The gift of radio
By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist

Editor's Note: Baseball on TV is ... OK, says Page 2's Eric Neel in today's entry in his California Baseball Diary. But if you love words and want to partake of a community created out of imagination and shared ecstatic experience, there's nothing like baseball on the radio.

Thursday, Sept. 19
Wednesday's scoreboard: Athletics 7, Angels 4; Giants 7, Dodgers 4.

Status: AL West race dead-even again; Giants have a 2-game lead over the Dodgers. 10 games to go.

Both games were televised by the Worldwide Leader tonight, but I listened on the radio instead. Two radios, actually -- the Dodgers-Giants game coming through an earphone on my left ear, the A's and Angels on a clock-radio on the bookshelf behind my desk. A lovely sort of schizophrenia -- lights off, eyes closed, and my hands still; just listening.

I grew up listening to Vin Scully call Dodgers games. I remember being with my grandfather, pulling into the garage in his Ford Rambler, turning off the engine and just sitting there in the stillness, soaking up the sound. I remember feeling like I was close to the field even though I was miles away, and I remember thinking I was in some way connected to other kids and other grandfathers in other cars all over southern California.

Ray Durham
Ray Durham got the happy treatment after hitting a three-run homer in Oakland's six-run fourth inning.

We have a special affinity for radio out here in California. From the night Scully first introduced us to the Dodgers and a wheelchair-bound Roy Campanella in April 1958, right up to tonight, when he said, "Hello everybody and a very pleasant good evening to you wherever you may be," before the first pitch from Kevin Beirne, radio has made our huge state seem intimate -- it's helped weave our far-flung communities together.

Television is cool. Pictures have a poetry, and things feel especially real when you can see them unfold before your eyes. Barry Bonds' home run off Jesse Orosco the other night -- the way it burst and climbed into a perfect streak in the sky, looking both miraculous and inevitable -- was exquisite TV, for example.

But radio ... radio we love, radio we cling to, radio we slide down into and get lost.

Somewhere tonight -- maybe it's in Chico or Redding -- a 17-year-old kid is on the roof of his garage, because he gets the best reception there, and because he loves the romance of it, loves the solitary sense of oneness he feels with 50,000-odd fans in Oakland.

And just outside a strip-mall convenience store in Anaheim, two friends who got off work too late to go to the game are sitting on a curb, listening to the radio pour out of the open window of their car. They could go down the block and watch it at a sports bar, but they don't, and neither do the skate kids who are carving circles on the blacktop and always staying just close enough to hear the action.

There are a hundred reasons for it (not just for Californians, but for folks all over the country) ... here are some of the ones I can wrap my mind around tonight:

Radio has static. The signal is never clear for very long. It wavers, it's susceptible to spikes and cuts from currents bouncing in the air. There is something semi-heroic and wholly incredible about the fact that it reaches us at all. The static crackles and pops, like an album on wax, and you know this sound is fragile, something to be cherished.

Radio comes in steady, simple rhythms. Balls and strikes, who's on, who's out, what was the pitcher's nickname in college, which old-timer does the batter resemble when he twists his wrists around the bat handle before stepping in -- without pictures to fill the gaps, words flow like a ticker tape, all rattle and hum. You start to breathe along with radio.

Jeff Kent
Jeff Kent's 36th homer helped the Giants take a 2-game lead over the Dodgers.

Radio is bursts, too. A ball pulled toward right, Cora dives ... it gets through. For a moment, everything on the Giants broadcast is noise, an ecstatic, barely-comprehensible din.

It's all about intonation. Words get stretched, pulled and twisted. Jon Miller makes "curvebaaaaaaaal" and "low" a kind of slide-trombone tweak full of love and anticipation. Words are notes, they resonate, you find yourself humming them like a tune hours after the game is over. "Sssslidur," you say, "Sssslidur!" just because you like the paper-cutter crispness of the long i.

Radio is a mental thing. Eric Chavez's ball in the fourth inning of the A's game only flies out over the wall if you imagine it going. Without you, there is nothing but the result -- home run. Without you, working in concert with Bill King's breathless words, there is no whistling line drive, no Erstad at the wall.

