There is something about hometown radio broadcasts that can captivate even during the most boring games or amid the worst seasons. Simply hearing the same cadences that you’ve heard hundreds of times before, or rehashes on the same jokes again and again, can bring a sense of calm or stability to a short trip in the car. At least, that’s how it is for me, and based on the hagiography of voice that stands as a backbone to baseball’s popularity, I’m not alone: Harry Kalas, Bob Uecker, Jack Buck, Vin Scully—the list of baseball men alive or dead who have been the je ne sais quoi of their team goes on. Add in the crackly static of a fickle AM broadcast, and you have quite the stew going.
What I’ve always thought is that the mix of warm feelings and familiarity was a product of memory, and that the tricky catch of aural recall mixed with the distinct feeling of a summer evening produced a powerful trick of the senses. Listening to the game, in other words, isn’t the perfect experience we think it is, it’s the memories that go along with it that trigger our euphoric calm. But I’m less and less convinced that it’s anything as simple as that.
One of the things I wrote about in my very first column here at Baseball Prospectus was the issue of fun in baseball. Whether or not baseball is “fun” in the way that, say, football is “fun” is part of a debate that refuses to die. Some people will tell you baseball isn’t fun at all, while others will tell you it’s boring to watch on TV but fun at the park. And many, many people will profess the beauty of a game on the radio during a day at the beach or while grilling up food for a twilight picnic in late July. But many more will be more than happy to detail exactly what they dislike about baseball in general: it’s too slow-paced; the mound visits make the thing so boring; the athletes don’t look like they’re in shape; steroids; etc., etc. It’s just that all that irritation about the game and its various flaws and foibles goes away when we hear the familiar voices that go along with it.
So why would that be? More and more I’m convinced that it’s because much of the general enjoyment of baseball—much of what makes it “fun” for an average, non-fanatical or BPro-subscribing viewer—is its predictability. If this seems counter-intuitive, I get it. A lot of what is most fun about baseball on the surface is its unpredictability, its intensification of football’s iconic “Any Given Sunday” mentality in which any given team might beat any other given team given a best of five series. The 2011 Phillies taught us that you can’t stack enough pitchers up to clinch a five-game series on merit alone, and the 2001 Mariners taught us that you can’t brute force your way to a World Series (sorry to the 2016 Cubs). And that kind of variance is fascinating as much as it is heartbreaking and frustrating, so to say that the bedrock appeal of the game lies in the totally opposite direction is, on its face, a bit perplexing.
But the appeal of a single game of baseball is different than the appeal of the sport entire. And for most people, the 162-game season deeply discourages acute attention to individual games. As my colleague and diehard Yankees fan Mary Hale loves to tell me, the season doesn’t even start until the playoffs. Her ability to get under my skin with this notwithstanding, I’m pretty sure that most fans feel similarly: that the regular season is a morass of either positive or negative trends that don’t quite become real outside of the abstraction of box scores until October. And so, the out and out unpredictability of a mid-June or late-August game probably means more to you and me, dear reader, than to, say, our dads or a random barber.
But—But!—the games still happen! Yes indeed, despite interest or attention or ratings to speak of, the games happen constantly through the dog days of summer. And often, they happen in front of packed stadiums and cheering fans, even when the home teams are skidding to yet another disappointing season, and especially when those home teams are cruising to an easy playoff berth (someday I will write a column devoted to how pleased I was to move away from Wrigleyville in the early summer of 2015). And I would hazard a guess that 75 percent of those fans filling the seats are less interested in the exact standings or particular stats of their chosen team and more interested in enjoying a nice night outdoors with some beer, hot dogs, and good company. All paced by the familiar cadence of the nine innings.
And the same goes for people grilling or driving through a hot summer night. For most, the point isn’t to hang on to every single pitch and at-bat, but rather to have the familiar summer pace behind their actions, the easy sway of the game punctuated by the familiar vocal cadence of its announcers. And when this is the same cadence that their fathers and mothers listened to on similar nights—or in the case of Scully, whose departure with the Dodgers from Brooklyn turned my Grandmama off from baseball forever, their grandparents as well—the magic of the familiar broadcast is amplified.
Familiarity, then, offers a very important component to the game’s appeal. Perhaps this explains the national furor over the Steroid Era or the breathless debates over the length of the game. Perhaps these fears are not-so-subtly a sublimation of the fear that the familiar, consistent quality of the game and its reassuring rhythms would change or otherwise become ineffable. Because baseball, like a morse code signal from the past 100 years, connects us with a past that is at once imaginary and shared. The radio, that technology that seems to hold on through any and all technical changes in transmission, is the perfect partner for this tenuous but powerful appeal to our communal rhythms as sports fans.