Monday, July 15, 2013

The Audio Derby

I know very few things about life, but I have a few axioms I try to live by. Only eat at an ethnic restaurant which that ethnicity is frequenting. Always (ALWAYS) take the urinal farthest from anyone else in the bathroom. Never enter a bathroom until 30 minutes after Guy Fieri has vacated it (many of these rules are bathroom-etiquette related). This is all basic stuff, but it matters. When it comes to sports, I have only one: you can't call yourself a real sports fan until you've listened to the Home Run Derby broadcast on radio.

I really mean that. Sports are inherently a visual experience, none moreso than a pure stakes-free spectacle like the Derby. The event is literally batting practice, which for obvious reasons doesn't usually get the play-by-play treatment (and for which you can arrive early at a game to watch at no extra charge). It's a marketing dream - people only watch baseball for the homers! - and an utter bore, a bunch of millionaires trying to flex their competitive muscles in a non-competitive competition somehow more monotonously repetitive than an actual baseball game. It's also the basic contradiction of the Steroid and post-Steroid Eras in baseball writ large in one goofy event: live by the home run and die by the home run.

On TV, it's Chris Berman in a so-sweaty-it's-clinging-to-his-manboobs summer shirt, spewing Eagles lyrics and cluck-clucking the word "back" over and over again, trying in vain to break his personal record (currently 943, set in the halcyon days of the Steroid Era). It's moonshot after moonshot and taken pitch after taken pitch, a concise distillation of the bi-polar joy and tedium endemic to baseball fandom.  It's also an interesting case-study in sports broadcasting, as a unique event is given the familiar wooshy ESPN veneer which sadly brings it more to the center, rather than accentuating its inherent weirdness. 

The boys of summer sure put on a show, but despite the ESPN glitz the show tends to fall firmly on the side of very boring.

On the radio, though, there's no gloss. There's no attempt to hashtag-ify the event, no desperate water-cooler-talk-chasing, no pretension. There's simply an announcer cluck-clucking the word "back," trying any way he can to spice up the play by play of a single discreet event, repeated hundreds of times. Back back back, over and over again. The radio broadcast gives us the back stories and the numbers just like TV, but there's no semblance of the drama. Oh, it's definitely boring. But it's also hypnotic.

Nothing is better at presenting "nothing happening" as "everything happening" than TV. There are always debates to be had, shaky handheld B-roll to be splashed menacingly across your screen. This is true of radio as well, but then there are events like the Derby that give us brief respite. No amount of Gus Johnson-esque spittle can make the event anything more than glorified batting practice. And where baseball usually has enough moving parts to make listening palatable (unless the play by play guy is partially blind, in which case, sorry Yankees fans), the Derby has no moving parts. It has slow pitches, it has outs and it has home runs.

So listen to the Derby on the radio. Revel in how boring it is. Take some time and sit back back back back back back and listen. The MLB All Star Break is, after all, the only time of the year when no major American sports league plays any games (sorry, WNBA and MLS), and this will give you a chance to ruminate. And become a true sports fan in the process.

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