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Archive for June 18th, 2018

By Stephen Mullen

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When I was growing up, in the 1970s in Maine, baseball on television meant NBC’s game of the week, ABC’s Monday Night Baseball, and maybe a Red Sox game a week. That plus Mel Allen’s This Week in Baseball, and whatever info turned up on the news. Baseball was a radio sport – that’s where I followed it. The Sox were on every single night, Ned Martin’s voice was part of the family. I followed the game on the radio and through magazines and box scores, and I followed it intensely. But all that completely changed by the end of the 1980s. Cable TV changed everything about baseball – changed all sports, probably, except football, which was always a television sport, with its weekly games and predictable schedule. In 1980, cable was a luxury – I don’t remember anyone who had it,or very few; by 1990, everyone had cable TV. And by 1990, baseball had moved to cable. All the Red Sox games were on NESN by then, and cable brought all kinds of baseball to my TV – I could get the Braves and the Mets; other towns, other packages around New England could get you the Yankees and Cubs as well. And ESPN showed games every day, and covered baseball intensely – Sports Center; Baseball Tonight – we were soaked in baseball. Back in the 1970s, I could see about 3 games a week; in 1990, I could watch every single game from three different teams, plus a couple other games every single night. This has only grown since. You might have to pay more to get all the games – but you can get all the games, from all the teams,all of it at the same high production level. Even with basic cable, you get 2-3 games a day, and more on the weekends. We are soaked in baseball on TV.

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One of the stranger aspects of Ken Burns’ Baseball series, from 1994, is that it doesn’t talk about this change. The 9th Inning episode covers 20 very eventful years of baseball – free agency and all that brought to the game, drugs (coke, particularly), Pete Rose, as well as all the on field events of the era. The great world series’ – Brooks Robinson beating the Reds in1970, the Red Sox and Reds in 1975, Sox and Mets in 86, Twins and Braves in 1991; Clemente’s last games; the 1989 earthquake; Kirk Gibson vs. the Eck. But there’s very little about television, about cable TV’s transformation of what baseball on TV was. (And its transformation of baseball itself.) It is a huge omission – take that 1991 world series, one of the best of all time, with its two last to first teams – how do you do justice to it without acknowledging that one of the teams was essentially a national team? TBS brought the Braves to everyone – they deliberately claimed that they were baseball’s version of the Dallas Cowboys – America’s team. I admit to being part of it – I picked up on the Braves when they were in last place, because even before they started winning, they were loaded with young players who were going to make something of themselves. I could watch slow, mediocre, white, Boston win 88 games a year and nip or be nipped by the sightly less bland (but Clemens-less) Blue Jays at the wire – or I could watch Ron Gant and Otis Nixon, watch Tom Glavine and John Smoltz develop into stars, watch Steve Avery and Derek Lilliquist come up and maybe become stars, wonder when Justice and Lopez and the rest were going to make it – they were fun to watch. And I could see them, every game if I wanted; I could follow them as closely as I could follow the Red Sox.

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I have a confession: when I saw this assignment, I thought it was about baseball on television, not about the Burns series. I thought, this is very cool, really – why shouldn’t “baseball” be a topic? or any sport, or even just, “sports” – that is a massive part of what television is. And you might as well take it whole – you can’t make a really clean division, to pick one show – “The 1986 World Series” say – it doesn’t work like that. But baseball on TV? or football, or sports – things like that should be considered in this countdown. Sports – the 7 o’clock news – even whole channels, like CNN – are integral to what TV is. TV is as much the medium as the content, and the content itself is often spread out like this – types of shows, that fill up the hours. And many of them, filling the hours with as much excitement and drama as any actual shows. The advertisers know it, NESN hypes the Red Sox by comparing them to Game of Thrones and the like – why not? We’ve had a few entries like this, game shows and the like, but why shouldn’t baseball be one of them?

