Thursday, May 15, 2008

Not Nearly Enough Baseball

After my appearance on "Jeopardy!" in mid-April, I heard from a lot of people who said "too bad baseball wasn't a category," and I couldn't agree more. What they didn't realize was how close I did come to having baseball as a category. My show was taped in early February, a perfect time to escape winter's grip in Cooperstown and head to sunny southern California. I was lucky that I got to make two trips, because it was much sunnier there the second time.

"Jeopardy!" tapes five shows a day, and I was extremely eager to play in the first game of the day -- not because I was more awake than the other contestants (far from it), but because it would air on my birthday. Randomness is the guiding factor in running the show, however, and my randomness turned out to be shaky. Every morning of taping, the show's producers bring six complete game boards with them, which they turn over to the outside company which oversees randomness and other components of fairness. This system of safeguards is the residue of that little quiz-show scandal they had a half-century ago, and which led Merv Griffin's wife to suggest that instead of dishonestly giving contestants the answers to questions already posed, they create a show where contestants are given the answers and have to provide the questions. Voila! Game-show history. So the outside company chooses which five of the six game boards will be used that day, and in which order. Meanwhile, the day's new contestants gather in the green room, have their names put on index cards which are shuffled and scrambled into randomness. Two at a time are picked, and those are the challengers for the next game.

So I had big hopes for playing that first game and starting a week-long run on the show. But no. I didn't get picked for the first game, and had to remain on the sidelines with the other players, sequestered like a jury, not allowed to talk to anyone except each other, lest we get information from someone who had seen the game boards. Imagine my dismay when they revealed the "Double Jeopardy" categories and the first one was "Baseball". My hands flew up in the air in a gesture of dismay, and the people around me snickered. "Too bad for you," someone whispered. No shit, Sherlock. The five clues were easy, and assuming I had buzzed in first I would have picked up a cool $6,000 on the category. Instead, when I played I got "Double Jeopardy" categories like Physics, Marine Life, Business Talk, World Religion, and Native Americans. Not exactly my wheelhouse.

I had to wait until the final game of the day to get my chance to play. One of the first-round categories was on the NFL, and I didn't buzz in first until the $800 clue, which I got along with the $1,000 clue. That helped me build up a sizable lead by the end of the show, even without any baseball references in sight. Winning that first game was the rush of a lifetime. My mother was on "Jeopardy!" the first year it was on the air, 1964, and I remember going to Rockefeller Center with her for the taping, sitting in the audience while Art Fleming read out the answers, and watching with dismay as she lost to the show's first five-time winner. He won $6,000 in his five games, the amount I would have made just from that Baseball category on my birthday show if chance had acted differently. Still, after a mere 44-year wait, I had redeemed my mother's frustrating loss. Leaving the studio, I was asked by an audience member for an autograph, which will have to count as a sort of baseball moment, a star rookie performer giving a new fan a souvenir.

There was another baseball connection on that first show. One of my opponents--the other challenger--was a woman from Spartanburg, South Carolina. After the show, we talked about her cousin: Shoeless Joe Jackson. Her grandfather played semi-pro ball with Jackson during the 1920s, and she was knowledgeable about the banned outfielder. After the show aired last month, someone sent me a link to the Spartanburg newspaper and its headline about the local woman appearing on "Jeopardy!" The article began "A local woman nearly staged a come-from-behind victory on Friday's episode" of the show. The phrasing intrigued me. At the end of "Double Jeopardy" she had $2,300 and I had $19,600, twice as much as the defending champion, so I had the victory cinched, especially over her. It made me wonder how the folks in Spartanburg, South Carolina define "nearly". Then it dawned on me; they define the word as in "The South nearly staged a come-from-behind victory in the Civil War."

By winning the last show taped one week, I got to return to Los Angeles the following week to defend my championship. Things didn't go as well. I had a small lead after "Double Jeopardy," had to bet almost everything I had, and missed the final question, going down in flames like a doomed fighter pilot in that "most magnificent competition" of all, war. That's show biz!

I heard from a lot of friends around the country after the games aired, and a few people actually wrote to ask "how could you not get the Rangers question?" Yes, there was a baseball question on the second show. The category was Texas, and the clue was about the team that plays its home games in Arlington. Some friends felt compelled to chide me for NOT KNOWING that it was the Rangers. I felt compelled to ask them, "how can you not know that there's more to the game than knowing the answer?" In fact, knowing the answer is the easy part of the game. Most of the contestants know most of the answers. The key is buzzing in first, which is a matter of quick reflexes and timing. I just didn't buzz in fast enough on that clue. I work at the Hall of Fame; trust me, folks, I know where the teams play.

In all the years I've been watching "Jeopardy!" I can't remember seeing Baseball as the "Final Jeopardy" category--until just six shows after the one I lost. I was astonished to see it: "Baseball Terms". The answer was a quote I hadn't seen before, about how "Slugger Willie Stargell described it as 'a butterfly with hiccups'." That was easy enough to figure out. The full quote is a dandy: "Throwing a knuckleball for a strike is like throwing a butterfly with hiccups across the street into your neighbor's mailbox." Only one of the three contestants that day got it, so that was another game where I would have kicked ass. All I needed to do was win six more games and chance would have broken in my favor. It turns out that there was plenty of baseball in the vicinity during the games that aired in mid-April, but not nearly enough in the games I got to play. Oh well--it sure was fun while it lasted.

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