The AtHome Pilgrim

Musings at a Slower Pace


Philly area, Pennsylvania, USA
"Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita," I find myself still asking some of the same questions I did when I was just a punk kid. The Big Things confuse me. Fortunately, though, many little things delight and amuse me, and some Big Things--my wife, our kids, our bird and bunny visitors, food, baseball--make me very, very happy. In my pilgrimage, I try to be guided by the wisdom of dear old Auntie Mame: "Life is a banquet!"


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AUGUST 8, 2009 9:19AM

Baseball Broadcasters as Epic Poets

Rate: 6 Flag

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. 

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I had never thought of them this way. It does take a special talent to be able to give the fans not watching the same drama as those that are. Brilliantly weaved together.
Bravo on this post. Much of my life has been spent living games through the eyes of these voices, some of who were really geniuses. I have listened to games all the time on the radio to this day. Yes, your comparison to the epic poem is a very good one.
Penguin: Indeed, their talent is to bring that drama to more fans than could see it live. When Kalas died earlier this year, the outpouring of warm memories showed how deeply he, like other Voices, had touched fans' hearts. And thanks for the compliment on the writing!

Dr. Spud: Thanks for stopping in! Yes, baseball was made for radio, as it was for summer.
Oh, Pilgrim, you're playing my song! I LOVE baseball on the radio. Growing up in Colorado...we only had the major league Cubs on WGN, but our minor league team, the Denver Bears was great fun.

I remember the JOY I had when we got our Rockies...and I love me some Rockies baseball. Our play-by-play guy, Jeff Kingery is fantastic. He did the Bears games on air before he did the Rockies. His former partner, Wayne Hagin was a favorite of mine too...he now does the Mets games.

Unfortunately, I am not in Rockies territory any more, since we moved to Illinois, halfway between Cubs and Cardinal country. I am a fan of neither (nor the White Sox for that matter), but if push came to shove, it would be the Cards. I never got to hear their hall of fame broadcaster, Jack Buck, but Mike Shannon is no slouch either. I miss my Rockies anyway...sigh.
yekdeli: Have you checked to see whether you can get the games over the Internet? I know many stations do that now, though I'm not sure if stations that broadcast games do. (Number One Son, for away in Boston, sometimes listens to Philly sports talk radio over the Internet to get his Phils' chat fix.) Might be worth checking.
For me, I have the voice of summer from my youth, Harry Caray, and now with my husband and his constant summer companion, Vince Scully. I actually prefer a game on the radio to those broadcast on tv. The images allow me to paint my own canvas of the game, using their voices for the paints.

Yes, you are right about poetic voices.
Hi, Buffy: Thanks for stopping in. I never heard Harry C, but, of course, have enjoyed the dulcet tones of Mr. Scully (though on TV). As I said earlier, baseball and radio are a perfect marriage. Though it's nice to see the instant replay from time to time as well!
I actually get more enjoyment and stay more engaged in the action when I listen to a game on the radio...I still love it!
Torman: Welcome! One of the best things about radio is that the Voices (the good ones) know when not to talk, and thus, it's relaxed. And then there's the whole classic radio "the Shadow knows" mind picture thing!
Yes, Pilgrim, re: the internet. The radio voice of the Rockies: KOA, will not allow the games to be streamed. You can stream the talk radio and news programs, but not the baseball, because of MLB contracts. They have their own online listening venture and you have to pay to subscribe.
yekdeli: Right, I'd forgotten about the corporatist maw paradoxically closing the Voice's mouth.
nod at the same frequency ~

I remember that night and that strike out and that voice~

And many other lovely things as I read this post. Thank you!
catch: Wow! Digging into the lower layers! I'm honored that you should do so and to comment: many thanks. But how did you hear that call?
Buenas noches,
Digging is good fun; like perusing the stacks.
I remember that moment of the Phillies winning. I heard Kala's call for the first time a bit later. It was great to hear it again here and read about baseball as mythology. I feel it is just as your words explain, baseball as collective memory.