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Personally, I love baseball on TV. It allows you to engage at whatever level you want. You can leave it in the background, dip into it when something happens, let it drift when nothing’s going on; or you can hang on every pitch, on all the stuff between the pitches (the decisions about pitches, the psychological battles between pitcher/catcher and hitters, and so on). You can go back and forth between these approaches; you can supplement what’s on TV – fire up baseball reference and look up just how good Mike Trout is this year. Compared to other sports, baseball suits me more – hockey has more consistent excitement and action; basketball has spurts of spectacular action, but a lot of standing around, that doesn’t quite have the drama of a baseball game; I am no fan of football, though it is probably the quintessential television sport – with everyone in the country (who cares about it) watching the same thing at the same time every week), with well defined self-contained plays, everything happening in an orderly manner. (Violence and committee meetings, as George Will described it.) I understand its appeal, though I don’t share it. I like the fact that baseball is diffuse – that all those games going on every day means that all the people around the country watching baseball are watching something different; I like that you can engage with it on so many different levels; I like that the pace of it leaves so much time for consideration – looking up stats; telling stories; speculating about strategy; comparing players to one another, to all the long history of the past – it’s like that. It is intellectually stimulating because it lets you bring whatever you want to it – it stimulates your imagination, your curiosity, it leads you down a dozen pathways. I like that.

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That, I suppose, is one of the things Ken Burns does best: he gets at the endless digressiveness of baseball. He likes to meander in his documentaries, takes his time, dwells on stories and images, sometimes on analysis, sometimes just on contemplation or reflection – all of his shows have some of the ordered digressiveness of baseball. And Baseball is a fine series: beautiful, informative, deep and broad, with well chosen and organized imagery, itself lovely and fascinating. His talking heads? well – I think the world could do without another chance for George Will and Bob Costas to bloviate on camera – but then you get someone like John Sayle, Curt Flood (who’s magnificent, really), or the inimitable Bill Lee – well, I can forgive… Still – for all their good qualities, I sometimes find Burns’ documentaries a bit frustrating – there sometimes seems to be less than meets the eye. Or I should say – the more I know about the subject of the show, the less satisfying they can be. Both The Civil War and Baseball have this quality. Those are subjects I know about – longstanding enthusiasms. I’ve been obsessed with the Civil War for most of my life; and I have always been absorbed in baseball. I spent many hours in my youth poring over old baseball magazines, reading and rereading baseball histories, talking about it to anyone who cared, all my life; I have spent many more hours in my dotage rooting through any piece of information I can find about the sport – online, books, and so on. And always living on stats, as baseball fans do, from the Baseball Digests and annual guides (what a surprise it was to learn that Bill Mazerowski was a ball player and not just a guy who put out a yearly baseball preview!) that came out in the 70s, to Baseball Weekly and USA Today’s stat pages in the 90s, to Baseball Reference and ESPN and MLB online now. So I have heard the big stories he tells – I know most of the historical developments of baseball – I know some developments in the game better than he covers them. I sometimes feel as though his shows are a kind of preaching to the choir – he repeats the stories baseball fans know, Snodgrass’ muff, and Babe’s called shot; what a prick Ty Cobb was and what a gentleman Christy Mathewson was; Jackie Robinson’s arrival, the Miracle Mets, the ’75 series and Fisk’s home run, and so on – repeating them as much to spark a kind of sentimental recognition as to teach you anything. They have a self-congratulation to them, which, admittedly, is what we baseball fans do all the time anyway! Sit around and remember the touchstones of watching baseball – but I don’t need Ken Burns to do that. The truth is, my favorite Burns series is probably the Vietnam series from last year – that’s a subject I know in the outline, but not in the particulars – I could follow along, but I didn’t know more than he was telling me, and it felt like I was learning something. I learned plenty from Baseball, or the Civil War – but not the same. And not as much as I already knew.

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But saying that, it points to the best things about Baseball – when it talks about things I don’t know. The Shadow Ball episode, mainly about the Negro Leagues, is the strongest example. It’s a subject I know something about, but nowhere near enough. Burns covers it in some depth – and it is fascinating. I learned something – I didn’t know most of it; I knew some names (Satchel Paige and Cool Papa Bell and Josh Gibson and so on), some team information (I even have a Cuban X Giants hat), but nothing about the history of the leagues, their development, their progression. I do now. That is a great episode, for this reason, as well as just because of the fine collection of footage and photographs he has.

