The Sound of Silence

As a fan of the Detroit Tigers who lives a good distance from Detroit, I have to subscribe to MLB.tv if I want to watch their games. And because I’m also kind of frugal, I chose the subscription plan that provides only the home team’s feed. When the Tigers go on the road, I enjoy listening to the different announcers and their perspectives on the team I root for almost as much as I enjoy the varieties of local color in which pitching changes aren’t sponsored by Wallside Windows (as they are for the Tigers games) but by The UPS Store (Angels) and NYU Langone Medical Center (Yankees). Watching baseball games from the vantage point of the opposing team’s broadcast offers a portal into an alternate universe that’s just as banal as the one you came from.

The only real downside comes when the Tigers play the Chicago White Sox and I have to listen to the White Sox play-by-play guy, Ken “Hawk” Harrelson (NB: he looks like a hawk). A visiting listener can reasonably expect the home team’s broadcasters to be homers, but Harrelson takes homerism to extraordinary levels. When a White Sox pitcher strikes out an opposing batter, Hawk yells, “He gone!” He also has an annoying home run call that he predictably only uses for White Sox home runs. He openly refers to the White Sox as “good guys” and the opposing team as “bad guys” (and just because it’s tongue-in-cheek doesn’t mean it isn’t annoying).

He’s also really crusty. Hawk believes that all these nerds and their fancy statistics like WAR are missing the point because you can’t quantify baseball. Sure, you can come up with some kind of algorithm that quantifies player value, but what you really need are players with copious amounts of grit and hustle who possess the “the will to win.” He even went ahead and created his own mocking acronym, TWTW. Hawk’s also not afraid to interject himself sanctimoniously into the broadcast to let you know if someone, usually an umpire, fundamentally misunderstands what baseball is all about. Such a moralistic stance about right and wrong, good and bad baseball is off-putting and eventually kind of self-defeating; Hawk ends up being so concerned about people violating the sanctity of the game, then he ends up intruding upon the very thing he supposedly holds so sacred.

A reasonable, less-masochistic person would simply mute the game and listen to something less grating – fingernails screeching across a chalkboard, a Nickleback album – while watching the game. But I’ve come to enjoy the way in which Hawk boils my blood, as each broadcast brings with it the chance to have him aggravate me in new and exciting ways. Plus, being able to watch your team do well and witness the effect it has on Hawk is pure, uncut schaudenfreude. If I’m lucky, I’ll get to mainline some of the best Hawk despair, which occurs when an opposing player hits a walk-off homerun and he becomes so apoplectic that he conspicuously goes silent.

Delighted though I may be to not hear Hawk’s voice, which goes on a minute-long hiatus, it’s also wonderful not to hear any announcer’s voice. Beyond Hawk’s moralizing, my annoyance has a lot to do with the role of the announcer as the person mediating the experience of watching a baseball game. Other announcers may not induce as many eye-rolls and exasperating sighs, but even then you’re still left with a superfluous vocal presence telling you about baseball as he relays the action on the field – action that you can see with your very own eyes. And without an announcer redundantly chiming in to tell an audience what that audience is already able to see, the ambient sounds of the game come to the forefront. Because of Hawk’s silence, you get to hear the crowd (well, what’s left of it) going bonkers and fireworks being set off—the sounds of mildly ecstatic frenzy.

Then it occurs to me that maybe this is Hawk’s intent, and maybe the apoplectic fit that I’ve imagined him going into isn’t really happening. Maybe Hawk, like famed Dodgers play-by-play announcer Vin Scully, is taking a step back to allow the sights and sounds of the game to wash over us, even as the team he’s rooting for has just been defeated in dramatic fashion. There’s a strong possibility that the silence is purposeful given that Hawk is (at the very least) a professional and I am prone to petty revenge fantasies.

Some teams have tried to extend these announcer-free moments for innings and and sometimes entire games. A few years ago, the Royals observed an inning of silence to honor the passing of former pitcher Paul Splittorff.

Without the voices telling me what’s going on, I have to do a bit of intellectual work to figure out things like what pitch is being thrown and whether a base runner might be trying to steal. But I’m much less anxious watching a game this way, at least initially. (Obviously, the game already happened, so this might not be the best possible example, but the change in affect is still worth pointing out.) Announcers help give voice to the drama of the game and make the viewing experience more intense, but they can also be exhausting. Without them, the sound the ball makes when it hits the catcher’s mitt, the crack of the bat, the voices of vendors all add texture to the viewing experience. Having to construct your own narrative rather than having it spoon-fed to you makes a big difference in how you take in a baseball game.

In distinguishing between television and other media, Marshall McLuhan called TV a “cool” medium because of how it increases the viewer’s participation in the construction of meaning – more so than with other media like film or radio (both of which are “hot”). I’ve never really understood how something that required more effort on the viewer’s part could be “cool,” since coolness suggests distance and detachment. Shouldn’t greater participation mean less detachment? But announcer-free baseball games helped me understand this seeming inconsistency: being able to participate in the construction of meaning allows the viewer to be less dependent on the medium itself, to have greater control over the investment of interpretive and emotional faculties and making him or her, at least temporarily, less of a nervous wreck.

But making meaning on your own is hard work, and once you’re the sole generator of meaning things can get a bit lonely, which comes with its own different set of anxieties. Watching a game inside an echo chamber isn’t exactly as a serene as it might appear, as the negative space gets filled up with concerns about the game and even some extra-baseball thoughts (shouldn’t I be doing something else with this time? with my life?). Which is why I’m still inclined to keep the announcers handy. Though he may be irascible and curmudgeonly, Hawk’s presence helps distract me from, well, myself. Though he may not provide much in the way of explanation or expertise, he does provide a little company.

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