Baseball, the Canned Crowd, and the F Word

At first, I couldn’t find the Dodgers on TV last night, the second game in a series with the Giants in Los Angeles beginning the 2020 shortened season; apparently wasn’t available on the MLB channel in Portland. The Mariners were on the local Root Sports channel, and I was glad to hear the same folks doing the play-by-play as if nothing has changed. Then I was surprised to find the Dodger game on some obscure cable channel. I watched an infield grounder, the batter thrown out at first, a routine play, and then I heard it: Canned Cheering, a canned crowd.

To be canned is to be thrown out, maybe deriving from the US English garbage can. The 2020 season, delayed about four months by the pandemic shutdown, is being played in stadiums full of empty seats, no tickets sold, unless you count the selfie cutouts available from the Dodgers. That must be where the noise is coming from.

If you’ve ever played a game of street or backyard whiffle ball, or a game of over-the-line in the local park, you might know you don’t need an audience to enjoy baseball. Rules vary depending on the venue – over the house is a home run, but a foul ball over the fence, falling into the street, is an automatic out.

“I’m the Dodgers. Who are you?”
“I’ll be the Giants, Juan Marichal on the mound.”

The game is on, all a foot, the fantasy as real as real ever gets.

Because Major League Baseball as viewed from the stands or television is not exactly real. The real game is played behind a facade of hero, dream, and cleanliness. Maybe the canned crowd was brought in because of plays like the one in which Dodger Joc Pederson, on his way to being thrown out at first in the fanless season opener, doubles the F Word while running down the line, his voice fairly clearly picked up by the TV mics in the quiet stadium and broadcast into living rooms around the US – where, what, no one ever uses the F Word?

Respect is born out of shame, shame a form of control. Language is contumacious; it swells and breaks and rolls like the restless ocean. Words are turbulent, irrepressible. At the same time, cussing is often the evidence of a lazy tongue. That is why I decided to omit the F Word from “Penina’s Letters,” with the exception of the discussion in the chapter titled “Henry and the Punctuations”:

“The experience of war can not be told in words,” I said, “but when F-words fill the cheeks with froth, a fascist has infiltrated the mind.”
“Who the fuck talks like that?” Bucket scrunched his eyebrows over scowling lips.
“My friend, Henry,” I said. “It’s a game we play.”
“Clever,” Gabbia said. “But getting back to the common soldier, surely words like fuck and shit are as common as cigarettes and coffee. Part of his mess kit, I shouldn’t wonder.”
“That’s right,” I said. “And, like the mess, rationed.”
“But surely the unfixed tongue is one of the few freedoms the foot soldier feels, and in the fire of the fight, is a weapon he can unleash to gratify his fear.”
“To be frank, no,” I said. “But, the foot soldier does make efficient and effective use of his F-word vocabulary.”
“Do tell,” Gabbia said (148-149).

Photo: With my brother John at a Dodger game, September, 1975. Photo by Susan.

The Dream of Baseball

“And the phantom crowd’s horrific boo
dispersed the gargoyles from Notre Dame.”

“Dream of a Baseball Star,” Gregory Corso, from The Happy Birthday of Death, 1960

Yesterday, July 23, was opening day of the pandemic delayed Major League Baseball season. That’s about four months later than normal. The abnormal, short 60 game season is underway. Welcome to the virtual ballpark. I missed the first game, the Yankees vs Washington Nationals in New York, which already tested one of the new, shortened season rules: the Nationals lost in only 5 and half innings, timing out due to rain delay. One of the new short season rules eliminates any chance to play the game out to 9 innings.

But I caught the second game, the Dodger game, against the visiting Giants, played in a fanless Dodger Stadium on what appeared to be a typical sunny late July LA evening, but quiet, still, the air clear. What is the opposite of standing room only? Empty seats.

But not exactly empty. Cardboard cutouts of fans filled the seats behind home plate. There was Tommy Lasorda, former Dodger player and manager, leading the cheers to the Dodger late innings 8 to 1 win. Fans can buy a selfie cutout. Maybe Paul and Ringo will spring for a whole pavilion section devoted to cutouts from the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover.

Baseball has never been a good example of an effectively televised sport (McLuhan explained why). But the season opener last night underscored the importance of a fan filled stadium, smelly beer and greasy hotdogs, peanuts, and Cracker Jack, also the importance of ceremonial hoopla to major league sports. The fans are part of the game, as William Carlos Williams suggested in his poem, “The crowd at the ball game“:

“It is summer, it is the solstice
the crowd is

cheering, the crowd is laughing
in detail

permanently, seriously
without thought”

Aging, and working on mindfulness, one may find one’s lackadaisical waking mindset similar to one’s sleeping condition. Normally (not necessarily as a rule but on the whole and customarily), the logical links connecting thoughts create continuity and coherence and one feels in control, though who or where that one is, where one feels it, or to what extent any feeling of control is fantastical, gets instant replay once the lights go out – replay in slow-motion, surreal angles, calls reversed. That helps explain why poets have always had an affinity for baseball.

