My cousin Jonah is an avid Met fan. He and his wife live in Brooklyn and they are great movie-lovers too. But they do not have cable TV, so Jonah listens to virtually every game on a small, old-fashioned transistor radio. When he's out and about, he has a small, white earphone plugged into one ear to keep up on the action. When I've asked why he doesn't just get cable like every other "normal" person he says that he doesn't like the idea of being held captive in front of the television. The thought of it is oppresive to him, even in the age of Tivo.
He can do as he pleases and take the radio with him. I admire him for this quality. I can't imagine doing such a thing, not with Lord Sterling as the Yankee play-by-play announcer--that would be too much to bear. Still, baseball on the radio can be a wonderful experience for the listener and many of my favorite childhood baseball memories are made up of evenings secretly listening to the Yankee broadcast while I was supposed to be asleep.
I got to thinking about all of this when I read a short essay, "Recalling the Joy of Watching Baseball on the Radio," which is featured in the collection Diamond: The Baseball Writings of Mark Harris. Most famous for his Henry Wiggens trilogy, Harris doesn't argue that radio is superior to television, just that they each offer distinct pleasures:
Radio left things to the brain, to the imagination, and to fantasy. On radio we saw the whole baseball field because we saw it in our minds through wide-agnled fantasy. We knew no limits upon our vision. We were our own camera. Pictures arose in our imaginations from the merest hints of things. Our minds were tubes that seldom blew.
This is not to say that radio was better than television, or that one age of mankind was better than another. But that radio was significantly different from televsion, and not always less efficient, cannot be denied. Radio was awe. The awe produced by remoteness...Television reduces awe.
Recently I turned 45, which I think of as a mortal age for a baseball fan; by now, with the rarest exceptions, you are older than every major leaguer. What I notice at midlife is that the passion doesn't abate; it simply changes. Thinking of the Red Sox as heroes was an innocent fantasy and, for that reason, a seductive one, but adulthood meant finally coming to terms with ballplayers as real people. That wasn't so difficult in our time of heightened public scrutiny. We wanted to know them, and now we know them too well. Much of it is the money, the millions they earn while most of us are struggling with the rent. Our pastime is a big, mercenary business, and we've learned that players will deform themselves with steroids, cheating mortality and their opponents in an effort to stay forever young and powerful. Those of us who are offended by steroids may feel that what's most unpleasant is that we can't look at a juiced physique and still think, That could be me.
Athletes are often amazingly unformed as people, and much as I retain the naïve, nostalgic longing for them to be good in all ways, when they aren't it helps to exercise a little circumspection. I can do that, because the older I get, the more I see that the fun of it is not the results but the process. What's magical now about baseball is the continuity of having these splendid performers there for me month after month, year after year. I didn't savor the Red Sox' long-awaited World Series victory as much as I enjoyed the growing possibility that they could win. These days, I try not to know too much about the players. I want to care and by being more distanced, I find I still feel close to them.
I recall having a conversation a few years ago with a couple of Baseball Prospectus writers. They wanted to know as little as possible about big leaguers, at least about their personal lives, because they didn't want that to get in the way of what they were watching on the field. I can appreciate that. Having worked in the movie business, and to a lesser degree, in the world of sports, I understand what it is like to be meet a favorite actor or director only to find that they are lacking (or worse). I think it is critical to separate the artist (or the athlete) from their art. At the same time, I have a curiosity bordering on desire to not only want to know more about my favorite jocks and artists but also a childlike need to like them, to know that they are good people. As if their personality has anything to do with their gift.