Radio has ambiance. Crowd noise. Kids screaming. Chants. Roars. The sorrowful exhale of a ball called just outside. With television, the split between inside and out, the distance between the screen on the stand and you on the couch is clear and unchanging (the only exception I ever saw to this principle was when my friend Fred who, when a game got tight, would crouch down and lean over the ottoman, his face inches from the screen, as though he might, Tron-like, cross the barrier and slip into the game). On radio, the game reaches out and surrounds you.

It's precise. No ancillary statistical graphics, no wide-angle shots. Single pitches hitting the glove are audible. Hits are crisp cracks of the bat. You're trained in. Your attention is where it ought to be.

It's meandering, too. You get this sort of sentence on radio (courtesy of the Dodgers' Ross Porter tonight): "Ortiz, who now makes his home in Arizona, does a good job of hiding the ball." I'm not saying there is no route between these two facts, I'm just saying it's long and circuitous, and it probably involves Barry Goldwater's love of baseball and a barnstorming tour Luis Tiant went on in the mid-1960s.

Radio is mobile. My daughter woke up crying tonight in the bottom of the ninth in L.A. Robb Nen had walked two, which brought Eric Karros to the plate as the potential tying run. I knew it wasn't likely that he'd hit one, but I knew, too, that I didn't want to miss the crack and the explosion from the crowd if he did. With my headphones sitting precariously on my head I picked her up and started rocking, glad for the way the game was seeping into my "real life" and wondering if she could hear the tinny words and whistles leaking from the headphones. You listen in your car, you carry a walkman, you lean into a tavern and ask the barkeep if he'll turn it up just for a second. You take the game with you, you find it where you go.

Radio communicates. Words don't supplement images, they construct them. Adjectives, metaphors, colloquialisms ... language itself ... means more.

There is mystery in it. You can't see the arc of a pitch or a line drive, you can't be sure what will happen to it, whether it will hit the spot or fall for a hit. You have to hang in there, in real time, not anticipating results but waiting on them. The announcer's words come not in synch with the action but just after, and for an instant, for less than that even, you are dying to know, dying to have the secret of the play revealed.

There are many other radio virtues, of course, but I'll close with this one: Radio and memory seem linked somehow. Maybe it's the fact that you have to rely on imagination when you listen. Maybe it's all the background information and storytelling most announcers offer up. Maybe it's the fact that guys like Vin and Jon Miller and Bill King have been calling games for generations.

I think it's all those things, and I think it's something else, too. I think it's that most of us have shared radio with someone at some critical point in our lives. We sat with our dads, we rode around town with our moms, we hung out on the stoop with our buddies. Radio was at the center. Its sound was what we gathered around. We took part in what my friend John calls "communion," a collective attention and investment in something.

Think about great games you've heard on the radio. For some of the best of them, weren't you sitting next to someone who was just as dialed-in as you were? You didn't say much to each other; you didn't have to. You just knew the other person was there. You felt the way their commitment echoed and doubled your own. You knew they were grooving on the same wild plays and laughing at the same odd developments you were. Years later, you remember the thrills of the game, but the thing that gives you chills, the sweetest memory, the thing that makes you want to turn on the radio tonight, is your recollection of that communion.

Previous entries: Sept. 18 | Sept. 17 | Sept. 16 | Sept. 15 | Sept. 14 | Sept. 13 | Sept. 12 | Sept. 11 | Sept. 9-10

Eric Neel reviews sports culture in his "Critical Mass" column on Page 2. You can e-mail him at eneel@cox.net.




CALIFORNIA DIARY

ALSO SEE:


Eric Neel Archive

Eric Neel's California Diary, Sept. 18

Eric Neel's California Diary, Sept. 17

Eric Neel's California Diary, Sept. 16

Eric Neel's California Diary, Sept. 15

Eric Neel's California Diary, Sept. 14

Eric Neel's California Diary, Sept. 13

Eric Neel's California Diary, Sept. 12

Eric Neel's California Diary, Sept. 11

Eric Neel's California Diary, Sept. 9-10





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