Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Listen To This

Yesterday I invested $14.95 of my hard-earned money in something that is going to bring me many hours of enjoyment, namely mlb.com's audio package. For that single payment, I will have access to every radio broadcast of every major league game, from spring training through the postseason. This is a lot better and cheaper than the Overload Package I subscribed to on satellite television a few years ago. That cost about $150 for the season, ten times as much as the audio.

I prefer baseball on the radio to the televised game, so this is a special bargain for me. Why the preference? I can explain it by talking about Vin Scully, regarded by most observers (that is, listeners) as the best broadcaster ever. I was lucky to be within listening range of his Dodgers broadcasts for 15 seasons. I've talked to many people whose only exposure to Scully was his work in the World Series and other national telecasts. They couldn't appreciate him. They admitted not appreciating him, simply didn't regard him as so obviously head-and-shoulder above the other telecasters that they had to bow down to him. The reason is simple. Like every other announcer of a televised game, Scully was tethered to the image on the screen. If the image switched from the pitcher to the runner leading off first, he had to explain why. If they showed someone in the dugout, he had to say something about that player. When they showed five replays, he (or some other bozo in the booth) had to comment on each different angle of the play in question. When his director flashed statistics on the screen, he had to repeat them and make some note about them. If he wanted to tell a story or give some historical perspective on the game, he had to hope it wasn't interrupted by an image of the guy warming up in the bullpen or the third-base coach giving signals or some movie star in the crowd about to be interviewed by the sideline reporter, or whatever arbitrary decision the director was making for him.

Every telecaster is a slave to the next image on the screen. There is no escape from it, and it reduces them all to homogenized voice-over automatons. At best. At worst, they try to justify their presence on the air by yakking nonstop about what we can already see on the screen. No wonder people who know Vin Scully only from his work on television don't know how special he has been for the last FIFTY-FOUR seasons.

A Scully broadcast, on the other hand, is a work of art. I hear that age has slowed him down somewhat, and he no longer does the full nine innings, so I am speaking here of Scully in his prime, say 15-20 years ago when I listened to him as often as I could even though I had no rooting interest in the Dodgers. Scully treated a baseball game like Hemingway telling a short story. His pre-game intro would set the stage for what he expected the main drama to be. Maybe it was a streaking or slumping team, maybe the aftermath to last night's brawl or some other recent dramatics, or maybe it was the roller-coaster ride rocking tonight's starting pitcher. Scully would introduce the main characters and themes in the early part of the broadcast, but like every good story-teller, he was sensitive to the variations within those themes. If he told you in the first inning that Orel Hershiser was the hottest pitcher in the league and he struggled in the early innings, he gave extra emphasis to whether Hershiser escaped those jams or paid a price by giving up runs the Dodgers might not get back for him. He knew the habits and tendencies of every player and reported their progress and their deviations from the norm, the signals that tonight might be different from what was expected.

Every game took on its own drama and shape for Scully, and he perceived the new themes as the game went along. Sometimes the story followed a direct path, and sometimes the digressions loomed larger, but always he could put every event in context -- in the context of the season, the homestand, this series, the changing fortune of the key performers, and the bigger picture of baseball history. That was the joy of listening to a Scully broadcast. It wasn't just a ballgame, a succession of hitters and pitchers producing balls and strikes and hits and runs and outs. It was a short story with motifs, characters, themes, and subplots, and sometimes it turned into a very long and complex tale indeed.

Add to this formula a gorgeous, mellifluous voice, a sense of irony, and wonderful descriptive powers, and it was a thing of beauty. How many announcers have you heard who can do this to a routine fly ball -- "Davis lofts the ball to center, Butler drifting under it, reaches up into the night, and picks it off"? Beautiful. No wonder generations of fans have brought their radios to the games at Dodger Stadium just so they could listen to Scully describing what they were watching.

That's what Scully and the other greats, most of them long departed from the scene, bring to baseball on the radio. I know what the game looks like. Listening to the broadcast, I can picture it in mind, and I don't need five replays to show me what happened. All I need is the right man by my side in the living room, sharing his vision of the game with me.

So bring on the broadcasts! I'll catch whatever Scully action I can, late at night here on the East coast, and I'll check out Jon Miller of the Giants and this year's Frick Award winner, Dave Niehaus, doing the Mariners games. I'll sample the others and pick out favorites to return to, hoping to find more artists who can "paint the word picture" and who make me feel not that I'm being force-fed a blur of images designed to appease viewers with short attention spans, but rather that I'm catching a ballgame with a friend who knows why baseball is so much fun.


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