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Jazz, Baseball, Politics and the Beltway Blues: Our American Dialogue, Part II

By Published: December 20, 2012
The unpredictable late-September AL East pennant race had portended something dramatic. Somehow, the symmetry of Buck Showalter managing the Orioles' charmed rise in the standings (like a mostly out-of-control hot air balloon) had provided the precise conditions Joe Girardi needed to awaken his Yankees in the midst of their gut-wrenching September swoon, to engage their near-genetic pinstripe birthright and replicant DNA, setting the stage for the kind of energized, season-ending confrontation that inspires teams to take championship form. Despite the Orioles' difficulty in scoring a run against the hulking Sabathia in the fifth and deciding game, at no point before the final out was the outcome ever certain. A best-of-seven series would have gone seven games, and if it had been a best-of-nine set, like the turn-of-the-century playoffs of yore, it would have taken all nine games to decide the winner. Three of their five contests were decided by a single run—one, a twelve-inning game won by the Yankees, another a thirteen-inning affair won by the O's. When the Yankees at last prevailed, the only flaw in the athletic dramaturgy is that one of the teams had to lose.

Even the shocking developments three hours later, forty miles south of Baltimore—when the Washington Nationals had their own dream season suddenly and violently crushed—couldn't extinguish what even the most bitterly disappointed Orioles fan knew in his heart of hearts, despite the black cloud that had descended over Chesapeake Bay by midnight. While millions of stunned Nationals fans slept fitfully that night, stuck inside the Beltway with the baseball blues again, Orioles fans awoke the next morning knowing they had witnessed one of the best playoffs in recent memory. They awoke knowing that their Orioles were as good or better than the Yankees, or any other team in the American League, and knowing they would be back again next year.

More than that, if those same fans had stayed at home and watched the series of games unfold on TBS from beginning to end, observed through the focused lenses of Cal Ripken, Jr., and John Smoltz, with Ernie Johnson's play-by-play setting the table for them, they had witnessed another kind of history: these were among the best-called baseball broadcasts ever.

A History Lesson—the Media Are the Message

Obviously, though it isn't a guarantee, great ball games are required to make truly great broadcasts even possible. But quite aside from the play on the field, anything is possible in the booth—broadcasting acumen can run the gamut from sublimely good to ridiculously awful. Some broadcasters have such poor communication skills or stilted styles that they make a mess of it, regardless. Some don't understand baseball. Some are so inattentive or unobservant that they meander and never find their way into the game—that, or they occasionally get snapped back to reality by all the commotion and expel gales of excited jabbering—or they become rhapsodizing John Keats wannabes showering praise on all living things—or, at a loss for descriptive language, they stare straight ahead and warmly recite laundry lists of events the viewer has already viewed, hoping to get a nod of agreement while bobbing along in a shared sense of community.

Of course, any shortcomings can be temporarily overcome by an appropriate burst of exultation in the face of baseball glory.

To paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, the media are the message. They have been since roughly October 3rd, 1951. The press box that day at the Polo Grounds in Upper Manhattan was like a baseball announcers' Mount Rushmore, all there to see the deciding game of a playoff necessitated by identical 96-58 regular season records turned in by the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers. Similar to the 2012 Orioles' post-All Star break winning tear, the Giants had put on an incredible 37-7 charge at the end of the season, placing them in a flatfooted tie for the pennant with the staggering Dodgers. The amateur audio tape of second baseman Bobby Thomson's walk-off homerun for the Giants, now known as "the shot heard 'round the world" (borrowed humbly from Ralph Waldo Emerson's description of the first shot fired at Lexington), is the most played sports recording in history.

New York Giants play-by-play man Ernie Harwell, not wanting to describe what you could damn well see with your own eyes on the first ever coast-to-coast nationally televised sports contest, called the homerun with a characteristically brief "It's gone!" for NBC's WPIX affiliate. Brooklyn Dodgers announcer Red Barber called it for WMGM-AM, succinctly, like any other homerun, adding ..."the New York Giants win the National League pennant and the Polo Grounds go wild!," then buttoned up and filled the airwaves with crowd noise.

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