Unfolding the Map
Spring is in the air, where I live, as the days are starting to get incrementally warmer. And that means baseball season is starting. William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) talks with an old man in Bagley who misses the imagery and imagination of the old baseball terms. I agree with him, and this post will tell you why. To find your location, I'll give you an inside pitch: Here's the map - I promise, no curveballs!
"'Hear that?' a dwindled man asked. He was from the time when boys drew 'Kilroy-Was-Here' faces on alley fences. 'Did you hear the announcer?'
"'I wasn't listening'
"'He said 'velocity'...He's talking about a fastball...This is a baseball game, not a NASA shot....'
"'....That's how they tell you speed now. They don't try to show it to you: 'smoke,' 'hummer,' the high hard one.' I miss the old cliches....'
"....The man took a long smacking pull on his Grain Belt. "Damn shame.' he said. 'There's a word for what television's turned this game into.'
"'What's the word?'
"'Beans,' he said. 'Nothing but beans and hot air.'"
Blue Highways: Part 7, Chapter 10
Like many a kid, summers were lazy times for me. My family was lucky enough to own some property in the wilderness along a river, and we would go there every weekend in the summer, and sometimes for a week or even two weeks. We only had a cabin on the property which was used mostly for storage in the summer, so all the time spent there was outdoors. We ate outdoors and slept outdoors after roasting marshmallows over a large campfire. My father had hooked up lights to a generator, so we did have lights courtesy of a large, gas-powered machine.
TV was out of the question. So afternoons were spent swimming, eating and listening to baseball games. In fact, I got my formal education in baseball not by going to baseball games, because we lived a four-hour drive from the nearest major league parks, but by listening to announcers for the San Francisco Giants, Oakland A's and occasionally, the Los Angeles Dodgers on the radio.
In other words, I learned baseball through the lingo, the universal patois that announcers used and the individualities that they brought to their craft. You couldn't listen to a Dodgers game without hearing Vin Scully. The Dodgers were my favorite team at the time (even though the Bay Area was closer, I couldn't bring myself to root for the Giants or the A's). Every time Scully would call a home run, you'd hear the crack of the bat on the radio and then Scully would say "Forget it!" or "She - is - gone!!" followed by a description of the home run. Always especially exciting was when the Dodgers played the Giants, because most of my friends were Giants fans. The Dodgers always seemed pretty good year after year, but the Giants were always dangerous because of the rivalry, and Willie McCovey was a great home run hitter. The Giants also had some good announcers, including Lon Simmons, Bill Thompson, Al Michaels and Gary Park. In Milwaukee, I always enjoyed the announcing of Bob Uecker, the voice of the Brewers.
Radio announcers had to use colorful and descriptive language in calling games because they had to put the pictures of the game into the listener's mind. It was one thing to call a single, but the game came more alive, more exciting, if the single was a frozen rope, or a Texas leaguer. A home run was much more meaningful if it was a shot, or a four bagger, or a round tripper. I never realized just how more vivid these games were than watching games on television or even attending the game. A great announcer could add nuances and depths to the game that you just couldn't get anywhere else.
On television, however, announcers could become lazy. They didn't have to describe the game vividly because the action unfolded in front of the viewer on the screen. The camera could only capture certain aspects of the game, however, and mostly focused on pitcher, batter and catcher. What the camera couldn't often capture, except in brief bursts, were the infield cheating in on the hitter if they suspected a bunt was coming, or the second baseman moving in on the runner to try to get a quick throw from the pitcher and tag him out, or the outfield cheating to the right because they knew that the hitter tended to hit to the opposite field. All of those little bits of strategy were lost as the game became primarily about the battle between pitcher and batter on the small screen, and the other players reduced to bit parts in that drama.
On the other hand, nothing beats going to a baseball game and watching from the stands. You can take in the whole field and see the game in its wholeness and entirety as it unfolds. But again, something is missing. Unless you take a portable radio (or now something that live streams audio), you don't get the benefit of the announcers, so the vividness of the presentation is replaced by your own inner monologue of what is happening.
