About twice a season my fiancé, Liz agrees to join me at the ballpark. The agreement doesn’t come easily and without its caveats; usually, the proposition isn’t settled before the promise of hot dogs, beer and Dippin’ Dots is established. Every summer we replay our first baseball compromise, The Great Safeco Compromise of 2014 when these terms of agreement were first struck into stone.
Let me sign-post this first by saying that I dearly love Liz, but in those early days she wasn’t that fun to go to a ballgame with, and she’d admit to this, at least I think so. Balls and strikes were hard for her to keep track of, balls hit into foul territory where confusing, and tagging-up on a pop fly seemed to her a bizarre rule solely created to make the game even less exciting than it already was. She had a hard time not squirming in her seat, but I get it, she didn’t grow up watching/listening to the game.
Yet, through watching enough games, listening to them on the radio, and in particular, listening to the 2016 World Series, she started to pick it up and began to anticipate the more arcane movements of the game. She never wanted it, but she became tuned-in to the tension within the pauses of the game. Sorry, Liz.
Baseball is a game of pauses and repetition with the promise of an anomaly. A hit is an anomaly, a double-play is an anomaly, a rally is an anomaly. It’s a game where the defense has the upper hand and the guy with the bat is the sitting duck. Unless, he’s an anomaly, but even then, if he’s one of the best, he’ll only hit safely in three of every ten at-bats. However a viewer/listener, especially the seasoned fan senses the space available for an anomaly to happen. Within the minutiae of the game is the possibility for anything to happen and the consequences of that happening may have a dramatic impact on the game. In other words, each game consists of thousands of moments for the unexpected to happen. Spaces.
Tension inhabits these spaces, but as the history of the game has shown, you don’t have to physically be there to experience those spaces and feel their tension.
At the turn of the 19th Century, the only way to experience these pauses was if you physically went to a game. However, a decade into the 20th Century the living-scoreboard was born.
The scoreboard consisted of two panels, each illustrated with a baseball diamond and batting orders. The middle panel housed the score-line. An operator worked behind the scoreboard lighting up what part of the field a ball was hit to and the bases occupied. An announcer called out the game’s updates, gaining game information from telephone or wire. As you can imagine, there were delays, sometimes lengthy, between updates.
Crowds formed on the streets, especially during the World Series, waiting eagerly for a lightbulb to light up and signal the next anomaly. These viewing parties, as they were called, also took place in theaters. The Coleman Lifelike Scoreboard is an exquisite example of the early baseball fan’s participation in a game’s facsimile.
The facsimile worked because the tension within the spaces of the game remained unchanged. Though one could not see the pitcher physically throw the ball for a ball or strike, the viewing party participant still had to wait, just like the fan in the bleachers for the count to update. The little white light would illuminate a ball or a strike, and the tension would slightly release, but only momentarily before it would increase as the count began to fill. For the first time, a fan could not physically be there, but imagine being there, and visualize the battle between pitcher and batter.
In 1921 Pittsburg, the first radio broadcast of a live game changed and revolutionized the baseball fan’s experience. Unfortunately, team owners viewed the live broadcast as a threat to the team’s profit margins. This fear increased during the Great Depression when many teams were struggling to attract fans to visit the ballpark. It wasn’t until the famously unmovable and granite-faced commissioner of MLB Baseball, Kenesaw Mountain Landis made a deal with the team owners during the 1935 World Series between the Detroit Tiger and Chicago Cubs, that the American Past time would officially be available on all major networks. By 1939, every Major League team allowed for their home games to be broadcasted live.
The radio broadcast made the most of the game’s spaces. The secret was for the announcer to understand the pace of the game; when to supply analytical or anecdotal context, and how to creatively maximize the release of tension when an anomaly took place. However, the greatest gift of a broadcaster was and still is to know when to talk and when to shut up.
Most spaces in baseball are best accented by silence. For example, letting the background noise come to prominence just before the pitch. Let silence dominate the space of time between when the pitch hits the catcher’s mitt and the umpire signals his call. The silence that accompanies biting your tongue during the mechanics of a double play. These moments are meant to be stretched out by white noise.
On the other hand, if taking place in the space of time between when a ball is hit and when it lands, an elongated cry from the upper airway of the announcer is the desired effect. This was and still is the beauty of baseball on the radio: The listener has an outside voice in dialogue with their own, inside their head, to enhance the experience and elevate the moments, spaces and tensions of the game.
“I loved listening to baseball on the radio when I was a kid,” my father once told me. “I’d sit on the floor of the music room, and I’d wait for Mantle, Marris and Yogi Berra to arrive in the batting order. You always knew, because it was the World Series, that something exciting would happen, you just weren’t sure when, but something was bound to happen. Often, something great with that Yankees team.”
When I was a kid, I’d go to the Kingdome and watch Randy Johnson pitch. When his foot hit the rubber, I’d hold my breath and hold it until the ball smacked into the catcher’s mitt. “Strike!” The umpire would usually yell, and I’d let my breath out. I helped Randy throw a lot of strikes.
I used the same rituals to consecrate the holy spaces of the game when Ken Griffey Jr. was at bat. I always focused on him for the whole at-bat, especially between pitches because I believed he had a greater chance of getting a hit if I did. Being that he was one of the greatest players of all-time, the intended outcome of my ritual often came true.
When I listened to the games on the radio—Dave Niehaus always called a thriller even when we lost with one or two hits—I’d perform my player rituals with the announcer and feel connected to those players and the spaces. I could will things to happen if I inhabited those spaces and made them my own.
I never did that with television though, at least when watching alone. I found watching a game alone to embody the pejorative sense of the word, facsimile. My theory now is that even though I’m watching what’s happening in real time the power of my imagination is limited because I’m not there and therefore not listening to the game inside the proper context. Seeing and hearing become two totally different things when it comes to imagining and inhabiting baseball’s spaces. With television, all I get out of it is a banal two-dimensional rendering to relate to, and it doesn’t compare to the radio. The spaces, the in-between parts get flattened and the what-ifs never have enough time to manifest and grow the proper amount of tension before their secrets are given away.
“I’ll never really be a die-hard fan,” Liz said to me after we listened to the Cubs win the World Series for the first time in 108 seasons in arguably the greatest Game 7 ever played. “But, that was a lot of fun. It seemed like anything could happen, and you never knew when. I can’t believe I actually cheered, don’t tell anyone that I cheered.”
That’s a promise I can’t make.
This season I encourage you to sometimes turn off the television set, or close your computer, and snap a game on the radio. Find those spaces in the game where the tension lives and bunk with it. If anything, it’s a chance to slow down and enjoy the wait.