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September 4, 2012

Western Front

They Move Like Living Things

by Geoff Young

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Synchronized and graceful, they move like living things.
—Neil Peart

Being among the estimated 40-plus percent of San Diegans who cannot watch Padres games on television in 2012, I find myself watching many games involving two teams in which I have no rooting interest. Watching baseball without regard for outcome is weird but also liberating. It allows me to focus on aspects of the game I might not otherwise consider.

I end up watching metabaseball.

Sure, there's the usual stuff like paying attention only to a particular defender or trying to guess pitch sequences before they happen. But there's also the consideration of performance and narrative. Everything within a game is driven by context, but if you step outside that context—as I once did by watching a contest between the Red Sox and Yankees set to the music of Radiohead (well, part of one; once the tunes stopped in the top of the fifth, I lost interest)—you begin to see interesting things.

In sabermetrics, we often talk about the search for objective truth, which itself is a loaded term that invokes Karl Popper and leads us to strange and sometimes disturbing places. We talk about narratives and seek to disprove some of the more popular and misguided ones. We do this systematically, setting up studies and examining evidence. We hypothesize, we test, we refine.

It's kind of like science, at least in methodology.

But behind each search lies an interesting question. Sometimes it is as stupid as “What if dogs played baseball?” Other times it has practical applications, such as, “How do we measure defense?” Even if the answers aren't always satisfying, we usually learn something that we didn't know before asking. Like, for example, measuring defense is hard to do. Before trying, we didn't know that. Now we do. It's still frustrating, but we have a specific reason for our frustration. We've replaced “I don't know” with “Well, it's complicated.” This is progress.

Stepping back further, consider the lens through which you watch a game. If you are at the ballpark, you get a relatively unfiltered view. Still, you are constrained by physical limitations. Depending on where you sit, you may have a better angle of one or a few aspects of the game, but you cannot watch everything at once. As a viewer, you must make choices. And by making those choices, you help create your own narrative.

Do you concentrate on the shortstop? Or the umpires, as Tom Larwin et al. did in their illuminating and fascinating article “Observations of Umpires at Work”? Or sit behind the plate and try to guess pitches according to context—who the pitcher is, who the batter is, what the count is, where the fielders are positioned, how the catcher is set up behind the plate? Or listen to music you like and appreciate the movement of players, as if watching ballet?

Okay, that last one is probably just me. And what I learned from watching a game while listening to Radiohead, or relearned in this case, is that baseball is damn fun.

I watched that game on television, which is how many of us watch many games. We are at home or at a sports bar, watching baseball. We are familiar with this activity, having engaged in it hundreds or even thousands of times. It has become so ubiquitous that we rarely, if ever, consider the filter through which we watch.

Sure, maybe we think about the announcers. One guy has a home-team bias. Another rambles about his playing days. Yet another doesn't see as well as he used to and gets things wrong, which is either aggravating or hilarious, depending on one's perspective.

But we have this extra filter that doesn't exist when we attend live. We have someone calling the action, and we agree or disagree with his or her assessments to varying degrees. And our reactions are seldom as clear-cut as we like to think. I find myself yelling at figures on a screen (itself an inanimate object) and then, after consideration, maybe revising my stance based on additional information. Sometimes I still think the guy is an idiot, but other times, maybe he has a point.

Beyond the announcers, there are the cameras and their operators. If we think our view is limited at the ballpark, that's nothing compared to what we see in our homes or sports bars.

In movies, we are told a story. The writer creates and the actors portray; these are obvious. Others whose choices influence what we see and think are the director and editor.

Similarly, when we watch a baseball game on television, we are influenced by the decisions and biases of the people producing the broadcast. What do they think we should see? What is important to them? This includes camera angles, cuts to players or coaches, in-booth interviews, the display of particular statistics on screen (which stats, how often, where on screen?), and much more.

The game is a live event, not scripted, but skilled people know what to look for and can tell a story in real-time via quick, decisive action.

Stepping back again, we ask different questions. Who is the audience? Who is the perceived audience? Who are the advertisers that wish to sell items to the perceived audience? What tale do the advertisers wish to tell, and how much influence do they wield over the people presenting the story (the game) to potential purchasers of said items?

The funny thing about television is that we've grown so accustomed to the technology over the years that we think of it as transparent. We don't notice that we're watching electrons on a screen. The guys on the field might as well be playing in your living room, especially if you've got one of those giant screens and a killer sound system.

In his seminal work, Ways of Seeing, John Berger touches on some of these themes. He is concerned primarily with oil paintings, but similar principles apply. Whether it be the objectification of people we see on the canvas (in Berger's case, the depiction of nude women in 16th-century art) or on screen (millionaires whom we are given to love or hate based on their status, team affiliation, etc.), or the context within which we view them. Our experience is informed by habit, convention, and perspective.

