Saturday, April 6, 2013

Voices in the Cathedral: Clear Skies, Growing Shadows, and the Efficacy of Wit

If you can't explain something in a few words, try fewer.

Brevity is mankind's purest and most underused art. Sometimes we can be so engrossed in conversation that it circles until, like a dog chasing his tail, it collapses from redundancy. In contrast, perhaps more than ever before, personal disconnect in society has limited acquaintanceship to a simple "Hi, how are you?" "Good thanks, yourself?" "I'm good," followed by a suited hollow sendoff. Seldom is either ever considered healthy conversation. The former is often heard on talk radio and over a fourth, fifth, or seventh beer.

Baseball is a sport centered around conversation. The pace and structure of the game encourage audience critique, speculation, and often distraction. The leisurely nature of the game welcomes the casual fan and sabermetric guru equally with open arms. So in the passing days of spring to summer, the game blends itself into the everyday. Perhaps the one-off conversation now includes the phrase, "hey did the Sox win today?" or, "How about the Giants last night, they can't buy a run, right?" and so on.

Radio and television evolved the game. Networks like WGN brought the Cubs into homes across the country, forming bonds with fans who never experienced Wrigley Field firsthand. Color television made the uniform colors much more relevant to a team's culture. The Dodgers even experimented with satin uniforms one night because they claimed the shimmering fabric would look great on television. But in the end, the most powerful tool was the on-air talent. A broadcaster's voice and demeanor set the tone for a team's fan base. Ernie Harwell, Vin Scully, and Jack Brickhouse ruled the airwaves in broadcast baseball's infancy with voices so clear and distinct they are instantly recognized out of context to any baseball historian.

But what makes a great baseball voice? Surely anyone with the ability to speak and a general knowledge of the game can talk about ball-strike counts, runs scored, even basic statistics. So what makes the aforementioned legends, as well as modern talent like Duane Kuiper, Len Kasper, and Gary Cohen, anything special? The answer lies in their ability to converse freely and also know when to let the game do the talking.

Listen to a Vin Scully broadcast. Whether it is television or radio, his presence is captivating. He will vividly convey the greatest of what he sees. The looming cloud cover or lack thereof. The shadows creeping past the infield. The warm smell of popcorn and fresh cut grass. The finer details of the uniforms worn by each team. During a game, by himself, Scully converses with his listeners as if we were there in the room with him. Never short on words. Never long in breath. For over 60 years he has created delicately crafted images simply with the power of his words. With an organization that boasts legends like Jackie Robinson, Sandy Koufax, and Tommy Lasorda, perhaps it is Vin Scully who is the face of the Dodgers.

But isn't that how it should be? Shouldn't the team's on-air personality be the embodiment of the franchise? Its hard to say how every television or radio broadcast relates to the culture of each particular organization, but I feel like the broadcast talent sets a tone for the fan base. Many fans identify with their team's on-air talent. By watching or listening regularly, a person can get a considerably well rounded glimpse into the life of their team's broadcast voice. There is a relationship established, even if the sides never directly interact.

It is the responsibility of the baseball broadcaster to inform and entertain, and to do so nine innings a game, 162+ games a year, in addition to pre and post game analysis. A quick wit and keen vocabulary are not just useful, but absolutely vital to the survival of on-air talent. But they always seem to find something to say. Somewhere in the decades of baseball delicately cataloged in a broadcaster's mind, there will never be a moment that fails to conjure up a relevant anecdote. Some make it look effortless. But the best in the business know when to mute themselves and let the ambient splendor of the ballpark take over, if only momentarily. It all aides in the imagination of a radio broadcast, and when properly executed, can boost the emotional gravity of a televised game. Brevity, when perfected, is what separates a baseball broadcast from that of any other game. 

A great broadcaster can shed light on the game in a way you may have never thought to see or hear. In some instances, they will you to vicariously experience firsthand. Miles away, separate from the images beamed through the fading daylight, a voice is calling you to listen. It doesn't demand you listen. You can return with a passing greeting or choose to pause for a moment and live there, on a Los Angeles summer afternoon, within a Utopian cover of cloudless skies and the youthful perfume of a beautiful day at the ballpark.

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