Photo: Portland Beavers, by Joe Linker

Untie Tilled

Flummoxes

Stupefied

fact toyed, act torn, him worried, cat a gory, high pot and noose, feet shore, rumpled thick skin, cloud rains notoriously his, his story

stand dulled lard, aunt tie, ear merge, knit knot, sullen wullen, negligee ant

puss swill, hog wash, bass inn, trump pet, your bane, miss aria, melon cafard, old gourd, nouvelle vague vouge vaudautomobile, sue dough

moor biled,
awe towed,
skip it
rock it

stop it,
stoop id,
rinse off,
he goes,
soup her

droop ball
notes so bad
over the wall.

add dress &
suit of blue
dyed wool, tie
prep
position

adove
beyawn
icross
the oh
shuns

 

 

We lived for a time on Oak Street, in a courtyard lot of four houses across from the high school. The two sets of houses faced one another and were connected by arched walkways. All four kitchen windows looked into the courtyard. Each house was the same: a small white stucco square with center front door into rectangular living room with door to bedroom with closet, bathroom with porcelain tub and two doors, one from the bedroom, the other to a back porch with back door, kitchen nook, kitchen with door to living room, so that we could walk in circles around the inside of the house. The cat loved this circular house.

I had just got back from Active Duty, and was driving a VW bus that I left parked on the street under the trees out front, even though there were four garages attached to one another but separate from the houses, in the rear of the lot. The houses were clean but rough stucco with red clay tile roofs. In the time we lived there, about a year, we never closed our kitchen window over the sink. The cat came and went through the window, and over time the flowering plant outside the kitchen started to grow through the window over the sink. The house was well-lit, four windows in the living room. Ours was one of the houses in the back of the lot, in the northeast corner. It was a swell place. We had no phone service and no television. We did have a stereo system: a receiver, turntable, and two speakers.

In the house across from us lived Ms. Palette, a frisky old lady who grew tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, herbs, zinnias, and marigolds, and she was visited once a month by a son who checked up on her and brought her provisions, including cigarettes and wine. When she was not in her garden, she was inside watching her television. Early one evening, we were startled by police, paramedics, and firemen rushing into the courtyard, taking up positions outside the doors, but their focus was on Ms. Palette’s house. She came to the door and let the police inside. We gathered with our neighbors in the yard. Apparently, Ms. Palette had experienced some sort of break in and thought she was having a heart attack and had called the police to say she needed an ambulance. As it turned out, she had been watching a cops and robbers show on TV, and she confused what she was watching on the show with the reality within her house. On the show, someone was breaking into a house, frightening its occupant, and Ms. Palette grew confused, thinking someone was breaking into her house and that she needed an ambulance. We tried to contact her son, but no one knew his name or number. The police suggested we take turns checking up on Ms. Palette daily. The emergency responders left, and we went in to say hello to Ms. Palette, who was sitting on her couch looking stupefied. The television had been turned off.

We used to walk up Main Street into town to the grocery. Not long after Ms. Palette’s confused television experience, we were walking home from the store, each carrying a bag of groceries, and we passed the realtor’s office, and in the window one of the photographs caught my eye. It was my VW bus, parked on Oak Street outside our courtyard houses, and the houses were for sale, and they had, apparently, already sold. When we got home, we called our landlord. Yes, he’d put the property up for sale, no sign, no notice. A developer hit it like a raptor. Our landlord was waiting to tell us, not wanting to disappoint us. We were momentarily stupefied. Soon, we received eviction notices. The four houses were destroyed and a modern apartment building erected on the lot, sans courtyard and garden and trees. We moved on, not looking back, growing less stupefied with each move.

