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A Baseball Game is Simply a Nervous Breakdown Divided into Nine Innings

By Michael Murray | TV | September 25, 2009 | Comments ()

By Michael Murray | TV | September 25, 2009 |


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My fantasy baseball team--A Fury of Pigeons--has been eliminated from the playoffs in my Yahoo league. This has nothing to do with my managerial skills, which are sneaky awesome, and everything to do with craphole performances from losers like Chipper Jones and David Ortiz. Although this investment setback will cost me nearly $6,000, the good news is that I can now actually concentrate on watching baseball.

As many of you who actually like the sport know, enjoying real baseball and fantasy baseball at the same time is pretty much impossible. In fantasy baseball-- a pursuit that all the all the ladies think is deadly cool, by the way-- you end up watching stats, not games, and are invested in the fate of a bunch of scattered individuals, not teams. You become obsessed with results, scarcely caring about the process that produced the results, and this, I think, is completely contrary to an authentic enjoyment of the game. And so, free of my fantasy baseball obligations, I will be happy to sit down in front of a TV and enjoy a game, not having to worry about what Rich Harden's bad start is doing to my WHIP.

Right now, with just over a week remaining in the regular season, I plan on finding a bar stool upon which to park myself, and gear up to watch the postseaon. A bar is the perfect spot to watch a ball game. Slowly, in no hurry at all, over a couple of beers, you get to drift in and out of conversations with the people sitting around you, using the game as a sort of communicative spine. With the volume on the TV turned off, the various barflies sitting around provide the play by play, which tends to the profane rather than the informative.

One night at my local, an old alcoholic who was about an inch from being homeless, was wandering from customer to customer. Nobody much liked him, as he smelled of stale cigarettes and lemons, and was suspected of stealing tips of the tables. He put his arm around me and pointed up at the TV. " You see that guy there?" He was pointing at Tommy Lasorda, who at the time was the manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, " I roomed with him back in '53 when he was pitching for the Montreal Royals. He was a goddamned fart machine! Although you don't often get such unusual insights on TV, baseball broadcasts are an open invitation to surreal ramblings.

It's a slow game, baseball.

A very, very slow game.

The moments of actual action, say, when somebody hits the ball, are few and far between, but like the music of Miles Davis, it's not the notes that count, but the space between the notes. The pauses in the game allow other things to drift in, and over the course of two-and-a-half hours, or however long the game takes, you will have been exposed to all sorts of unanticipated treasures.

When I was younger, if I ever had insomnia, I'd tune in to whatever baseball game I could find on the radio. It seemed random and exotic, something that led me to places I'd never been to like New York, Seattle and San Francisco. Comforted by the adult voices of the broadcasters and the rhythms of the game, I felt safe, a little less lonely, I guess, and I'd relax and eventually fall asleep.

I particularly loved stumbling upon a Yankee game and getting to hear Phil Rizzuto, whose digressions were so accidentally lyrical, that they were eventually distilled into a volume of found poetry.

Here's one:

My Secret
When I'm driving
To Yankee Stadium and back,
I do it so often.
I don't remember passing lights.
I don't remember paying tolls
Coming over the bridge.
Going back over the bridge,

I remember...
August 19, 1992
Oakland at New York
Mike Moore pitching to Mel Hall
Fifth inning, one out, bases empty
Yankees lead 4-1

Of course, I rarely listen to games on the radio now, as there are a billion different cable options to keep me happy, and now if I can't sleep, I'll just switch on the TV and watch the live feed from some west coast game.

At night, the illuminated ballparks are visions of pop art. Beautiful and idiomatically American, they're perfect stages for the unfolding theatre that's taking place on the field.

By virtue of the fact that there's actually very little immediate action taking place, the camera, with scholarly attentiveness, seeks out other visual details that inform the game. Cast into high definition, everything in the game slows down. We see the manager pacing in the dugout, the rookie blowing a bubble as he shifts his position at third base. In the distance, the camera zooms in on a pennant flapping in the wind behind the fence, the theme music from Jaws playing on the organ as the pitcher goes into this wind up. The crowd chants.

And when the pitcher releases the ball, we see the stitches rotate as it heads toward the waiting batter. Somehow, a multitude of narratives, all pointing toward the outcome of the game, are all being told at the same time, and it's always a beautiful and striking piece of storytelling.

During the postseason, Fox, the network that broadcasts the games, has a multitude of camera's at their disposal, many of which are trained not on the players on the field, but the people in the stands watching the players. In their faces, the stories of the unfolding game are written. We see a woman biting her fist, or a man taking off his ball cap and nervously running his fingers through his hair. We might catch an unguarded glimpse of star player jumping up on the first step of the dugout, checking to see if that hit was fair or foul, forgetting for a moment the stoic professionalism that was conferred upon him by his $20 million a year salary.

The tension and drama that infuses a baseball game is rarely about what's happening on the field, but rather what's about to happen, the potential of that moment. Everybody shares in this anticipatory force of hope, and that energy--which sometimes radiates right out of the television set-- is what can make watching a baseball game such a simultaneously transportive and connected experience.

On another note, Go, Yankees, Go!

Michael Murray is a freelance writer. For the last three and a half years he's written a weekly column for the Ottawa Citizen about watching television. He presently lives in Toronto. You can find more of his musings on his blog, or check out his Facebook page.


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