TAKE ME OUT OF THE BALL PARK!
Fans of the San Francisco Giants respond to the urging of various
mechanical devices at the ball park and make MORE NOISE!!!
Once a pleasant setting,
it's now an auditory hell
By GERALD NACHMAN
I went to a baseball game the other night at AT&T Park between the San Francisco Giants and the Colorado Rockies. The Giants lost in the 10th inning by one run, but baseball, I realized along about the fifth inning, has lost much more: Part of its serene soul.
The noise between innings--and between batters--was excruciating, the music and visual hype cranked up to hysterical levels as the scoreboard exhorted fans throughout the game to MAKE MORE NOISE!!! A robot organist tried with pathetic insistence to energize the crowd. Meanwhile, the Jumbotron flashed so much endless and useless information on the confusing scoreboard (like watching a TV game at home on a screen littered with arcane stats) that it all but obscured the modest game below. It was hard to locate the one thing you wanted to keep track of--the balls, strikes, outs and who was at bat.
The fans obliged unconvincingly, having by now been trained like Pavlovian dogs to howl when a bell clangs, but the maniacal order to MAKE MORE NOISE!!! went largely unheeded; even the most exuberant fans have by now pretty much learned to ignore the incessantly raucous sound battering.
Indeed, some of the people around me were oblivious to not just the noise but to much of the game itself, babbling on cell phones half the time. One guy was talking to a friend in another part of the park, waving at him as they spoke, so thrilled at being able to communicate with a pal that he hardly seemed to notice the game even though he was paying the steep cost of $72 for a second row seat halfway up the third base line. We were seated in the row behind Giants owner Bill Neukom and president Larry Baer, busily taking bows and chatting to fans, totally unaware of the constant decibel barrage.
The female public address announcer shrieked the name of every man who came to bat as if was the ninth game of the World Series and everything was on the line: Now batting Juan Urrrrrr-eeeee-bay!!! All that bush league screeching for the hometown nine has worn everyone down--yet it goes on mindlessly. As someone said, America is a Big Event country, in which everything is built into a monumental moment--chili cook-offs on TV food shows, models in runway match-ups, brides choosing their wedding gown. Any routine human endeavor has become a heavyweight championship fight on TV. But it has now spread to all parts of the culture off TV, even this quietest of sports--outside of tennis and golf, which somehow have resisted the marketing of excitement.
As a diehard fan of this still mellow and placid game (Baseball is the only game, as Babe Ruth beautifully summed it up in a raspy voice at a Yankee Stadium tribute shortly before he died), I was once again struck at how the fan experience has so drastically changed at the game, slowly diminished in the hapless attempt to create exuberance far above the great game itself, which requires no such steady, insulting, needy huckstering.
This is not the same game I went to with my dad in Oakland at Emeryvilles Oaks Ball Park. Well, no, it is the same perfect game, but the atmosphere surrounding it in the last 20 years has done everything it can to diminish it by trying to make baseball more than it is or should be or wants to be, as club owners ruthlessly try to turn every game into a rock concert and light show to sell it to fans already sold or they wouldnt be at the park.
There in little old Emeryville, surrounded by seedy saloons and card rooms, in a humble life-size arena with no sushi or super tacos or po boy sandwiches available, just the fabled hot dogs and peanuts and Crackerjack, my dad and I watched our hallowed Oakland Oaks in the late 1940s play their hearts out in the Pacific Coast League against gifted Triple A rivals--the San Francisco Seals, Los Angeles Angels, Sacramento Solons, Seattle Rainiers, Portland Beavers, San Diego Padres and Hollywood Stars.
My father, in his neat, squared off-printing, dutifully kept score, something few fans do anymore (are scorecards even still sold at games?). He rarely so much as commented on the game itself as it went along, content simply to relish it for what it is--a contest of precision athletic skills and strategizing wits. I cant recall that he ever stood and yelled, or shook his fist, let alone booed or applauded. A few sidelong comments revealed him as a student of the game, as they say, baseball lessons I learned at his side. He would get particularly incensed at bonehead or showboat plays, such as a runner recklessly trying to score on a single with two outs in a tie game, only to get thrown out at home.
Sure, there were a few random bozos in the stands who would scream and boo, but such rare doltishness hadnt become commercialized and turned into something out of a Third Reich rally. I dont know if this sort of craziness goes on at all other Major League ball parks, but I fear it does. I was at a game in Anaheim between the L.A. Angels and the Detroit Tigers a month earlier and the same crowd badgering went on there too, plus such inane refinements as rally monkeys, twirling towels and clacking stick sounds.
Baseball has been cut up into a metaphor for American life far too often (even Chief Justice John Roberts compared judging cases to calling balls and strikes), but the vast difference in those quiet, efficient Oaks games and the roaring torture chamber I found myself in at PacBell Park is too painfully precise a metaphor for what has befallen American pop culture. If you want to know America, you must understand baseball, famously said Jacques Barzun, and ballpark noise echoes the nations love of booming noise for its own sake--thumping car radios, blaring Dolby/Sensurround movie sound. The manic effort to manufacture and market excitement is all over TV--rowdy reality shows, frantic contests, explosive talk show audiences--and now has invaded, and all but wrecked, live professional baseball. Not baseball itself, to be sure, but baseball parks, which have infected the relaxed natural pace, subtle joys and intrigue of the actual game.
The gut problem is that baseball owners dont trust the game to sell itself, or the fans to respond to it naturally. Nobody in the stands needs revving up. We will shout when the occasion calls for it, and dont need to be told when, or how loud, to root.
Its easier and more fun now to watch a game on TV, or better still to listen to it. The TV version forces you to watch what you dont want to watch, such as endless shots of dopey face-painted fans, cute babies, smooching couples and others who play to the cameras--as the cameras gleefully comply. This looks like part of the Giants' marketing plan--to show that the game is for families (all those adorable tots!), dating couples and loonies who have nothing better to do than dress up in outlandish gear for viewers.
Baseball on radio happily is still uncorrupted, largely what it was 50 years ago, where sportscasters report and chat about the game in much the same subdued, informed way they always have, marred only by product placement on almost every play: The Dodge Ram drive of the game for hard hit liners, SpeeDee Oil Change for pitching changes; its only a matter of time until every pitch is accompanied by a commercial pitch (strike two--and thats dinner for two at the Strikeout Steak House!). But at least on TV and radio youre protected from the violent sounds and flashing images that mug you at the game.
None of this is a new complaint, but sportswriters and broadcasters long ago despaired of trying to persuade owners of modern baseball parks to put a sock in it. The owners are convinced that phony crowd fever makes the game more thrilling or something. But the game can take care of itself, thank you. It has survived racism, the DH, Charley Finley, inter-league play, Astroturf, domed stadiums, even George Steinbrenner and steroids. Todays crowds--raised on the hysteria of rock concerts and crazed TV show jump-cuts and hype--dont seem to notice how the surrounding racket at otherwise handsome and tasteful modern ball parks has done everything it can to ruin the classic human dimensions of the game by drowning it out in gimmickry and superfluous noise.
So take me out to the ball game, by all means, but first take out all of the mechanical
©2010 by Gerald Nachman. The caricature of Gerald Nachman is © by Jim Hummel. The illustration is from IMSI'S Master Clips Collection, 1895 Francisco Blvd. E., San Rafael, CA, 94901-5506, USA. This column first posted June 28, 2010.
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