A brighter summer day

I made a resolution this year to pay deeper attention to baseball. Part of this is made quite easy locally, with the University of Tennessee’s baseball team in the midst of an excellent season. The other part of this is a little less easy, in that I grew up watching a lot of baseball. My grandfather’s favorite sport growing up was baseball, and while the love for it more or less skipped a generation, he passed it down my way. His favorite team was one I could not consciously copy once I was old enough to realize who they were: the New York Yankees. My father claims a loose Detroit Tigers fandom, being from the Detroit suburb Southfield, so ten years ago I elected to follow the Tigers.

This is boring history that provides a loose-enough explanation for me being a huge baseball fan from, say, 2001-2014, then very loosely to not at all from 2015 to 2019. There are many long-lasting effects of the pandemic on humanity, but one of them on me, the protagonist of history, was that I started watching regular season baseball again in 2021. Something about it seemed comforting and warm. It was like re-embracing an old friend. It helped that I no longer felt completely lost in terms of baseball discussion with my grandfather or with friends, so there was that, too.

The problem any normal person will see with committing yourself to regular season baseball is that every team plays 162 games. I would estimate that all but ~60 of these games cross-pollinate with other sporting seasons, such as the NBA/NHL playoffs, the start of European football in mid-August, and, of course, our national bloodsport in September. For about 60 games, you really don’t have anything else on. The problem is the other 102ish.

Having had an MLB.TV subscription since 2009, I’ve long been a fan of the application’s ability to let you watch literally every broadcast the sport has to offer. Also, having been a numbers nerd for even longer, re-diving into Fangraphs, one of our nation’s best websites, was another bonus. When I first got into MLB.TV, it required a lot of bouncing around various games to figure out which broadcasts I liked or didn’t like. Being a Yankees/Tigers fan at the time, I naturally gravitated to those two. The point is that these were television broadcasts with television announcers. I never thought twice about the radio option, because not being able to actually watch the game felt like the most old-timers thing imaginable.

The great people of Fangraphs commissioned a months-long project in late 2020 and early 2021: a nationwide survey of opinions on local broadcasts, both television and radio. You can view the final results here, but predictably, a couple numbers stood out to me. The average TV baseball broadcast is rated a 6.6/10; the average radio broadcast is over a point higher at 7.8/10. There is no other sport of which I know this to be the case, that the fans on average prefer not seeing the game to seeing it. (At least in this specific sense.)

With that in mind, I spent the first month of the 2022 season sort of reconnecting my old-timer soul with the old-timer act of listening to a baseball game. I did it over, and over, and over again. I have to report that the average Fangraphs responder is accurate: the act of listening to baseball is superior to viewing it. This is because a radio broadcast is more versatile: in 2022, I can take it anywhere and do anything while listening and paying attention. If we are forced to own smartphones, this is my questionably-moral act of offsetting the brain damage.

There have been 17 Tigers games to date this season; I have listened to at least part of 13 of them. I have never felt more connected with the team I’ve chosen to support. Part of this choice is made easy by the fact that, in the Fangraphs survey, Detroit’s TV team ranks dead last in MLB. (They are genuinely very, very bad, and watching any Bally Sports broadcast brings its own problems.) But a much bigger part is that, for the first time, I feel like I get it. I get why this is the national pastime. And I get why radio broadcasts have been so beloved for so long.

The first radio broadcast of a baseball game occurred in August 1921, a game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and Philadelphia Phillies. 101 years later, we still listen to baseball on the radio. Does this reflect a desire to connect with a nostalgia people like me have never quite held? I wonder, but I have no answer. But imagine being there in 1921, somewhere in Pennsylvania, and you hear some of that broadcast. You cannot actually watch the game happening at the ballpark, but a proper visualization of it via transmission of electromagnetic waves is now possible.

I couldn’t find a report more recent than summer 2018, 97 years after that first broadcast, but the message is likely the same today: no sport in America is more popular to listen to than baseball. This is despite the fact that baseball now ranks as America’s third-favorite sport, and whenever Gallup runs their next poll, it could very well rank fourth behind soccer/European football. Why is this so?

I think of it this way: while I do not mind listening to a football game on the radio, it is not my first choice (unless it’s a Westwood One broadcast). Football is, at its core, a visual game. Same with basketball, which is really hard to follow on the radio. Hockey comes closest, because with the natural noise of the game you’re able to somewhat visualize what’s going on, but it ranks second to baseball. A random Tuesday evening game between, say, Oakland and Texas can be turned on. The stakes are low. A homer is hit. To where? It may not matter; you hear the crack of the bat, the roar of the crowd, the excitement of the announcer. An audio-based game deserves to be heard audio-first.

Celebrating the 100th anniversary of the first radio broadcast in 2021, Wall Street Journal writer and book guy Jared Diamond wrote about why we do this. There’s Vin Scully and Gary Cohen, of course, but for a Tigers fan like me, there’s Dan Dickerson. Every city has their own person, one who paints the picture for you over a three-hour course that you can zone in and out of. Diamond himself notes the upside of the perceived boredom: “Radio requires no such commitment, lending itself to how baseball is ideally consumed: as a familiar sound in the background as life goes on, there for you when you want it, wherever you are. Understanding basketball or football on the radio takes active listening. Baseball can be listened to passively, the excitement in the broadcaster’s voice dictating the level of attention needed at that moment.”

