe in the Baseball Gods and karma in general (feel free to mock me for this), so I would never, under any circumstances, mention a no-hitter or perfect game in the dugout or in the stands the way I did 20 years ago.  However, you’re obligated to keep the listener informed of everything taking place, and that includes a potentially historic accomplishment.  If a batter was a double away from hitting for the cycle and was due up in the ninth inning, you would be failing the listener by not mentioning this possibility.  The same applies to a no-hitter.  You just have to treat the situation with respect.

The following are some guidelines for respectfully keeping the listener informed during a no-hit bid.

Why do you need to explicitly mention the no-hitter?
Not every listener has been tuned in from the start of the game, and when it comes to radio, the listener may not have access to an online gametracker.  You have to assume the radio is the listener’s only means of following the game live.  This is especially true in a blowout score where there may not be a compelling reason to listen to the final few innings.

Think about a family member of the pitcher.  If they join the broadcast in progress, and you make them aware of what’s going on, I can guarantee that family member is going to reach out to as many other family members as possible and encourage them to tune in.  More people get to savor the moment as it unfolds, and more people are listening to your broadcast.  This is a win-win for the industry as a whole.

Now, consider the flipside.  What if that same family member has other matters to attend to?  What if they conclude the game is out of reach, and they’ll find out how the final few innings went by calling their son/grandson/nephew the next day?  If the family member missed an accomplishment of this magnitude because you failed to properly inform them, how disappointed do you think they would be?

I’ve been fortunate enough to call three no-hitters at the professional level, and at least two other games I can recall in which a no-hitter was carried into the seventh inning or later.  In all five instances, there was a point in the later innings where I made sure the listener was aware of the potential feat.  And in all five instances, I never once received a complaint from a fan or family member saying that I was responsible for jinxing the bid, or that the no-hitter was accomplished despite jinxing it on the air.

At what point is it appropriate to start discussing the no-hitter?
For a standard nine-inning game, the seventh inning is when you should gently bring up the possibility of a no-hitter.  If the pitcher (or team) is at least through six innings, then they are down to single digit outs, and could finish it off by going through the batting order just one more time.

The worst thing that can happen is for someone to break up the no-hitter immediately after you mention the bid.  Right or wrong, this juxtaposition is what validates the idea of the jinx.  To try and minimize this risk, you can make first mention of the bid at the close of an inning.  For example, once the pitcher records the final out in the sixth, you can say something like, “And (pitcher’s name) has not allowed a hit through six innings!”  Waiting until the third out is recorded before mentioning the no-hitter buys you an entire half-inning of separation before the pitcher retakes the mound.

Bringing up the bid anytime before the seventh inning is premature, and puts you at greater risk for contributing to a potential jinx.  And it should be obvious that formally mentioning a no-hitter or perfect game in the third or fourth inning is just absurd.  If you’re guilty of doing this, you deserve whatever wrath comes your way from the Baseball Gods or listeners.

Once a no-hitter reaches the seventh inning, how frequently should it be mentioned?
Don’t overdo it.  This is where you’ll need to strike a delicate balance between keeping the listener informed and being respectful at the same time.  You need to mention it, but don’t mention it every five seconds.  During our review of the mechanics tool, we explained that citing the score and inning should take place approximately once per batter.

For a no-hitter, there is no perfect answer, but twice per inning should be enough.  If the pitcher keeps the bid going, the inning should be relatively quick anyway, so two mentions will accomplish your goal of keeping the listener informed.  The first mention can be at the top of the inning with something akin to, “(pitcher’s name) heads to the mound having not allowed a base hit over seven.”  If a bid reaches the ninth (or final) inning, you can apply the once per batter guideline.

What type of language should be used?
Like the frequency of mentions from the seventh inning on, there is no perfect answer.  However, the more direct and up front you are, the more the listener is going to respect your handling of the situation.  When we reviewed Vin Scully’s call of Sandy Koufax’s perfect game, we pointed out that Scully uses the explicit phrase “perfect game” freely throughout the ninth inning.  Here is our analysis of Scully’s language from that post:

The phrase “perfect game” is also used on several occasions.  Whether or not a broadcaster should say the words “perfect game” or “no-hitter” while a bid is still intact has been debated for years (expect a future post on this subject).  I am of the belief that you absolutely have to acknowledge a bid on the radio.  Even if you disagree, it’s clear that Scully used the phrase with a certain confidence during the Koufax game.  He was not going to allow superstition to influence how he went about his business, and that should be respected.

If you want to avoid the exact phrases “no-hitter” or “perfect game”, that’s fine, but just remember that the more cryptic you are with your language, the more difficult it will be for the listener to understand what is taking place.  If you saturate the latter innings of a no-hitter with vague statements like “there’s all zeroes on the scoreboard” or “(pitcher’s name) is working on something special,” your call becomes less effective.  Overusing cute phrases might even come across as you trying to make the moment about yourself and your call instead of the potential achievement.

Context of the moment also plays a major role in calling a no-hitter, and is yet another reason why you need to mention it in the first place.  If you’re providing a high quality of information, here are a few questions the listener expects to be answered: When was the last time this team had a pitcher throw a no-hitter?  When was the last time this league had a pitcher throw a no-hitter?  How many no-hitters have there been in league history?  Has this pitcher ever thrown a no-hitter before?  Has the opposing team ever been no-hit before?

It’s impossible to answer these questions without using language that is explicit and direct.

As long as your intent is to keep the listener informed by painting the best possible word picture, a baseball broadcaster has to mention a no-hit bid while it’s still in progress.  Just do it respectfully.

On a related note, if the team you’re broadcasting for is being no-hit, it’s extremely unprofessional to try and “intentionally” jinx a no-hitter.  If you’re visiting Growcasting, this probably doesn’t apply to you.  I have to mention it, though, because a color commentator committed this very act during a broadcast in 2008, and I have never been more embarrassed to be on the air.

Finally, if you are lucky enough as I have been to actually call a no-hitter, you need to respect the accomplishment.  This begins with recognizing that EVERY no-hitter is a true accomplishment, and should be treated as such.  You should never criticize a no-hitter just because:

– It wasn’t a perfect game
– The pitcher walked a high number of batters
– It was a combined no-hitter
– It was a seven-inning game
– It was a combined no-hitter in a seven-inning game
– There was a controversial call by an umpire
– It took place at a lower level of the minor leagues
– It was pitched by the opposing team

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