David Anderson, aka the Sports Czar, spoke with me over a beer at Moe and Johnny’s about baseball. David’s got a certain casual swagger – sandy-blonde hair, square jaw, and a quiet intelligence he holds lightly enough that you may not realize he’s out-arguing you until you try to formulate a rebuttal. Really pisses me off. But the guy knows sports, and today I’m not looking to argue. I’m looking to understand.
David’s theory is this: baseball is a game of the nineteen-thirties. It’s a game meant for a culture without television, a game built around the idea that no fan could possibly see every single match up, yet should still be able to tune in at his or her leisure. Maybe that meant listening while at work on some sweaty factory floor, or maybe it meant turning on the radio one summer evening, sitting on the porch with a drink and a cigarette and a setting sun. It’s sport as soundtrack, sport as something to be followed casually until the very end, the last few games that really matter.
To crack this idea, I turn to the authority on ambient culture himself, Brian Eno. Eno developed the idea of ‘ambient music,’ a term he used to contrast what he was doing to the canned muzak that we’ve grown accustomed to hearing in elevators and waiting rooms. (Is it just a coincidence that Muzak Inc. came into being in the 1930s, around the heyday of baseball? Yes. Yes it is.) Whereas muzak had come to mean inoffensive, bland, and uninteresting, Eno wanted to take the concept of music-as-ambiance and create something original with it.
The key is really here, in the last line of the liner notes for Eno’s Music for Airports: “Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting [emphasis added].”
I may have it all backwards about baseball. Maybe the 162-game season has nothing to do with fanatical devotion by fans – perhaps, instead, it’s about creating an ambient sport, one that can be stepped into and out of easily. Baseball could be a parallel dimension to ours, where the pace of life is just as quick, and whose games supplement a fan’s day-to-day life, rather than being a reason to stop living it.
For a non-fan, baseball is a hard sport to follow on the radio. God knows I have enough trouble understanding what the hell I’m seeing when I can actually watch the field. But take away my eyes, and I’m left catching pieces of chatter like this:
“Marte squares the bunt, takes one inside, up the left.”
The fuck? This isn’t sports narration. This is code being transmitted to an agent in the field, somebody with a decoder ring and a Navajo code talker on standby. Even something like this:
“Giving up some room in front of him.”
Just a line thrown out casually. No names, no explanation. I’m left with absolutely no context. Who’s giving up the room, the batter or the pitcher? Where is this room, and who does it benefit? Is it good to give up room? Is this strategic? Or was it given up unwillingly, wrested away from the giver by a formidable opponent?
I’m telling you, I’d rather keep writing columns about how badass I feel in a baseball hat.
But that’s not my job, America. My job is to follow the Indians for a season, and that’s going to mean following them on the radio, and that means understanding baseball terms. So to that end, I am pleased to present the first in a series of glossaries to help the new fan understand the game. I’ll assume you have a passing familiarity – I won’t define terms like “home run” or “strike’ or “bat.” But here are a few terms I’ve picked up listening to the game that I had to look up:
AAA – First and foremost when dealing with the Indians is to understand what a Triple A club is. Basically, this refers to a team that is really, really good – but not major league. The talent on the team, however, means that a Triple A club will have a lot of players going on to play for a major league affiliate. For the Indians, this is the Pittsburgh Pirates. It’s also not uncommon to see a Pirate coming out of recuperation from an injury and playing a while for the Indians, as a kind of warm-up for going back to the majors.
Check the Runner – Say you’re on second base. Say you’re a lowdown dirty thief. You might think, hell, why not just take a few steps out to either steal the base or get a head start when the batter hits it? Obviously, no pitcher is going to stand for this. Checking the runner means just that – the pitcher is keeping an eye on the dude on base, to make sure he’s not getting too far away.
Error – I used to do some copy editing, and we had this daily evaluation called ‘post check.’ Worst part of the day. The evaluations were based entirely on mistakes – you didn’t get bonus points for getting something right, because that was your job. If there was anything to the post check at all, it was an extensive detailing of where you screwed up. Baseball is a little like copy editing. An error isn’t just not catching the ball – it’s not catching the ball when, in the estimation of the official scorer, you fucking could have. Baseball has the somewhat dubious distinction of being the only sport to obsessively track errors like this on the part of its players. No matter how good your batting and pitching, you’ll end your career with a documented, written-in-stone history of mistakes you shouldn’t have made.
Got Under the Ball – It’s a tiny, tiny baseball these poor batters are supposed to hit, and striking it just wrong can throw your whole hit to hell. If a batter gets under the ball, he isn’t striking it dead on – he’s hitting it just under center, which usually results in a high and easy to catch ball.
Pop – Never, ever good. I already knew a “pop fly” was a bad thing. It’s a ball that goes straight up, and comes straight down. An easy catch, and therefore an easy out. But what I didn’t realize was that the word “pop” is used for pretty much any ball that follows this trajectory, meaning if you’re listening to the radio and the word is used to describe the hit, no matter what word precedes or follows it, the batter is probably doomed. His only real hope is that it’s a “pop-foul,” which usually winds up in the stands. Makes a fan happy and keeps the batter in the game for another swing.
I could go on like this, of course. There are hundreds and hundreds of terms used in baseball, which may describe anything from a situation to a play to a behavior by the players. Like any culture, it’s filled with its own terms and language, which are more than a little daunting to the new fan.
My experiment this week, then, will be to keep ball games, especially Indians’ games, on the radio as much as possible, to create an ambient atmosphere I can step into and out of, whether at work or home. There’s a phenomenon I’ve heard described where an expatriate living in a foreign country will, after months of confusion and struggle with the native tongue, suddenly find himself understanding what’s being said.
Something clicks – it’s the immersion that’s key, totally surrounding yourself with the foreign until your brain is able absorb enough to begin to understand. But understanding only goes so far. Knowing the language does not make you a native.