You know Bill Webb by his work. He directs baseball broadcasts for Fox and Mets games for SNY, distilling live shots, graphics and replays into cohesive narratives with verve and urgency. He is perhaps the best baseball television director ever.
But lung cancer kept him from directing last year’s World Series. After it went into remission, he said, the cancer returned, this time in his brain. He worked part time this season and was planning to be back for the World Series. But then he sustained yet another setback.
“I was heading to Game 1 and tripped on the side stairs in my house,” he said in an interview Tuesday. “I was curled up by my cellar door. I had three fractures in my pelvis and three in my rib cage. I never knew pain that bad.”
Instead of being in Cleveland on Tuesday night inside the 53-foot mobile unit that serves as Fox’s production truck, Webb is in a rehabilitation facility, doing physical therapy three hours a day. He said the brain cancer was in remission.
He has been watching the games from rehab, though he expects to eventually return to his director’s seat next to his producer, Pete Macheska.
“I’ve always said nothing beats the postseason,” said Webb, who is 69. “Every pitch means something. I miss that.”
This is the second World Series without Webb for the broadcaster Joe Buck, after 17 with him. During Game 4, Buck raised a placard that read, “Webby” during the Stand Up to Cancer tribute at Wrigley Field.
“I’m tired of holding that up,” Buck said on Monday from Chicago. “This is it. He has to come back.”
To Buck and others, Webb has been a steady, creative conductor, cutting to the right angles with uncanny speed, or anticipating what they will say with the ideal shots.
“His anticipatory skills are off the charts,” Buck said. “That comes from repetition, but he’s done the reps without getting lazy. He listens.”
Tim McCarver, who retired from Fox after the 2013 season, first worked with Webb in 1983 at ABC Sports. Together, Webb’s direction and McCarver’s analysis became an effective, sometimes artful way to convey the intricacies of baseball.
“Without my requesting it,” McCarver recalled, “he’d come to me between innings and say, ‘Take a look at this,’ and I’d say, ‘Webby, that’s great,’ and almost every time it was right on the money. And the next time the situation came up, he’d use it.”
One day, Webb asked what the second baseman and shortstop were communicating with their gloves over their mouths. McCarver explained they were deciding who would cover second base on a grounder to the pitcher with a runner on first base.
Webb’s question led to a discussion over which camera should show the exchange and a plan to show it the following week. “His curiosity led to a great visual,” McCarver said.
That curiosity is coupled with strong discipline. Mike Weisman, Fox’s former lead baseball producer, recalled that the network’s Saturday game-of-the-week crew routinely went to dinner on Friday nights, but Webb would stay at the hotel bar, nursing a drink, watching the teams in their broadcast play on local TV.
“He’s very much about doing his job,” Weisman said. “And particularly during the World Series, when he knew that every pickoff throw, every swing of the bat, every pitch could make history.”
A Webb trademark is the use of rapid camera cuts and extreme close-ups of players, managers and fans to heighten late-inning drama. The style is ingrained now, but I once criticized it for its excesses, like shots that bored tightly into a pitcher’s facial pores and the overreliance on fans bundled in parkas praying for a victory.
“Webby’s the master of being able to capture the drama in the stands and on the field,” said John J. Filippelli, the president for production at the YES Network and a former baseball producer at Fox. “He knew how many cuts were too much before the audience tired of people watching a baseball game.”
Weisman added, “When your stomach gets in knots, it’s because he’s picked up the pace.”
But Filippelli remembered how Webb used few shots after Mark McGwire blasted his 62nd home run in 1998, breaking Roger Maris’s record for a season.
“He stayed on McGwire circling the bases,” he said, “so we got McGwire’s point of view with his son, when he pointed to Sammy Sosa, and then all that interplay between McGwire and the Maris family. He never once left McGwire.”
To Filippelli, it was a lesson adapted from the work of Harry Coyle, the NBC director who created the template for televising baseball. In 1988, Coyle kept the camera on the Dodgers’ Kirk Gibson after his pinch-hit home run in Game 1 of the World Series except for one quick cut to the celebrating Dodgers streaming onto the field.
“I was in the truck,” Filippelli said. “Harry stayed on Gibson, so we didn’t miss anything. If Harry had cut the game differently, we might have missed the Gibson fist pump.”
Webb said that he felt energetic and was no longer in pain from the fractures. He expects to return next season and plans to direct 10 or 15 games for SNY while resuming a full schedule at Fox.
For now, though, he is Fox’s missing man, the name on Joe Buck’s placard.
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