Last night the Philadelphia Phillies paid tribute to the late broadcaster Harry Kalas by enshrining him in their Wall of Fame, the team’s tribute to its past heroes. Fittingly, to call the past inductees on the field to take part in the ceremony, the team used video of HK himself calling them out from ceremonies in years gone by. What better way to remember the legendary voice?
The event got me thinking about how radio broadcasters are the Epic Poets of our day, the Homers (doh! not that one!) of our time.
Like Epic Poets, broadcasters tell a story in words, and a complex story it is. The long baseball season has the arc of an epic, one that does not always end in victory but can take a tragic turn. Within that epic tale are 162 smaller dramas, each told in rhythmic, vivid language, and each divided neatly into units; each packed with heroes and villains, human actions and the intervention of Fate, tangents and epithets. And in telling this story, the broadcaster—the Voice— brings us together.
You do not actually see the action as it unfolds, but you can picture it in your mind as the Voice describes it. Because you have seen games, you conjure each gesture and motion, just as the ancient Greeks, familiar with war and with ritual, could envision each action that Homer describes in The Iliad.
Like a Singer, the Voice has rhythm to his speech: “The pitcher sets. He winds, and here’s the pitch.” —pause—“Fastball low and outside. Ball one.” The caesura in the middle, when the ball is in flight, and the world is full of opportunities, is a moment of suspense. (Moments a baseball game is full of, one reason it is superior to other sports—but that’s another post.)
Like a Poet, the Voice uses vivid words to paint pictures. The batter “lofts a high fly” and you can see the ball tower into the sky. He “scorches one,” and you hear it screaming past the diving third baseman.
Like an Epic Poem, broadcasts have natural divisions. An epic has its cantos; the ballgame its innings. Each is a unique and self-contained segment, but each draws from and adds to what came before, and each foreshadows—though in an as-yet unknown ways—what is to come. Indeed, each half inning is its own story, and a baseball game, with eighteen mini-stories, comes close to the classical Epic structure of twenty-four cantos.
As the focal character in an Epic Poem might shift slightly from canto to canto (without losing sight of the hero), each mini-story in a ballgame has its own central characters. The pitchers, of course, are the chief characters: the Achilles or Aeneas who is the focus of the story. They control the ball and thus control the action. But sometimes the action puts the spotlight on another. The slugger who comes to bat with man on base and fouls off pitch after pitch wrests attention from the pitcher. The baserunner who dances off first, forcing the pitcher to throw over multiple times in an effort to contain him, and then dashes off for second, sliding in safely, only to resume his disruption of the pitcher’s rhythm as he takes a long, uncomfortable lead off second, that baserunner can become the star of the story for a time. Even a fielder can become the center of attention with a diving catch or a booted grounder, the effects of which resonate for the rest of the inning by stifling the changes of the offense or immersing the pitcher in trouble.
The Voice, like the Epic Poet, tells us about each of these characters, revealing past adventures (“He’s three and oh with a 1.12 ERA in his last five starts”) and wounds sustained (“You can see him limp slightly when he runs. Probably the result of being plunked on the leg by that fastball last night.”). He recounts the characters’ heroic pedigree—where they’re from, how they did in the minors or with another team—and the burdens that they carry—the parent ill in the hospital, the cousin in uniform. The Voice song reveals each player’s emotional response to the game. When he tells us that the pitcher goes often to the resin bag, we know the men on base fret the hurler. When the batter fidgets at the plate and frequently steps out, we feel his anxiety over the next pitch.
Like an Epic Poet, the Voice fills the call of the game with stock characters. He tells of grizzled veterans like the canny Odysseus and young upstarts like the impetuous Patroclus. There are sage mentors offering advice—the pitching coach who visits the mound to calm the struggling young starter—and stern judges—the umpires who lay down the law.
The Voice’s song is one of human action, but Fate plays a role as well. He tells us of the crazy bounce the ground ball takes that uncannily sends it past the breaking infielder. He explains how the gust of wind held up the enemy fly headed for the bleachers, forcing it to drop harmlessly into the outfielder’s glove. The Voice relates the manipulations of the manager, his moves and signals revealing the efforts of the unseen powers (is a bunt sign a deus ex machina?) to affect human affairs—the play of the characters on the field. Sometimes the Voice himself will appeal to the gods, hoping for relief for the beleaguered team, as when my old friend Ernie Harwell would hopefully call for “instant runs” on behalf of his trailing Tigers.
The Voice knows to use the quiet time between pitches or while a reliever trots in to bring in tangents, telling stories that enrich our understanding of the characters, the situation, or the rivalry. These stories convey the cultural history of the demos—the team and its fans, the past triumphs and disappointments. Like any good tangent, they reflect on the real story, shedding new light on the plot or characters. The out-of-town scoreboard is another set of tangents, the actions of rival teams in other cities affecting the drama at hand.
The Voice, like the Epic Poet, uses epithets. Harry’s team wasn’t just the Phils, it was the “Fightin’ Phils.” Jamie Moyer isn’t merely a left-handed pitcher, he’s the “wily veteran.” Call them clichés, but these phrases contribute to the richness of the Voice’s story. They evoke memories of games past, when that wily southpaw outfoxed an over-eager young hitter and got him to swing far too soon on another changeup down and away. Just as Greeks never tired of Dawn’s rosy fingertips, the baseball fan is always happy to hear that the “flame-throwing” closer is entering the game (paradoxically, to put out the fire).
In telling this story, the Voice brings the demos together; he unites the fan base—the [Fill in the Blank] Nation. Listening to a broadcast is a communal experience. Just as Homer chanted his verses about the wrath of Achilles to a crowd of Greeks after dinner (a night game), the Voice brings to the listener the crowd at the park. No, you the listener are not there, but you can hear the cheers and boos, the groans of frustration at the ball curving foul, the cheers of delight at the liner into the gap, the crescendo of noise after an inning-ending double play that forces the Voice to raise his volume just to be heard.
The Voice knows, when the tension is thickest, to say nothing and let the stillness reveal the crowd’s worry. He lets the crowd’s rhythmic applause ring out, uninterrupted by words, in the bottom of the ninth, with two out and a man on third, and the game tied, letting you, the listener, nod at the same frequency as the crowd’s hands, waiting, waiting for the pitch . . . and then, as the crowd roars that split second before the Voice tells you that the ball shot past the drawn-in infield, you pump your fists into the air, one with the crowd—and with tens of thousands of other yous, each huddled before a separate radio-hearth, each brought together in the victory of the demos by the poetic magic of the Voice.
Words and pictures © 2009 AtHome Pilgrim.
All Rights Reserved.