Rob Dibble is the “It” boy of local sports media these days. Any Washington Nationals buzz that isn’t centered on Stephen Strasburg probably has something to do with Dibble, now in his second season as the color commentator in the MASN TV booth.
It hasn’t always been a warm and fuzzy buzz. Earlier this season, the 46-year old former all-star reliever got in a meatheady on-air squabble with postgame host Ray Knight after a Nats loss to the Kansas City Royals. Knight had hinted that Strasburg has yet to learn to throw balls when he’s ahead in the count; even that mild criticism of the young phenom had Dibble ready to brawl with a colleague.
And just last week, the men’s magazine GQ emphasized Dibble’s homer tendencies while placing him and booth partner Bob Carpenter among the five worst announcer pairings in the major leagues.
“After a great catch by the opposition, Dibble growls, ‘You gotta be kidding me,’ like he’s looking for a fight,” wrote the magazine. “By way of game analysis, Dibble complains about the umpires’ strike zones.”
Also last week, a gaggle of local bloggers put together by the site MisterIrrelevant.com produced a drinking game for Nats viewers that tweaks Dibble’s root-root-rooting for the home team. Among the rules: You have to take one drink whenever Dibble says “we,” “our” or “us,” two drinks if he “complains about pitchers throwing too many off-speed pitches,” and three drinks if he “complains about balls and strikes.” (When Dibble’s “tattoos are visible” during the broadcast, that’s also a three-drink moment.)
“Obviously there’s people in this town and throughout baseball that don’t care for me much,” Dibble says. “But I plan on staying around here a long time.”
Had he never played pro ball, there’s a good chance Dibble would have still ended up in broadcasting. His father, Walt Dibble, was a newscaster for Connecticut radio stations for 49 years up to his 1997 death. Genes or no, Rob has been gifted with an amazing voice. In person, he seems to have his own subwoofer.
And what comes out of Dibble’s mouth has had folks talking all season. He’d love all fans to love him, and he says the feedback he gets tells him most do. But Dibble, a big wrestling fan, is also fine with some portion of the audience looking at him as a heel, and tuning in just to root against him. The way Dibble sees it, all the noise around him now means he’s doing his job.
The Nats are, as of Tuesday’s loss to Dibble’s old team in Cincinnati, 14 games below .500 and 15.5 games out of the division lead. They’re not going anywhere this year. Dibble, with his hyper grunts and homerific “we’s,” provides one of the few non-Strasburgian reasons for local sports fans to keep following the team after Redskins training camp opens in a couple weeks.
Dibble’s said dumb things before. “I’ve got a tattoo on my ass to prove it,” he says.
That ink came in 2001, after Dibble went on The Dan Patrick Show and predicted before a national radio audience that newly arrived Japanese superstar Ichiro Suzuki would flop in the Major Leagues. Dibble said he’d get an Ichiro tattoo where the sun don’t shine if he was wrong.
Ichiro went out and won the American League’s Most Valuable Player award his rookie season. Dibble, with a Japanese camera crew on hand to verify, went to a tattoo shop and dropped trou. (He now says he’s got “over 30” tattoos.)
But, no matter how his Ichiro bluster panned out, Dibble says he meant what he said when he said it.
Same goes for anything he’s said since John Angelos recruited him for MASN to the Nats booth before last season. If he sounds like he likes the team that his employers put on the field, it’s because he does. He’ll like them even more next year.
“It’s hard not to root for them,” he says. “I’m with them every day. I was competitive as a player, and I’m even more competitive as a broadcaster, because you’re helpless. You can’t go out there and do it for them. When they’re losing, it’s almost like you don’t want to be critical of them. It’s a split thing, I’m loyal to the fans, and I’ll get on [the players]. But I’m also loyal to the players, because I know how hard it is.”
Dibble really does know. He was in the Majors for eight years—“Five good ones, three horrible,” he says. During the five good ones, Dibble starred for the Cincinnati Reds, earning the nickname “Nasty Boy.” He won a world series ring and was named MVP of the 1990 National League Championship Series. He was an NL All-Star twice. One of the few hurlers of his generation able to throw a 100-mile-an-hour fastball for strikes, Dibble got his 500th strikeout after just 368 innings on the mound. No pitcher in baseball history ever got there faster. Strasburg won’t beat that.
Even his critics say they admire what Dibble did in his days in uniform. But that only buys him so much goodwill.
“I looked at one of his old baseball cards recently, turned it over and saw what he did in one season: ‘Holy shit! The guy struck out like 140 batters in 90 innings! Incredible!’” says Jamie Mottram, editor of MisterIrrelevant.com and a creator of the drinking game that mocks Dibble the broadcaster. “But, even though he played it, I don’t think he understands anything analytic about the game.”
Chris Needham, who proposed a “Fire Rob Dibble” movement early in the 2010 season on his Nationals blog, Capital Punishment, concurs with Mottram. “We all like a certain level of homer, but he takes it too far,” says Needham, who is also a contributor to the sports website SB Nation DC. “He’s a fan in the booth, and he’s not educating fans.”
Of all the complaints he’s heard, Dibble says there’s only one that bothers him. “The notion that I don’t know the game is laughable,” he says.
The quickest way to get over the criticisms, Dibble says, is to think about what his dad would say if he caught a Nats broadcast—grunts, “we”s and all.
“He would tell me that I’m a character and that I’m good for the game,” Dibble tells me. “He’d say, ‘There’s too many vanilla ice cream people out there, and that’s not your way.’ It wasn’t my nature as a player, and it’s not my nature in what I do today. There’s no act. This is me.”
So if Dibble feels like saying something, critics be damned, he’s going to say it. Unless he’s on the air when the topic turns to whether the Nats’ next Can’t Miss Kid, Bryce Harper, will live up to billing.
“I don’t want another ass tattoo,” Dibble says. cp
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