Posted by: bkivey | 10 October 2012

Playoff Baseball

October is a good time to be a sports fan. The NFL and college football are in full swing, the NBA starts at the end of the month, the NHL (usually) starts,  MLS is winding down, and MLB enters the playoff season.

The Seattle Mariners didn’t make the playoffs, so my interest in the post season is much diminished. I did enjoy the down-to-the-wire pennant races in the American League. I’m not a fan of the American League generally because of the designated hitter rule, which literally violates Baseball 101. From the Official Baseball Rules:

1.00—Objectives of the Game.

1.01 Baseball is a game between two teams of nine players each, under direction of a
manager, played on an enclosed field in accordance with these rules, under jurisdiction of
one or more umpires.

But as a fan I enjoy tight competition, and the AL supplied plenty of that the last week of the regular season.

Of the teams in the post season, the only ones I have a rooting interest in are San Francisco and Oakland from my sojourn in San Francisco. It is hard to get behind Oakland: they’re in the same division as the Mariners, and I spend the regular season rooting against them. When I was a kid, the A’s were the bandwagon team with their gaudy uniforms and handlebar mustaches. And there were larger-than-life characters like Rollie Fingers and Catfish Hunter on the team. We lived in New York at the time, and I didn’t know from the Mets or Yankees. In 1988 I worked with an ardent Dodgers fan, so I took the A’s in the Series. The wager was that the loser had to buy the winner his team’s cap. The A’s lost the Series, and I did buy a nice official Dodgers cap for my co-worker. So the A’s and I have a little history.

I have a more problematic relationship with the Giants. When I lived in San Francisco, they had some terrible teams. If I wanted to see a baseball game, I’d just as soon go across the Bay to Oakland Coliseum: the baseball and the weather were better. This was during the rise of the Niners, so San Francisco was very much a football town. It was for sure the Giants wouldn’t be playing in October. Still, they were the home team.

I get almost all of my baseball from the radio, mostly because I don’t have TV. A game makes a nice background while I’m working, and there’s a nice connection to generations who listened to games the same way. The susserations of an announcer’s voice over the radio as they describe the game on a summer’s day is a quintessential American experience. It’s both calming and invigorating. I’d bet the Japanese have a word for it.

There’s a difference between the way regular season and playoff games are announced. During the regular season, you’re probably listening to team announcers, who are likely to be ‘homers’ to one degree or another. That’s OK, and expected. They’re speaking to a mostly local audience, one familiar with the team and the players. Games tend to be announced in a leisurely fashion. There’ll be appropriate stats given, and maybe some details like defensive shifts, but for the most part it’s about describing the action and telling stories. A good announcer will make you feel like you’re watching the game with your best friend. It’s comfortable.

Postseason games are a different story. The announcers are speaking to a national audience that probably doesn’t know much, if anything, about the the teams. So there’s a lot more back story, if you will. Every nuance of defensive alignment, every pitch, every sign from the catcher, every managerial decision is analyzed seemingly to death. Sure, there’s more on the line with every game, but, man alive!

For a fan of the game, this can be both maddening and enlightening. Because playoff announcers are speaking to, and attempting to engage, the casual observer, the broadcasts are information dense. If they can get past the trivia, a baseball aficionado can learn much about how the game is played.

My favorite example of this doesn’t even come from baseball. I like to watch football, but it’s not my favorite sport. I understand the rules, and appreciate good play, but I am by no stretch an expert on the game. This is why I liked listening to John Madden. If you paid attention to Coach Madden, you could learn a lot about how the game was played. He made the intricacies of the game accessible, even down to blocking assignments. You understood not only how a play developed, but why.  You would watch the game with new eyes. So it is with a good playoff baseball announcer. A good announcer or analyst can bring new fans to the game.

Or the writer. I recommend George Will’s 1990 book Men At Work: The Craft of Baseball to anyone with even a passing interest in the game. The primary subjects: LaRussa, Gwynn, Ripken, and Hershiser, are all out of baseball, but recognizable for their ability and contributions. If your only interest in baseball comes during the post-season, and even if you’re a fan, read this book. You’ll see the game in a new light.

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