THE FIRST ROUND of the playoffs is history. Tawdry, bumbling history, marred by shoddy umpiring, Minnesota's dumber-than-dirt baserunning and the babbling of Chip Caray on TBS.

Cue the catcher/broadcaster/singer. Enter Tim McCarver doing the American League Championship Series on Fox, the bull's-eye on his back enlarged by the recent release of an album, McCarver crooning from the Great American songbook.

"My father was a huge Sinatra fan," McCarver explained the other day. "He loved the music, the history of the music. I was 8 or 9 listening to Sinatra, listening to the Harry James band.

"In '61, I was 19, playing in Puerto Rico in the International League. Dean Stone, lefthanded pitcher, was a big Sinatra fan. After games we'd carry this 120-pound hi-fi set up on the roof. Bring a case of India or Corona beer. I remember the case cost about $4.80. We'd drink the beer and listen to Sinatra."

The reviews have been brutal. McCarver turns that same deaf ear to the critics.

"If I don't listen to the critics of my baseball broadcasting," he grumbles, "why would I listen to the critics of my singing?"

Why, indeed. McCarver has been gainfully employed as a network baseball broadcaster since 1985. He did a game at Citizens Bank Park this summer and they played a track from his album. The Phanatic did a phox trot in phoul territory.

" 'Change Partners,' " McCarver recalled, chuckling. "The Phanatic changed partners, dancing with different security guards."

Let the record show that back in the day, the Phillies were loaded with media/singer types. Late nights at the Beachcomber restaurant on Clearwater Beach, you'd get ballads from broadcaster Bill Campbell or Bus Saidt, the Trenton writer.

Campbell always featured "Fly Me to the Moon." Saidt was eloquent on the sports writer's anthem, "Lush Life." McCarver would finish a distant third in that competition. Fourth if you want to include Harry Kalas' fervent "High Hopes."

Howard Cosell used to demean criticism as "throwing spitballs at a battleship." McCarver simply shrugs and goes about his business. What sets him apart as a baseball broadcaster is looking ahead, describing the manager's options in advance, first-guessing if you will, instead of waiting for the action to unfold and second-guessing the strategy.

"Yep," McCarver conceded, "that's part of my pattern. I make no apologies for it. That's what a fan wants to hear. That's part of what baseball is all about. Looking ahead.

"A lot of that comes from my identity as a player. From a catcher's standpoint, that's always the case, anticipating. I learned a lot from Eddie Stanky, from George Kissell in the Cardinals' organization. I only played for Gene Mauch for 3 1/2 months, but I heard things I had never heard before.

"And I became better friends with Gene when I played against him than I had been when I played for him."

He handles the venomous darts the way he handled Steve Carlton's slider. Talks too much?

"There was a time when I did, when I first started," McCarver said. "I remember [legendary producer] Don Ohlmeyer told me in 1980, Phillies-Kansas City World Series, 'If you have something to say, you never talk too much.' "

That he favors one team over another? "Laughable," he said. "You can go back to '86, Vince Scully and Joe Garagiola, lambasted for being fans of the Mets. Scully wasn't even a fan of the Dodgers.

"If Boston is involved, and you [the announcer] don't carry that Red Sox banner, they rip you. It's inevitable. It's unavoidable. But that doesn't make it right."

Shabby umpiring? McCarver will point it out. Reckless baserunning? Tim will lecture. Dubious strategy? Covered in advance. He comes prepared.

Those late-summer impressions of the Phillies?

"I saw an offense that could bludgeon the opposition," he said. "I saw good baserunners with Rollins, Victorino, Werth. I saw a solid defensive team. And I saw a team with myriad problems in the bullpen."

Myriad problems. Charlie Manuel couldn't have said it better. Meanwhile, the album is selling. Barnes and Noble seems interested. Is McCarver happy with it? "It's not Michael Feinstein," he quipped, "but it's better than 'not bad.' "

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