As an exercise, I watched the Yankees play at the White Sox on Tuesday, August 21, 2012. I watched once from each team's video feed, first with sound off (so I could make my own observations) and then with sound on (so I could hear what professionals wished me to observe), like so:

Trial

Feed

Sound

Mode

1

White Sox

Off

Live*

2

Yankees

Off

Recorded

3

White Sox

On

Recorded

4

Yankees

On

Recorded

*I actually watched it the next morning, but without prior knowledge of events.

The original intent was to do this for the entire game, but having accumulated six pages of barely legible notes after the first two viewings of the first inning, I narrowed the focus to that inning.

I also thought it might be instructive to track how often camera cuts occur, how long each is held, how often scores and other information are displayed on screen. You know, actual metrics. But I ditched this idea because, frankly, it seemed boring.

Even with such a limited focus, the number of narratives was impressive. I picked three:

Again, we're less interested in the events than in how they are depicted on screen and in words.

Before we go there, a quick note on why I chose this game. First, these are two teams I typically do not watch so I have minimal preconceptions. I also know that John Sterling and Ken Harrelson are two of the more polarizing voices in baseball broadcasting today. (What I didn't learn until later is that Sterling only does radio; oh well.)

To the narratives.

Jeter’s Homer
On the Yankees' broadcast, this seems almost scripted. The introduction to their telecast emphasizes history and tradition, showing Yankees greats from yesteryear to present day, including Jeter. After an exterior shot of U.S. Cellular Field, there is a cut to announcers Michael Kay and Ken Singleton (this is my first hint that Sterling might not be involved). After a replay of the previous night's highlights and quick video spotlights on Nova and Jeter, there is a commercial break.

Coming out of the break, a graphic showing that Jeter passed some milestone last night is displayed, followed by another video montage and stats from this year backed by bright lights, then another exterior shot of the ballpark, then another commercial. So this segment's sole purpose is to highlight Jeter's accomplishments, to reinforce the opening emphasis on tradition and remind us that we are watching history being made in the form of Jeter.

Later, with the sound on, I learn that Kay and Singleton are noting that Jeter passed Eddie Murray on the all-time hit list the previous night. They also mention that Jeter is one hit from being 1,000 away from Pete Rose, which seems an odd thing. “The captain is having a special year and a special career,” says Kay as they cut to commercial. It's a throwaway phrase that adds no value.

After this break, we get a wide shot of the ballpark's interior with the Yankees lineup superimposed. Then a cut to Liriano throwing warmups, a stat line, and a three-bullet “scouting report” sponsored by a donut company (Nova's scouting report in the bottom half is sponsored by a luxury car company; the message is clear: you are a donut, we are a luxury car). Then another graphic informing us that Jeter leads the league in something.

Liriano throws the first pitch. Jeter swings and lines it over the left-field fence for a homer. I mean to track how many replays each team's broadcast shows and from which angles. Do they show Jeter in the dugout afterward? Talking to teammates? Grabbing a towel? Smiling?

But everything moves too fast. Instead, I gather snippets from the announcers:

“Unfortunately, Liriano [is] not accustomed to the fact that Jeter loves to swing at the first pitch of the ballgame.” —Stone

“That didn't take long. Well, we wouldn't feel comfortable unless we had to come from behind with these guys.” —Harrelson

“He's hunting a fastball usually. Sometimes he jumps right on the first pitch.” —Kay (just before the homer)

“You would think that the pitchers around the league have a scouting report, that first thing smoking, he's gonna jump on it.” —Singleton (just after)

Kay and Singleton revisit the Rose angle. They also note that Jeter needs 400 hits to catch Stan Musial. Not that Jeter needs their help, but they are selling his place in history hard.

Cooper’s Visit
Liriano throws 31 pitches in the first, which means that we get many shots of a concerned Cooper in the White Sox dugout. In terms of broadcasting the game, both feeds follow the same basic pattern:

  • Focus on the pitcher's back as he sets up and delivers the ball
  • If the ball is hit, cut to camera focused on its path and then maybe show a replay or two; otherwise, cut to a shot of the batter's face between pitches
  • Occasionally cut to the dugout or the crowd

The Yankees broadcast cuts to batters less often than the White Sox broadcast. The Yankees also display a running pitch count, while the White Sox show it only at certain points. Theirs is sponsored by a muffler company (cars and fast food are a recurring theme) and includes balls and strikes.

The Yankees—with their emphasis on history—cut to a graphic outlining the 2003 trade that sent Liriano, Joe Nathan, and Boof Bonser from San Francisco to Minnesota for A.J. Pierzynski, who is Liriano's catcher tonight and who is enjoying a breakout season at age 35.

Mark Teixeira hits a long foul ball down the left-field line (Harrelson says of the shot, “Right size, wrong shape”). The Yankees telecast then displays a graphic of Liriano's face and career achievements. The camera cuts to Cooper after Liriano's 17th pitch. Two pitches later, Teixeira walks, and the camera returns to Cooper.

With runners at first and second, and a run already in, Liriano falls behind Andruw Jones, 3-0. The White Sox feed cuts to Cooper on the bench. Jones walks, and we get another look at Cooper.