To me, the picture painted by a good announcer is one key to really understanding and loving baseball, and for me it was the major key given my lack of access to major league parks. It's unfortunate that baseball has declined in popularity over the years, giving way to football and basketball though it still calls itself the national pasttime. To give you a sense of how descriptive it is, I hereby present a ninth inning of a close game, called by a fictional announcer in my head, using baseball's colorful and unique language.
As we head into the ninth inning, the Isotopes find themselves down one with the top of the order coming up. The Zephyrs' Carmine is taking his warmup pitches. Since taking over the closer role, Carmine has been bringing it to hitters, but he occasionally throws wild. Robinson will be the first to bat for the 'Topes. He's had a tough year this year, hitting only this side of the Mendoza line but in this game he's gone 2 for 3 and barely missed with a line shot to center. If he gets on, he's a problem for the Zeph's because he's got wheels.
Carmine looks in, deals and Robinson takes it for a strike. Robinson looks at the ump as if he doesn't agree. Carmine shakes off the catcher and deals high heat, but Robinson holds back for ball one. Carmine looks in and brings it. Robinson swings late but connects! Its a Baltimore chop that bounced over the head of the first baseman into right field. Robinson's on!
Carmine has to pitch from the windup to Stokes, who might be called on to sacrifice. He looks over at Robinson, who is taking his lead. He throws to first hoping to catch Robinson off the bag, but Robinson dives back in. Carmine looks in at the signal, shakes his head, and seems to accept. Stokes is not giving anything away. Carmine deals...Stokes lays down a perfect bunt, a dribbler up the third base line. Sanchez charges in from third, barehands it, and beats the runner with the throw by a step. Robinson goes to second on the sac bunt!
The home crowd is into this one! Next up is Williams. He can hit the ball a country mile but he's also among the leaders in whiffs. Carmine takes a look back at second. The second baseman is cheating in toward Robinson but Carmine winds and deals. A called strike on the outside corner. Carmine looks again, deals, ball one in the dirt. Williams steps off the plate, looks toward the bench, and steps in again. Carmine takes a quick look at Robinson's lead, winds, and here's the pitch. Williams swings under it and it's a high pop...Rodriguez is under it and shags the routine fly in shallow left.
Bert Johnson, the Big Bertha, is striding to the plate. He is having an outstanding year this year, leading the team in ribbies and round-trippers. The catcher calls time and comes out to make sure he's on the same page with Carmine. Here comes blue to get them back to the game. The plate ump brushes off the plate, and here we go. Carmine looks in, Bertha stares back. Carmine throws high and inside and brushes Johnson back. Big Bertha isn't happy with that, and steps back in with a glare. Another high and inside from Carmine, and this time Johnson has to go down. That was close to being a beaner. Johnson picks himself up, and you know he's angry. The ump calls time and warns Carmine. Carmine takes the ball and goes back to the rubber. He looks at Robinson, who's just fine where he is. Carmine turns and fires. A hanging fastball! A swing and a hit! It's a monster out toward left center. The left fielder is racing back, he leaps at the wall and he's got it...wait, he lost it over the wall! He had a snow cone that popped out over the wall when he hit the padding. The crowd has gone berserk. The 'Topes win on a downtowner by Big Bertha! What a game!
I wasn't completely fictional...the two team names are Triple-A clubs from the last two cities where I have lived, New Orleans and Albuquerque. Any resemblance otherwise to baseball players living or dead is purely coincidental.
When a radio baseball announcer is on, the results can be poetry. I do not flatter myself that I've reached that level in my example above, but I hope that it has given you a sense of what you might hear. I think that the old man in Bagley, who pronounces that television has turned the game into "beans," is right on the money. The poetry, the cadence, the vividness, and most importantly, the epic human drama of baseball is lost when you aren't lead to images through the words of a skilled announcer. Listening to many of those announcers can be equivalent, to a rabid baseball fan or a young boy with a transistor radio in the 70s, to listening to an epic recited by Homer (pun only slightly intended) or Virgil.
I believe (I may be wrong but I believe), that baseball, more than any other sport, has inspired songs. I have put two of my favorite baseball songs for your musical interlude. Steve Goodman sings about a dying Chicago Cubs fan's last request, and Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball, by Buddy Johnson and Count Basie, about the pioneering baseball player who integrated the major leagues.
If you want to know more about Bagley
Next up: Lake Itasca, Minnesota