One of the more beautiful things about childhood is the way we use our imaginations. We imagine anything anywhere and at any time. It may look like we’re just stacking up pillows, but to us, it’s a fortress. To grownups, they’re just a pile of blocks, but we know it’s a castle, and we know who lives there. GI Joe doesn’t fight on the living room floor, he’s out in the desert or in the mountains or the beaches, defending America against COBRA (and possibly Zombies). My parents were only vaguely aware that Normandy – Omaha beach, to be specific – had somehow come to occupy an entire room of our house. It was, I should note, made quite clear to them however, that they were not to disturb the little green army men if they cared at all about a free Europe.1
But as we grow up and stop playing with toys, we leave these sorts of imagineered worlds behind. Not entirely, of course. I think that we like movies because they take us someplace else, and books too. I also happen to think this has a large part to do with what’s behind the trending interest in the topos known as the “Zombie Apokalypse.” I think people like to imagine themselves in a lawless broken down world. How would they survive? What would they do? Are they up to the challenge? For our parents it was the Wild West. For us, I suppose it’s Zombies.
Movies, books, Apokalypseis Nekroplaneton2 are all fine vehicles for the adult imagination. But for me, there is something particularly special about radio. And more particularly, listening to ballgame or a hockey game on the radio.
Listening to a game on the radio is not really something that one can do casually, or sporadically. Certainly that’s fine if all you want to do is catch up on the score, or have the game on in the background. Now television is great because you can see what’s happening. You can see how far the centerfielder had to run to make that amazing catch. You can see the split save the goalie just made. And there’s much to be said for that. But your limited by where the cameras are. You’re limited by what the director chooses to put up on the screen.
Oh but radio! You can imagine all of it. You can put yourself right in the front row. Better yet, you can put yourself on the field. You can be right there on the ice. You can be the catcher, seeing that fastball whistling in at you, 95 miles per hour. You can stand at shortstop and watch your centerfielder fly like superman. You can be the defenseman trailing the play, and see the look of heartbreaking astonishment on your winger’s face as the goalie impossibly robs him.
You have to work for it. It’s not easy. You’ve got to take the time to shut out the rest of the world. To close your eyes and listen. I mean really listen. When you watch a game on TV you’re only peripherally aware of the sounds of the game. But when you close your eyes and listen to the radio, you can here the breeze, really hear the chatter in the stands. The crack of the bat isn’t some dull noise that accompanies a picture anymore. You anticipate it. You hold your breath, your ears prick up…pop or crack? That sound tells you what happened before the announcer does. You can hear the sound of steel cutting into ice, boards rattling, stick on puck. There’s a whole orchestra playing behind that ballet of a hockey game. The music tells a story.
Baseball is a game that’s made for radio. Baseball is always the same. Players are exceptional. They make exceptional plays. But the game is always the same. The batter always gets three strikes. He always stands 60 feet 6 inches from the pitcher. You can see it without having to see it. Not that the visual doesn’t have value. The poise of Mariano Rivera. The way David Ortiz towers over the plate like a volcano waiting to erupt. Jose Reyes going first to third. These are sights to behold, surely. But in the moment, they’re abstractions. The Mick could hit the ball for miles. Jackie would have people on the edge of their seats, just waiting, waiting for him to steal second. It’s all happened before, and it will happen again. So in baseball it’s all about the moment. And radio allows you to transport yourself right inside that moment. All you have to do is close your eyes, listen…and imagine.
And of course there are the announcers. Some are better than others, of course, and some are head-scratchingly banal. But you listen to them day in and day out, and you begin to form a relationship. You know their mannerisms, you know how they think, you can almost anticipate what they’ll say next. In a strange way, they become your friends. You know them. Last summer, I bought the MLB app for my iPhone. I made it a habit of listening to at least a few innings of every game on the opposing teams broadcast. It’s like being invited over to somebody’s home, somebody you don’t know that well, but somebody who loves the game like you love the game. And you spend time with them. You get their perspective, get to know what they think about certain players, how they read certain situations. And then I’ll switch back to the home broadcast, and it’s like coming home for the late innings, opening some beers with a good friend.
Hockey, admittedly, is much harder on the radio. In baseball, you know where all 9 men are at any time. In hockey, without your eyes, you know where the goalies are, and maybe the puck carrier. You have to fill in the rest with your knowledge of the game. But it still works. And man is it exciting! A good hockey game has a pace. It has its own rhythm. And a good play-by-play man will capture that rhythm with his voice. You feel the rise and fall, and you hear the crowd behind it all. On a lazy summer Sunday, I can put a ball game on and easily drift off to sleep for a few innings. But hockey? Forget it. My heart is up in my throat.
This winter I’ve been developing a new and perhaps somewhat unique relationship with hockey on the radio. I am a die-hard Islander fan.3 As such, I’ve been listening to their radio broadcasts for years; especially in the last two years when I could no longer watch them on television. But this year, as part of my ongoing effort to learn French, I’ve taken to live-streaming the Montréal Canadien broadcasts. And although the Islanders will always be my one true love, because I’ve spent so much time listening to them (and reading about them), le CH have sort of become m’équipe adoptive.
At first, I was completely lost. But with each passing period, I am able to pick out a little bit more. And while I often don’t know exactly what’s going on, I can at least follow the play pretty well. Doing so, however, ties in all of what I said above. I listen to the sounds of the crowd, the sounds of the skaters, the sticks, anything that will give me a little more information about what’s going on. And over it all, the rhythm of the call rides like a wave, catching it all up together. In my mind’s eye, the picture may be a little grainy, and definitely fuzzy around the edges, but it’s still hockey and I can feel the rhythm of the game and I can imagine what’s happening.
And here too I’m developing a relationship with the announcers. The excitable rapid-fire play-by-play man, who speaks with precision and enunciates clearly. The slower, more monotone color man, whose conversational banter is almost impossible for me to grasp. But how he felt about the Habs’ defenseman taking a penalty in the closing minutes with his team down a goal was perfectly clear in any language.
Maybe this isn’t for everybody. Maybe some people need to see the game. Maybe we don’t all have the patience or the attention span anymore to put everything aside for even an hour, to just sit, eyes closed, and listen. And imagine. But I urge everybody to give it a try. You might be surprised by the places you’ll take yourself.