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Burns is very good on covering the social aspects of the game. The roots of its racism, the sociology of the players, the various shifts in the demographics of its fans. He’s good on the labor issues, giving them attention, tracing their evolution (though it’s a miserable story to tell, almost as miserable as the game’s racism, given the corruption of the owners through the first half of the 20th century and beyond). These pieces are good, though often short – his treatment of the media’s role in baseball is often very good as well, though even briefer, frustratingly so. There are bits about radio and Red Barber; lots of quotes from sportswriters, and allusions to them; some discussion of television – but shouldn’t there be more? And that last episode missed the ball badly – cable television is a huge change, for all the reasons I’ve said. It’s a change that was more noticeable in baseball than in other sports – daily games saturates you with games; and that saturation was on radio in the 70s; it is on TV now. He touches on this in earlier periods – on the ways technology spread the games in the old days – newspapers printing partial scores in multiple editions; the scoreboards at newspaper offices, updated from the telegraph wires – you could follow games in lose to real time in the 1920s, just like now – though you might have had to leave the house. That happened on television in the 80s – he ignored it.

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It’s interesting to think about baseball as television. I’ve posted about this before, way back when, on the 20th anniversary of Roger Clemens’ first 20 strikeout game. That’s 12 years back now – how much has coverage changed since 2006? less than it had changed since 1986, I think. Most of the trends in 2006 are still going strong – lots of crowd shots, dugout shots, sideline reporters, closer shots of players. High definition has changed how baseball looks on TV as well. I think has reined in some of the more annoying features of the game on TV – the camera work is less frenetic and annoying now; the images are so good, with contemporary technology, that you don’t need gimmicks to try to catch something interesting. You don’t miss much with a plain shot of the field, so why keep moving the camera and zooming around? These days, of course, the screens are full of stuff – K-zones, stats and numbers and info everywhere on the screen, constant crawls under the picture, graphics to show movement of players (red and blue circles to show shifts, or a players’ route to a fly ball, or what have you). Stats are ubiquitous, all kinds of stats. As are advertisements – no chance to sell something is neglected. The game on the field has changed a bit – there are some new rules, mostly about who you can tackle, that mostly just try to keep catchers and second basemen out of the hospital; the big on field difference is replay, which, of course, relies integrally on television. (It is also one of the best innovations in the game: replay has almost ended the classic argument with the umpire – and good riddance! Earl Weaver or Billy Martin made for great theater,buut you see one argument, and you don’t need to see any more. If you can resolve questions honestly, why shouldn’t you? I like replay!) But as Burns might say – for all the changes, the game is recognizably the same. There are even more stats in the game now than ever – different stats – both the measures of the players results (emphasis on on base and slugging over batting averages; emphasis on WHIP – walks and hits per inning pitched, for pitchers), and things like exit velocity, launch angles, barreling percentages. But for all that, all those new stats – you can still compare them to the old time stats and get a pretty good idea of what was happening then and now. Sure, it’s good to know how often Mookie Betts gets the barrel of the bat on the ball – but you don’t really have to see that stat to guess what that stat is going to be. For players I see a lot – the Red Sox, the Yankees – I don’t need someone to tel me what their exit velocities are, r their barreling percentages are. You don’t need to hear the exit velocity Aaron Judge or Gary Sanchez get when you can see what happens when they get a good swing on a ball. And honestly, for players I don’t see as much – Mike Trout say – I can guess what kind of bat speed and how often he gets the barrel on the ball just by looking at those 23 homers, .328 average, .688 slugging percentage. I can hazard a guess what kind of exit velocities Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron got, from the stats they put up – and definitely from watching them swing.

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In the end, though, that is what is best about living in today’s TV environment – with all those games on TV, you can see anyone fairly regularly. Back in the 70s, when there were tow or three games a week on – you got to see lots of the Yankees and Dodger and Reds, Red Sox and Orioles, Phillies maybe – but good luck seeing Andre Dawson or young Jack Clark. The only way you could see them was if they turned up on This Week in Baseball.

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