Baseball on the Radio

Having joined the majority of Dodgers fans in Los Angeles – the ones who have issues with the Dodgers channel – I have found myself in need of an alternate means of following baseball this summer. Turns out you’re not lost without television: there’s actually quite a simple and pleasant way to enjoy a Dodgers game at home.

Listen to it on the radio.

I’ve listened to Charlie Steiner and Rick Monday plenty of times since I began following baseball, but only in the car. Getting home meant switching to Joe Davis, Orel Hershiser and the idiot box.

Listening to a baseball game in the car and listening to a baseball game in your living room are two different experiences. When you’re listening in the car, you are by definition doing it in addition to something else. Neurologists might be able to prove that the semi-conscious part of your brain that drives you home without your actually thinking about it is distinct from your baseball receptors, but I’m not entirely sure that is the case. In the car, you’re not concentrating completely on the game – at least I hope you’re not. You still need to be paying enough attention to the road to snap into reaction mode when something unexpected happens on the Arroyo Seco Parkway.

In the car, you’re following the game. At home, when you’re focused only on the radio, you’re imagining it. In a way, you’re almost a participant in it. You certainly need actively to conjure up for yourself the picture that the television serves up ready-made.

The challenge involved in listening – and I mean listening, not listening while driving – is that you’re relying on your ears to do what your ears and eyes combine to do when you’re watching television. As, unlike radio listeners in the pre-television age, you’ve likely seen the Dodgers in action and know what the players look like at the plate or on the field, you can fall back on that knowledge when it comes to the baseball stadium of the mind. That makes me wonder what my parents’ generation did when it came to visualizing internally players whose pictures they only knew from baseball cards or photos in the newspaper. When Steiner tells me that Corey Seager is at bat, I can imagine what that looks like using my knowledge (garnered from television, YouTube and having seen him play at Dodger Stadium) of how he looks at the plate and in the field. There’s mental file footage upon which to draw while listening.

Thus less imagination is required than was once the case when listening to ballgames on the radio. On the other hand, while my brain has a large video library of the Dodgers in action, I have far less footage of opposing teams, and often find myself imagining an at-bat without an idea of what the man at the plate looks like. There is the expedient of looking him up on the phone and checking out the images Google retrieves, but that’s not much more than consulting the player’s baseball card. (It also feels like cheating.)

The parade of faceless players through the mind’s eye takes some getting used to: attuned as we are to seeing as well as hearing, the radio does give you the feeling that you’re missing out on something. You adjust, however. You’re there to envision a baseball game: what’s important is who’s on first, not what who’s hair color is.

No disrespect to Steiner, who has been my companion for countless Dodgers games, but I find that AM 570’s number-two play-by-play man, Tim Neverett, paints better word pictures than the more usual announcer. Back when the Dodgers were playing the Pirates, Neverett did an extraordinary job of describing the Pittsburgh stadium’s riverfront setting. Neverett is also more systematic in his alerting his listeners to the shift and similar defensive repositionings. I suppose he might be criticized for giving us too much to imagine (Steiner is more statistics-oriented), and perhaps he’s better suited to concentrated home listening than to following the game in the car, but paying close attention to Neverett can be extremely rewarding.

A curiosity is that baseball on the radio goes faster than baseball on television. The great criticism of the game is that it involves a lot of standing around during boring pauses between pitches. On television, there is no way to escape pitchers getting on and off the rubber and batters getting in and out of the box. You are inevitably aware of these sometimes tedious standoffs because you can see them. As a radio announcer can’t go mute for the seeming eternity between Pedro Baez’ pitches, the listener gets a sense of ongoing action, even when the time between pitches is filled with a plug for In ‘n’ Out Burger. (One of these days I’m going to get me one of those milkshakes made from real ice cream.) Thus the tension of the game is better sustained when all you’re doing is listening to it.

When I started listening to Dodgers games on the radio, I realized that I was connecting to the previous generations that grew up only knowing baseball on the radio. Half a century ago, for most fans, most baseball games took place on the diamond in the mind. Listening concentratedly to a baseball game on the radio is an exercise in using the imagination. The reason that more people don’t curl up in their living rooms to listen to a baseball game on the radio is easy to divine: people today have either too little imagination or don’t want to expend the energy its exercise requires.

I must also confess that I have looked up video highlights on the Internet after games, for those times when Mr. Steiner or Mr. Neverett has described a particularly phenomenal play, like that laser cannon throw Bellinger made a couple weeks ago or Seager’s Mother’s Day grand slam. I don’t watch the entire highlights compilations people helpfully post on YouTube, however. While a picture can be worth a thousand words, I’m a writer—and believe firmly in the power of the word, even when it’s as ephemeral as a radio broadcast of a baseball game.



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