Pure baseball: The sounds of the game
Cloudless sky. 75 degrees. Palms swaying beyond the outfield fence. Two good teams in a tight, well-played game, on an immaculate, professional grade ball field.
Pitchers are throwing strikes, batters are raking, fielders are scooping ’em up and hauling ’em in.
And I don’t want to be anywhere else.
That was Arizona, where I watched Middlebury College baseball last week, six games in three days, double headers. I’m the baseball “faculty affiliate” (all Midd teams have one).
When the second game ended each day, I wished there were two more.
Let’s play four!
The teams were from all over America’s northern states, in Arizona because the climate at home precluded competitive play.
I saw the Panthers play against nines from Wisconsin (Carthage College), Minnesota (Gustavus Adolphus, Hamline), and Maine (Thomas). After I left Phoenix, they played Oberlin (Ohio), Lewis and Clark (Oregon), and Williams (Massachusetts).
Middlebury won three and lost three while I was there, and went 7-5 for the week. They took two out of three from Williams, league games, which counted toward post-season league (NESCAC) play.
I realized soon enough that the weather, the quality of competition, the setting, were not the reasons for my contentment.
What I was watching was pure baseball, unadulterated timeless baseball, the same game my 75 year old Uncle David played when the Wayne (Maine) Townies took on the Turner Townies in the 1950s, the same game that my dad witnessed as a teenager in the 1920s in Boston, before all the gadgetry and hoopla came to dominate our experience as spectators.
Every sound I heard at these games in Arizona was authentic. There was no unwelcome noise, no public address announcer, no recorded music between at-bats and innings, no electronic scoreboard even.
These elements are present everywhere now, even at college games at Middlebury, considered necessary to fans’ enjoyment, required enhancements to the game on the field, de rigueur.
The only sounds I heard in Arizona were the sounds of the game: the crack of the bat (OK, the ping of the bat), the ball pounding the glove, the coaches and players shouting encouragement at one another, the umpire’s every call.
Also the sound of other fans and me in conversation and mutual enjoyment of the game: “Attaboy, Mike. Nice hit!”
Baseball has always been a great game for conversation. The intervals between pitches, batters, and innings is ideal for social intercourse. It’s a game meant for a warm afternoons with friends.
Of course, at professional games, there is a non-stop barrage of noise, a cacophony, loud music when every hitter comes to the plate, a P.A. announcer who gives you more information than you ever need to know: birthdays, commentary, all manner of commercial announcements.
In the majors, there’s a scoreboard, diamond-vision, that presents not only video recreations of play, but all kinds of other visual folderol, including commercials, just like on TV, on a state-of-the-art sound system.
At minor league games, promotions predominate. The game is secondary. Mascots cavort, music, loud music, accompanies every at-bat; there’s recorded cheering, the “Macarena,” “YMCA.” It’s relentless.
All this noise allows pro baseball teams to compete for the so-called “entertainment dollar.” To do so means pitching the game to the non-fan, or casual fan, who these days will find the game itself slow, boring, at least that’s the conventional wisdom.
We live in a world of constant stimulation. The pace of baseball, at its essence, is out of phase with the times.
At lower latitudes, the game reasserts itself as the main event. In those natural pauses and breaks in the game, we are left to our own thoughts or to interact in peace with friends and fellow fans.
At the parks where the Panthers played in Arizona, there was a scoreboard, but no one to operate it, the power wasn’t on.
How then did we keep track of the progress of play? How did we know the situation in the game — the score, inning, outs, balls and strikes?
We paid attention. We kept track: We watched the game.
If we took a break to get a soft drink or to use the facilities, we asked a neighbor. Or we asked a team member we knew on the bench, a natural process:
“Hey, Murph, what’s the score?
These games were exciting and peaceful at the same time. Baseball is a game of condensed action and we witnessed some dynamic play. We were also free to be in the game without distraction.
I know, I sound old-fashioned. Well, I am.
Nonetheless, it’s baseball season — Happy New Year! I will still enjoy going to Centennial for the Lake Monsters, or down to Fenway in Boston, or a road trip to some other baseball destination.
But when I’m agitated, or fighting insomnia, I will place myself back in Arizona on a warm afternoon with nowhere to go and no one to see and a ballgame to watch.
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