After the Jones walk (“We just can't get out of our own way,” says Harrelson), the Yankees feed cuts to Cooper again, then to manager Robin Ventura, then to Granderson at bat, then to a random White Sox player in the dugout. With the sound on, I learn that the latter is Gavin Floyd, who started the previous night's game and experienced similar control problems.

Liriano bounces his first pitch to Curtis Granderson, and Cooper strolls to the mound. The Yankees feed cuts to Jeter in the dugout, because Jeter. On the other side, Stone talks about Liriano's mechanical issues and how Cooper is trying to fix them... something to do with weight shift and balance. A voice in the crowd can be heard yelling, “Get him out of there!”

Liriano eventually retires the side. And in case we missed it the first several times, we get one more shot of Jeter's home run before cutting to commercial.

Youkilis’ Slide
This is the first time I've seen Youkilis bat since the Radiohead game, also against the Yankees. He is just as I'd remembered him, a perpetual motion machine in the batters' box. He walks on four pitches.

Adam Dunn is up next. Nova bounces an 0-1 pitch to Dunn. Dewayne Wise, who led off with a ground single just to the right of Jeter's outstretched glove, scampers to third base. Youkilis breaks for second, but Yankees catcher Russell Martin fires a strike and nails him. Youkilis can't decide whether to slide or go in standing, so he does a little of each. He ends up in an unathletic position wide of the bag and is tagged out with ease. He is fortunate to have escaped injury. (Between Trial 2 and Trial 3, I inadvertently learn that Youkilis hits a grand slam later in the game. Twitter ruins everything.)

On the Yankees broadcast, after the first pitch to Youkilis, the camera cuts to Nova and displays an obscure stat. Something to do with the best road records after 30 starts. Surprise of surprises, Nova is on this list along with a few others, including Whitey Ford.

We are a luxury car, you are donut. Nova is Ford. Or Chevy. And I am reminded of the urban legend about why the Nova allegedly didn't sell in Latin America.

On second viewing, I learn that the other pitchers on the list are Chris Young and Storm Davis. This undermines my earlier point, which I leave in because it is part of the thought process.

After Youkilis walks and is thrown out at second, the Yankees feed shows replays from two different angles of the play just to be sure. The production values on their broadcast are impressive. They really are a luxury car. Watching Youkilis' slide again and again is cringe-inducing, especially if you've ever had trouble with your legs, as I have.

The Yankees broadcast then shows a third replay. It is a shot straight out of tennis coverage (which is one of the reasons I watch so little tennis despite its being the sport I played most as a kid), a close-up of the catcher's face after he makes the throw. The temptation is understandable. It is a beautiful shot that probably would make for a nice magazine cover.

It says nothing about the game, though, or the play. I am curious to hear what the announcers have to say about this shot. (Not much, as it happens. Nor does anyone seem troubled by Youkilis' slide beyond the fact that he ended up well wide of second base.)

The White Sox announcers go out of their way to praise Martin and second base umpire Tim Welke:

“Heads-up play by Russell Martin... [to] go after the slower trailer... keeps the ball in front of him.” —Stone

“Good job by Welke, making sure [the tag was made].” —Harrelson

Later in the inning, Jeter field a grounder off the bat of Paul Konerko and fires to first for the final out. The Yankees feed follows Jeter as he trots off the field. Cut to commercial.

Postmortem and Conclusion
I have no idea how this game ended, nor do I care. Every time I watched, the result came out the same: 2-0 after one inning.

(This was true until just before I filed the article. While double-checking Liriano's first-inning pitch count, I learned that the White Sox came back to win, 7-3. It is still true that I don't care.)

Due to life, I watched Trials 1 and 2 on Wednesday morning, and Trials 3 and 4 on Saturday morning. This gave me a chance to gather my notes, work through a few drafts, and decide what to focus on during subsequent viewings.

“Watching the watching” of a ballgame makes for a fascinating exercise to help us understand why we see things the way we do and the role others play in that seeing. But as a way to watch an actual game, it sucks. I don't turn on a ballgame to watch camera cuts and graphic overlays, I do it to watch baseball.

(We haven't even discussed hearing: music that accompanies graphic overlays, sound effects, etc. As they do in department stores, these play a role in how we perceive the world, but that is a story for some other day.)

Still, this was a worthwhile endeavor for its insights into how a game is presented. As a fan who wishes to be educated about as many aspects of baseball as possible, I learned something.

The next time you watch electrons flit about a flat screen enclosed in a box, pay attention to the narratives being told—by the announcers, the directors, the camera operators. Consider the choices they make in presenting these narratives and what drives those choices. How does their perception of a baseball game as conveyed through decisions they make color your own perception?

These questions may not be easy—or even possible—to answer in any meaningful way, but they are worth contemplating. That being said, don't think too hard. As with any other field of inquiry, there's a good chance you'll get stuck down the proverbial rabbit hole. Then you run the risk of missing a perfectly good ballgame, and wouldn't that be a shame?

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