It's Sunday afternoon in Brooklyn, and I'm sitting at my desk in the front room window that overlooks the park. In the springtime sunlight and air, I can hear the sounds of airplanes approaching LaGuardia, of children in the park, and of the Good Humor man as he makes his rounds of the neighborhood. And thanks to my laptop, I'm listening to the Milwaukee Brewers play Pittsburgh at Miller Park in Wisconsin. It's the bottom of the sixth, and the Brewers lead 4-0.
The best way to watch baseball is, of course, outside. That is especially true for lower-level amateur league baseball, even little league. It's true for minor league. And it's slightly less true for major league. True baseball is enjoyed out of doors, with a chain-link back stop and a water fountain standing in a pool of gravel.
But if you can't catch a game outside, what's the second best way to take in the sport? Is it on television? No. Baseball doesn't belong in a box. It belongs in a diamond. In many of the larger stadiums, especially Miller Park, the game is small and far away enough that the box drastically diminishes the experience by containing it and shaving off the edges. Besides, with baseball's pace, do you really want to break it up with TV commercials?
No, the second best way to catch baseball is on the radio. A transistor radio, held in one's hand, placed in a bicycle basket, or propped up against a lawn chair in the yard is the perfect transmitter for baseball. Its small size and portability means that you can take the radio anywhere. That means you can take baseball with you. Some people even listen to the game while at the game. You can identify them because they've got one eye on the field and one finger on their ear bud—or because they cheer when nobody else does.
Additionally, there are ghosts in radio. Spectral hisses, pops, echoes, and audible depth and distance. Memories of clean-sheet summer nights with the windows wide open. Nervous huddles underneath the ping pong table in the basement waiting for the tornadoes to pass by. Even ghosts of games past. When a baseball game is aired on the radio, all games are on—and in—the air.
There's another way to listen to baseball now: Online. In early April, I signed up for GameDay Audio from MLB.com. For $14 a year—a year!—you can listen to games live while they're in play, as well as games from the recent past. You can even listen to about 100 classic games if you'd like to dig even deeper.
Occasionally, GameDay Audio has its own fits and starts. Sometimes, trying to access a streaming broadcast, my browser will get hung up, and I'm forced to quit. I can try an alternate stream source, but every so often, I need to reach for my transistor radio as a backup.
Because one thing I've experienced as I've been listening to more baseball is that I need a backup. I want to listen to even more baseball. It doesn't matter what it is. I don't need to follow the teams. I don't need to pay all that much attention. I just need some baseball. There's something special about radio announcers, the sound of the game in the air, and the ghostly hiss that even seems to come across on GameDay Audio.
That increase in media consumption is a common experience for people who use new media technologies. Last fall, Nielsen found that people who use digital video recorders watch more TV than other people. On average, adults with DVRs watch six hours and 14 minutes of live television a week, as well as an hour and 49 minutes of recorded programming. That turns out to be 29% more TV than that watched by folks without DVRs. Similarly, in 1999, Nielsen discovered that people with digital cable service watch 6% more broadcast, 34% more cable, and 253% more pay TV than those with analog television.
Television limits the baseball experience. While listening to a game online or on the radio, you can do other things. You can read the newspaper. You can write an article for a sports fanzine. You can go for a walk with your girlfriend. You can also connect with a baseball broadcast tradition that dates back to 1921, when Harold Arlin announced the first game on KDKA.
There are ghosts in the radio. There are games in the air waiting to be played. Grab your cap and join us.
(This essay appeared in a slightly different form in the blog Media Diet, Mediadiet.net.)
Heath Row is a fair-weather fan, which isn't that uncommon because no rain delay has been identified as lasting 10 or more hours.