June 27, 2005

Sunday Evening at the Dell Diamond

A friend of the family generously gave us tickets from a block her corporation had bought to see the Round Rock Express, a Triple-A farm team of the Houston Astros, last night at the Dell Diamond, a pretty, well–equipped, spanking clean ball park named for local magnate and philanthropist Michael Dell. It was my first visit to a ballpark in many years. Our seats were seven rows behind the first–base dugout – great seats. And it was good to see a baseball diamond from close up again, the butch–cut grass watered green, and the red sand neatly combed, waiting to be exuberantly mussed. The players warmed up lazily in the outfield, just as in the old days, tossing balls around, stretching, chewing.

The electronic scoreboard was small by major–league standards, but its video screen was blaring from the moment we arrived. Interviews with team members and fans told us how great an experience it was to play for, and watch, the Express. A commercial for Blockbuster Video showed a trailer for some appalling formula movie -- the one about the tough guy who meets his match when forced to take care of children. I’ve seen the same trailer many times with different movie titles, but I’ve never seen one of those movies.

To get us pumped up for the game, the loudspeaker played Susan Sarandon’s speech on “the church of baseball” from the great baseball movie BULL DURHAM. She’s tried other churches – worshipped Krishna, worshipped Buddha, worshipped trees – but none satisfies like the church of baseball. A medley of songs began to play – songs about Sunday, since it was a Sunday game, such as “Pleasant Valley Sunday.” I wondered how many people in the stands realized that “Pleasant Valley Sunday” derides people just like them. I wondered how many of them were offended by the idea of worshipping a ball game. But the words don’t matter, only the tone: that is the new American epistemology.

The game began, and there were sound effects for every occurrence. There was an animation when the batter walked and an animation when the batter struck out. When a foul ball hit the plate glass front of the upper–tier boxes, the loudspeaker was ready with sound effects of shattering glass. The opposing team’s foul balls were greeted, for some reason, with sound effects of barnyard animals. Snippets of appropriate clichéd rock songs prompted us to jeer at the opposing pitcher’s wild pitch or to cheer when we had two runners on base. A “noise meter” flashed periodically on the screen, egging us on to cheer louder. People dutifully cheered louder for five seconds or so, then lapsed into silence.

Between innings, there were the games and contests that have become obligatory. A woman representing a local emporium stood on the dugout, microphone in hand, and sang “You Are My Sunshine” with a volunteer from the crowd, until they were gonged by the public address announcer. The team mascot danced, and tossed team tee shirts into the stands. The announcer -- he actually was much more like a radio disc jockey than a stadium announcer, he sounded like he was auditioning for a morning show -- called out the identifying numbers of seats whose occupants had won, for example, a tanning session (in Texas in June?) or a discount at an auto parts store.

So much more noise than in stadiums of the past, and yet so much less participation. I spent a good deal of my childhood at temples of baseball: Yankee Stadium and Shea, and once even the Polo Grounds. We didn’t think of ourselves as worshipping baseball, but we knew how to watch a game. We knew who the players were and when to cheer and when to boo and why. We called out to the players, we razzed the umpires, we argued with fellow fans, we commented on every play, all while keeping score with the arcane notation of the scorecard, learned not much later than the letters of the alphabet. In contrast, underneath the obnoxious noise of the scoreboard and the loudspeaker, the fans at this game were oddly quiet. They responded when the scoreboard told them to, and then they stopped.

I think a big part of it is that people don’t know baseball as well as they used to. At my youngest son’s age, eight, I knew every player and identified passionately with many of them. My sons are good athletes -- swimmers and divers, and the youngest loves to play soccer and basketball -- but I wonder if they could name a single major league baseball player. My ten–year–old got into a debate with a kid sitting next to him about how many innings a baseball game has, based on the fact that the scoreboard shows a tenth inning. Fortunately, my son at least got that one right.

Why do they go, if they don’t know the game and don’t care enough to watch the plays? I think it’s gotten to the point where all entertainment is interchangeable. A baseball game might as well be a basketball game which might as well be a reality TV show which might as well be the evening news. The singers standing on the dugout could have been at a karaoke bar for all the difference it made. The noisy animations could have taken place in a living room or a movie theater. People come to fulfill their cultural duty of spending money on unhealthy snacks.

During the games I went to as a child, it was quiet enough so that you could hear the ballplayers calling to each other. At this game, I didn’t hear any sound coming from the players themselves. I didn’t see a single individual gesture or change of facial expression on a player. They went about their task grimly, as if blocking out all the distractions around them. On the other hand, the pitched ball slamming into the catcher’s glove was as loud as dolbyized sound in a special effects movie: it must have been miked.

This wasn’t a baseball game, it was a reality show in which a few chosen winners would get to go to the big leagues. Just as the fan standing on the dugout was willing to humiliate himself before a crowd on the off–chance of winning a trumpery prize, the players were exposing their talent to an uncaring public on the off–chance of a million–collar contract.

Love this game? Worship this game? When you really love doing something, you don’t need a loudspeaker telling you that you do. Corporate America has come to seem like an anxious, oversolicitous parent, throwing every possible game and toy and overblown enrichment at its children in the desperate hope that they won’t get bored and rebel. But kids don’t need that stuff. They’d rather just be let out into the park to find other kids, and make up their own games. And unlike parents, corporate sponsors don't have our betterment in view.

It was a pretty good game on the field, if you cared to notice. Our pitcher was rocky in the first inning -- hit the first batter, allowed a walk and a hit and a run -- but then settled down and gave up only two more hits and no runs until he was relieved before the ninth. He might get that contract.

Meanwhile, earlier in the day, another local team the University of Texas Longhorns, won the College World Series for the sixth time in their history. They have a lovely ballpark with few electronic distractions. From now on, if I want to go to a baseball stadium, I think I’ll go there.

UPDATE: Dean, over at the excellent libcon blog Dean's World, has a link to a delightful Dallas Observer article about how Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Dock Ellis threw a no-hitter while tripping on acid in 1970. Ellis is a prison drug counselor now and still a larger-than-life character.