In Praise of the Internet and Spring (Training)
Spring training is that wonderful time of year when the regular hierarchies of baseball and business are bleached out of the game, and it can all be seen on the Internet.
Even as Major League Baseball and the satellite cable companies negotiate complicated deals, hashing over money and percentage takes, one thing is still fantastically simple: anyone can pay $90 and watch thousands of pro baseball games from wherever they want. The ubiquitous "blackout restrictions apply", but today's nomadic population no longer has to worry about missing every single one of its team's games if work or love dictates living far from "home". Thanks to broadcasts made available on MLB.com, you can watch Ichiro paint the shallow outfield with line drives before clicking over to another coast to make sure that Rocco Baldelli's hamstring is holding up. And once your restless cursor is satiated (if you're me), you can still settle into the late innings of an otherwise unobtainable game between the Astros and Reds on a Cincinnati summer afternoon.
I bought the "MLBtv" package last year to watch the Houston Astros from Chicago, and I loved every pixilated moment of it. While I was in college I had to write shameful emails to friends back home begging for information on the team, checking box scores online, and pouting. I didn't want to suffer through that 164-game downer in Chicago, so I sent my $90 off on a prayer. The gods of both baseball and the Internet colluded to deliver a little four-inch box of happiness to my laptop screen. The Astros going to the World Series that year was just plain luck but, such as it was, I didn't have to wait around until the playoffs to watch them get there.
And that was just regular and post-season baseball. Online baseball is perhaps most enjoyable during baseball's spring training. With rosters whittling down and position battles intensifying, I've loved watching these streamed, preseason broadcasts. If I can't cut out of school and work for two weeks to sun with the retired in Arizona or Florida (where nearly spring training ball is played), then online sun is the next best thing. Granted, the tinny sound of bat on ball isn't as studio sharp during springtime -- thanks in part to my pair of laptop speakers -- but its imprecision makes it feel more intimate. I enjoy the antiquated sounds of spring baseball on bad speakers for the same reasons that I'll never stop listening to the record culled from Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash's appearance on VH1 Storytellers -- the one where you can hear Cash brushing his shaking fingers over guitar strings.
But spring training intrigued me even before its online existence. It's the gathering grounds for all baseball, like a superhero reunion or the Oscars. Every team, and what seems an infinite supply of players, converge on one of two particular spots, dubbed the "Cactus" (Arizona) or "Grapefruit" (Florida) leagues. Once there, a democratic note rings through the palms (or the yucca). Manny Ramirez rides a bus from Ft. Myers to Bradenton. Barry Bonds loses fly balls in the sun (the "high sky"), and cuts at bad sliders from minor league, A-ball hopefuls. The regular hierarchies of the game and the "business" are bleached out of baseball. It's democracy -- or some semblance thereof -- that sounds in the imperfect online rap of the spring training bat hitting the ball.
And when it comes to spring training on the web, there is another fleeting moment that attracts me perpetually to baseball-watching. Every once in a while the online signal loses synch with the television broadcast. As the TV signal moves into a commercial break, the online signal stays with the cameras and audio at the game. I can recognize the moment instantly. An inning comes to a close with summarization and gusto but, instead of the thrum of a car ad, the audio goes silent. The peaceful scene that unwittingly unfolds is jarring, as the live camera drifts over the crowd, searching for a cute baby or a hot soccer mom like a Xanexed version of the snake machines from Spielberg's War of the Worlds. The only sounds coming through (for a good eight beats, usually) are those of removed conversation, laughing, and the odd good-natured shout -- the sounds of sitting in the Florida or the Arizona sun, which many humans will pay thousands of dollars to enjoy. Neither broadcast nor cable television ever have, nor ever will, send anything out over the air or through fiber optic lines that will feel a quarter as real as the hum of the spring training crowd when the feed doesn't cut to commercial.
Last year I could expect these blips every other game that I watched. Now, though, the techies must have caught on, because it happens with far less frequency. The upshot is a jolt of surprise to realize that I've seen one more shooting star. The other night I yelled when the old, familiar tone of un-broadcastable "TV" emerged, nearly startling my girlfriend out of her peejays. After the eight beats, the broadcasters chimed in. "They don't know that they're on!" my brain exclaimed. As far as they knew, viewers were jumping up for another Diet Coke or a whiz, muting their high-def TVs for a chat with a roommate, or a synopsis of Moises Alou's last two at bats. Like overheard celebrities in the bathroom, rather than snorting blow, broadcasters do what is expressly forbidden in the course of their jobs: they act normally. The regular feed went away and one of the broadcasters immediately cleared his throat like Seinfeld's Uncle Leo might have done, drawing up a tickle of phlegm that had probably bothered him for an excruciating half-inning. It was a disgusting sound, but it was a sound that people make when they aren't putting on a show. I listened to it three times.
"Mmm," the broadcaster went on (I think his partner must've hit the john, I only heard one guy). "Smell that kettle corn! Are we gonna get some of that up here or what? Boy that smells good." He paused; there was someone else in the booth, maybe a producer. "I say kettle corn," said the broadcaster. "I said we should get some up here." My attention was rapt. Somehow I found that listening to this guy talk as if he was at the bus stop, or in his own kitchen, was as compelling as the game itself. Moreso.
That sort of moment can't last though, and thirty seconds into the break they returned to the business of making sports television. A woman's voice piped in, perky, assertive: "Okay guys, where are we, where am I looking?" Camera shots swerved, perspective jumped from one side of the small stadium to the other. "I'm by the dugout, just to my right of the dugout. Right here, I'm waving. Right here." (Again the camera's POV reminded me of a mech-droid searching for biological life forms to snuff out.) Finally it found her, a sorority-type blond in a Pittsburgh Pirates polo, microphone in her hand. "Will the shot be on me or on the game?" she asked. I could only hear her side of the conversation. "On me? Okay, bottom of the second, two outs," she reminded herself. And then, before I had time to process the transition, to decompress from this strange world of behind-the-scenes maneuvering, all returned to the way it was two minutes ago -- only moments removed from the peaceful sound of not much going on. The blond peppered a young catcher with scripted questions and threw it back up to the boys in the booth, each of them impervious once again. I felt like I was watching The Truman Show when the wheels of his phony universe churn into motion at his approach. But in a good way.
I like spring training and watching spring training games online for the same reason. In each case, the sheetrock is stripped from pro baseball's walls, exposing the beams. Spring is when all of an organization's prospects and has-beens come together: the guys who'll play six days a week come April; young, unproven outsiders who will spend the rest of the year toiling in railroad towns; Tommy John survivors working around batters and failing to get outs for the final time. Spring training games are complicated. Managers have to shuffle what seems like hundreds of guys in and out of the lineup, judging talent without getting too excited over nothing. And at the end of a spring training season, I'm always surprised at how complicated it must be to run a baseball organization, negotiating the past, the present, and the future all at one time.
Onscreen (the smallest of screens, really), the broadcasters and engineers too shake off their own rust, and I get to see, for the only time without visiting the ballpark, the underpinnings of the craft of baseball media. Cameras have to pan around to find their close range correspondent in a sea of fans. And broadcasters, minor celebrities though they may be, want to get their paws on some of that kettle corn. They can smell it from all the way up here.