Keith Moreland Shows Cubs, WGN Picked A Winner For The Booth With Pat Hughes

Keith Moreland's debut as Ron Santo's successor went as good as possible Sunday, and "Zonk" should only get even better.

There was something in the air Sunday afternoon -- a lack of dead air on the Cubs' first spring training broadcast of 2011.

New color analyst Keith Moreland made his debut, and if anything, there was a lack of breathing space in between his comments and that of play by play man Pat Hughes. No classic pauses to hear someone pop paper cups, or yell an epithet at the field, or a stray Ronnie Woo-Woo "woo" creeping in.

But better a little too much than too little. This is a new post-Ron Santo Cubs radio presentation, not that the late legend didn't have his redeeming, endearing qualities. Now, though, fans will enjoy a technically proficient announcer who has a good voice, a sense of timing, knows the game from a player's standpoint and is an authentic ex-Cub from top to bottom.

Moreland already had done seven broadcasts with Hughes as a fill-in, but Sunday was the first in which he knows he'll be a fixture for years to come. That's the fate of all proficient Cubs announcers and also one (Santo) who wasn't, but whose overpowering enthusiasm and team loyalty made him a Wrigley Field voice, literally for life, in the same manner as Harry Caray. In Moreland's case, he'll be able to analyze baseball in a way Santo, for whom preparation often was an afterthought, could not.

The chemistry between Hughes and Moreland will be quick to develop. Hughes set up Moreland expertly, and ol' "Zonk" was well-preparted to jump in every time.

The Cubs color analyst has a big load to carry even before Hughes speaks his first words each game. Moreland has to handle a pre-game talk with a studio host, in Sunday's case Jim Memelo; host manager Mike Quade's pre-game show (no, it's not "Quade in the Dugout"), and then conduct a leadoff-man-type interview, Kerry Wood being the kickoff subject Sunday.

During this pre-game setup, Moreland set the tone for describing the Quade regime in stark contrast from its predecessor, without once mentioning or criticizing Lou Piniella. "A lot of that (clubhouse) energy comes from the manager," Moreland appropriately said.

He asked good questions of both Quade and Wood, then got into his in-game rhythm with Hughes. Almost right off the bat, Moreland made a bold prediction: Starlin Castro could hit between 15 and 20 homers this season. He also noticed little nuances in the game, such as Athletics center fielder Coco Crisp wiping off his hands after handling a baseball because the outfield was wet, and thus baserunners might be able to take additional liberties.

Moreland also listed three advantages of Matt Garza's arrival: he wins games, eats innings and provides the intangibles coming from a Rays franchise that knew how to win.

I thought Moreland would be more Texas twangy that he was. But his years of experience handling both Longhorns baseball and football broadcasts have smoothed out his delivery and timing, so much so he could relieve Hughes for an inning of play by play normally handled in the regular season by Judd Sirott.

No review of an announcer's work would be complete without a couple of quibbles. When Kosuke Fukudome came  to bat in the first inning Sunday, Hughes had Moreland focus on Athletics starter Trevor Cahill's background rather than Fukudome's candidacy to hit No. 1. This came just minutes after Moreland insisted the No. 1 and 3 slots are the keys to a lineup. And a couple of times Moreland began talking a bit too much in baseball-ese. Don't get too technical in describing pitches or hitting mechanics; the majority of the audience consists of casual fans.

But that's just the first outing. Moreland was good and he's only going to get better. He also always has to possess heads-up for Hughes' wry, sly and dry humor. Continuing his tradition from Santo, Hughes began having fun with different pitchers' names like Balfour ("Ball Four"), Riske and Tankersley. "Zonk" will learn to quickly ad-lib his responses, much as Hughes did in a trial-by-fire in the Brewers booth more than two decades ago teaming with Bob Uecker, baseball's top funnyman.

Sunday was the transition day, too, from Santo's 21 seasons in the booth, 15 with Hughes. And Hughes picked an appropriate opening in the second inning to relay his appreciation to all the fans who offered their best wishes after Santo's death. He also re-lived his eloquent eulogy at Santo's funeral.

"I was very nervous, but when I got up there, it was like Ronnie was with me," he said.

There will be many more Santo references all season and beyond. Ronnie earned that. But Moreland also will earn his own distinctive place in Chicago baseball broadcast history. The Cubs and WGN have picked a winner in "Zonk."

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