Baseball on the radio as powerful as ever

July 28th, 2020

Major League Baseball is being played this season in unprecedented conditions, under circumstances that would have seemed unimaginable as recently as four months ago. And as we’ve seen in recent days, it’s an extremely difficult endeavor. We live in scary times, a fact that is impossible to ignore right now.

But, of course, watching sports -- and baseball in particular -- is something people do in part so they can get away from the perils and stresses of their daily lives. Enjoying baseball is not a distraction of the woes of the world, nor a solution to them. It is just a temporary escape, a balm during a time when balms are difficult to come across. One can be, and stay, deeply engaged with this moment in America and 2020 and still enjoy a baseball game for a few hours. Humans are resilient little animals.

Those in charge of broadcasting these games are aware of all this: They are, after all, in the entertainment business, and this is a moment in which entertainment is in particularly high demand. So they have made adjustments to the baseball-watching experience in a world where there are no fans in the stands, in order to make you feel like the game you are watching is not dramatically different than baseball games you’ve been watching for years.

Some of these adjustments have been successful, as much as they can be. The pumped-in crowd noise provides some background atmosphere and a reassuring familiarity: Imagine how an episode of “Seinfeld” would play if they took out the laugh track. (It would be very weird.)

Fox’s national telecast, in particular, has gotten particularly good already at simulating crowd sounds. During one close pickoff play at first in a Yankees-Nationals game this weekend, the recorded fans reacted so quickly to the umpire’s call that they got me angry about it before I’d even seen the play. These will all only get better with tweaks.

These television executives are doing what they can, but at a certain level, you can’t really hide how unusual this is. It’s fun to watch baseball games in 2020. But it is still undeniably different.

If you are having a hard time keeping up the illusion, though, I have a suggestion for you: Listen to the games on the radio.

Like many baseball fans, my relationship with this great game was forged through the radio. My announcer, the guy I listened to through headphones while hiding under the covers so my parents would think I was asleep, was Jack Buck, the Cardinals' broadcaster for KMOX. Your announcer may differ. Maybe it’s Vin Scully, or Phil Rizzuto, or Ernie Harwell, or Jon Miller, or whoever. But the sound of that voice, the person describing something you cannot see, giving you the outline that you can fill in with your mind’s eye, for many, many people, that’s what made them fall in love with baseball in the first place.

My formative teams were the running Whiteyball Cardinals of the ‘80s. However, when I close my eyes, I remember myself watching Vince Coleman steal bases and Ozzie Smith dive in the hole and throw guys out. I did not, in fact, watch any of those things live. I heard Jack Buck, and his partner Mike Shannon, whisper in my ears what was happening, hundreds of miles away. They made me love baseball even though, honestly, I’d barely even seen all that much of it.

There is a certain ambient sound in these old radio broadcasts, maybe a “beer here!” from a vendor, a rumbling hum when a ball is hit deep into the gap. But that is just atmosphere, and something that doesn’t actually come up all that much in a radio broadcast. A standing ovation just doesn’t mean quite as much on the radio as it does on television, and there are no cutaways to the stands. It is just you and the announcer.

Vin Scully once said he broadcast games like he was “describing them to a friend,” and that’s precisely what the best radio announcers do. It feels like they’re in the next seat over, having a three-hour conversation, exclusively with you.

When you watch a game on television now, you recognize all the things that are different -- the digital fans, the masks, the distancing. Those things are all still fine: I’ve already adjusted myself, and have even enjoyed some of the peculiarities, like when Pirates manager Derek Shelton and an umpire put on masks to argue with each other.

But you cannot forget, however briefly, that this baseball game, just like everything else in our lives, is going on in the middle of a pandemic. It’s still baseball. But it is definitely different.

But on the radio, the game sounds almost indistinguishable from the way it has always sounded. It is the closest I have found to actually escaping into baseball during this time, legitimately finding myself soothed by the game. You can be driving in your car, or out swimming by the pool, or out fishing (the way my grandfather and I used to listen to Buck), or just sipping a beverage out on the deck, and the game can just envelop you.

It doesn’t even matter if the announcer is not actually at the game, as is the case with many visiting-team announcers. In many ways, that’s in the tradition of baseball too: Former President Ronald Reagan himself talked about how, in the early days of his career, he would sit in a booth, get updates from a far-away game over the telegram and recreate the entire game through words and sound effects. They do this in Bull Durham, too. It doesn’t really matter if they’re there. They just need to feel like they’re there.

There can be downsides to this, sure. I love Shannon as much as anyone on the planet, but sometimes if you have an announcer like him, who is deliriously entertaining but sometimes forgets to explain, you know, what just happened on the field, you can get a little confused. (It’s still worth it.) But for three hours, all the worries of the world, the constant anxieties, everyone always yelling at each other … the radio makes it, just for a while, drift away.

If you close your eyes, it can feel the same. It’s OK. You can do it: The world will still be there when you open them. We still have a long way to go, and a lot of work to do. But this is what baseball is supposed to do: It’s supposed to take you away for a while. I’ve found no better way to be taken away during this pandemic than listening to a game. I cannot possibly recommend it enough.