To quote Jon Bois, this is how baseball moves: not at all, then all at once. This is a stage of life where I am writing this on a screen, you see everything in your daily life on a screen, and we are begged to tie ourselves to the screens as often as we can. The act of turning a baseball game on that you cannot see is like a minor act of rebellion. It is a revolution against non-stop visuals and unwanted advertising shoved in your face. Baseball on the radio has survived for 101 years because it is one of the few things we have left that we don’t have to visualize. The guy on the transmitter is doing it for us, and he is doing quite the good job.

I think it was July 2009, somewhere in there, my grandfather purchased MLB.TV for the first time. A lifelong Yankees fan, he had toyed with a few different ways to watch the games despite never actually living in the New York market. The Yankees being the Yankees, he could more or less guarantee at least one national broadcast every week during the season. But missing those other 120 or so games isn’t fun, so why not invest in the streaming service that covers the rest?

The first game we watched together was a mid-summer game between the Yankees and the Oakland Athletics. It was 90+ degrees out yet again, because it was July, and my grandparents came over to have dinner with us. My grandfather smoked for a long time, so we sat on the back porch, watching the game on the MLB.TV stream on the iPod Touch my father had gotten me the previous Christmas. Thinking of it now, I cannot imagine that picture was 100% crystal clear. It was on a tiny device with a black screen that projected images at your face, years before we were to fully realize the impact of such a thing on our brains.

In that moment, I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else. I don’t think he wanted to, either. It was just us, just us and a baseball game using a device that wouldn’t have existed two years earlier and a streaming service that wouldn’t have in the prior decade. MLB.TV debuted in August 26, 2002 and slowly grew until it seemed to explode late in the 2000s. The confluence of decent Internet speeds and better streaming service meant a product that felt leagues ahead of all the other leagues. It was like an addiction we couldn’t quit going back to.

After that first game, I’d go over to their house and we’d come up with excuses to watch a variety of games. The Tigers are playing the Blue Jays at 2 PM on a Saturday? Sure, nothing better going on at the moment. The Rangers are tied in the eighth against Houston? Put it on. Nothing was off limits any longer; it was all baseball, as often as we could get it on. We could do that pretty often at that time. Once the ability to sync radio broadcasts with TV was introduced, we started doing that sometimes, because it reminded him of how much he loved listening to the radio broadcasts growing up.

The years passed, the addiction faded for a while, but every March, I would call him to make sure the MLB.TV login still worked for both of us. His username never changed. The passwords did occasionally when he forgot the previous one, but they had a pretty consistent theme over time. Every time I went to their house from April to October from 2011 onward, the odds were >80% that a Yankees game would be on the television. Even after I made the switch to Tigers fandom, we still watched games together as often as we could. Even after I stopped watching baseball almost entirely for four years, we still watched when we were in the same room.

The account is in my name now. There have been other transitions over the last few months; that was one that felt more powerful than it probably should have. But despite my own preferences, I will not be changing the Favorite Team within the application from New York.

It is April 26 and sunny outside. It’s been warm lately; the hints at summer ahead are growing stronger as we slowly leave winter behind, then spring. Spring signals a rebirth to many for a variety of reasons.

In these times of late, with world news seeming ever scarier and the national news not helping, I think of the guy who created Northwoods Baseball Sleep Radio. Taking a nap with a baseball game on in the background is one of the best ways the sport can be experienced. Time can be warped. Dimensions can be altered. Commercials can be somewhat soothing. A brighter summer day of years past comes back to warm your memories and comfort your heart. Hope springs eternal.

On Monday, I mowed and listened to the Brewers play the Giants, with Jon Miller on the call. Sometimes I’ve been putting on Phillies games in the background while working because I like the camaraderie and charisma of their radio team. The Brewers broadcasts generally have the most charming ads. The Tigers have successfully narrowed it down to just one annoying between-innings ad this year, a Little Caesars one, which is about 78 less than the TV broadcast offers. You’ll hear the final out of the fourth inning, then immediately hear an ad for Menards or Ollie’s Bargain Outlet. The dulcet tones of a broadcaster can somehow even make Chevron or Quicken Loans seem like the exact opposite of themselves.

I’m not quite sure what the explanation of the sudden radio explosion in my life is. I do not own a physical radio at the moment, and my alarm clock doesn’t play AM or FM. All radio feeds I listen to are filtered through a technological device of some sort, whether my phone or MacBook or a television. There is no true moment of sitting in the garage, drinking Miller Lite, and listening to a baseball game on a physical radio on a Friday night.

But the facsimile of playing it through one of those devices works just fine. Baseball works remarkably well as a mowing companion, almost regardless of what game you have on. I can get to work on our small garden while listening to the Tigers game. I can replace all of the filler podcasts I have in Spotify with the calming, timeless tones of any random baseball game. It beats running five miles to a real soundtrack sometimes. (In my brief experience of diving in head-first over the last month, the Brewers, Giants, and Rays have the three best radio crews in the sport. The Yankees, regrettably, have the worst.)

Even without that physical radio, the act of playing a baseball game on the radio and not watching it is that minor revolutionary act. For pockets of time, the world stops turning so fast. Everything slows for a little while. A soft ground ball is hit to second, who tosses it over to first for the second out of the first inning. Things are okay again, as the sun comes out for good. A brighter summer day is back, once again, to take us home. I welcome it happily.