 

Breaking Bad in Stromboli

Breaking Bad in StromboliI walked down to meet Susan on Hawthorne late afternoon but arrived early and when I passed Nick’s and noticed baseball on the screen I ducked in to wait at the bar for a text asking my whereabouts. I ordered a glass of milk and a coffee chaser and the bartender asked me if this was my first visit to Nick’s. The game was in the 8th inning, a 3 to 3 tie, the Dodgers against the Cubs out spring training in sunny Arizona. A group of young folk occupied the north end of the bar, but I alone watched the game. The tables were all empty. The balls were breaking late, bad, away. The Cubs scored in the bottom of the 8th on a sacrifice fly to take the lead 4 to 3, and the Dodgers in the top of the 9th could not break away. My first taste this year of spring training TV was bad for a Dodger fan. I like the Cubs, too, and hope they do better than last year’s cellar close. Edging the Dodgers 4 to 3 yesterday marked the Cubs first win in seven games this spring training season. It’s still early, but the Cubs are off to a bad start. Cub fans are a forgiving bunch. Dodger fans live in baseball paradise at Elysian Park. But baseball and paradise broke bad some time ago, came the summers of our discontent, baseball breaking away.

One of modern baseball’s design problems, as McLuhan explained, is that it’s a poor fit for television. Baseball is not pixel friendly. McLuhan saw how vaudeville moved to radio and radio to television, where there will never be enough channels, the need for distraction being what it is, even though all channels do the same thing and distract in the same way. But he did not foresee vaudeville being rekindled by Lady Gaga and Madonna in the Super Bowl arena where the camera is now a drone following the collective unconscious eye of the audience. Meantime, the living room remains the electronic middle class mosh pit. The form of television is its art; the channel hardly matters.

Yet some said that “Breaking Bad” was television finally or finely elevated to art. The art of the installment, the fix, waiting for the next episode, the episodic adventure induced by Walter who like Fagin in Dickens’s “Oliver Twist” lives and thrives in a world of children. Is breaking bad an occupational hazard of teaching resulting from classroom isolation from the real world? Or “Breaking Bad” might have been titled “Death of a Teacher,” Walter White the Willy Loman who lives on TV fantasy to avoid the existential question imposed by being crushed beneath the wheels of contemporary financial, job, metaphysical, and medical malaise. We interrupt this post to bring you a full disclosure: I never saw a single “Breaking Bad” episode when the series was running. I did read a few reviews. I recently watched the first three episodes, borrowed from the library. I was thinking I might try to see the whole thing through, to its conclusion, and angle a post off it. But I don’t want to watch any more “Breaking Bad” episodes. Predicament may harden the romantic heart in all of us.

For one thing, the premise of “Breaking Bad” seems algorithmic. A high school Chemistry teacher with experience and talent gets an existential kick in the butt when he discovers he has terminal cancer. He sees an opportunity in the two years he has left to make some quick money as a meth chef and improbably takes to a life of violent drug associated street crime. Various critical reviews suggest something philosophical going on. His street name is Heisenberg, and it’s probably true that nowhere in contemporary life are things more uncertain than out on the street, certainly not in the living room, watching television. So the existential predicament is the close proximity to death, not to be confused with the close proximity of television. But everyone dies and knows they will; why wait any time at all to break bad and kill the TV? Most people break indifferent. No life is longer than the one spent in moiling drudgery.

Then I watched Roberto Rossellini’s “Stromboli” (1950). Essentially, Ingrid Bergman’s Karin’s existential predicament is similar to Walter White’s, though even more absurd, because she’s saved but ironically condemned to live in a place and with a man she believes she’s entirely unsuited for, which comes with the surprise of the epiphany. The island of Stromboli is a Mediterranean volcano. Life is harsh. Karin was expecting something a bit more pleasant, romantic, colorful. Life on Stromboli is inescapable sun or impervious shadow. The people on Stromboli live under the constant threat of volcanic eruption. Their values are kept immutable by the impossibility of change. Unlike the Mario by the end of “Il Postino,” Karin can’t see any beauty on her island or in the fishing life. It doesn’t take her long to realize she must break bad. But Karin breaks bad differently from Walter. She frantically climbs the volcano that Walter pedantically runs from.

Note: No commas were mistreated in the writing of this post.

Super Bowl Debriefing: the Tribal Culture of Television

McLuhan explains that the printing press created the individual, while television returns us to the tribal. No one’s on the margins watching television. You’re either in or you’re out, and games on television up the ante. “Games are popular art, collective, social reactions to the main drive or action of any culture” (1964, p. 208). Art is magic, transference, transubstantiation of the base metals of our daily lives into something beyond us, beyond the daily bread and the process that brings bread to the table. Literacy, McLuhan argued, created individual point of view, eliminating the tribal view that was all inclusive. Games return individuals to a tribal mode, creating a “situation contrived to permit simultaneous participation of many people in some significant pattern of their own corporate lives” (p. 216). Games on television are a nonliterate art form.

Turn on the TV, put the game on, and join the crowd. The TV screen is a mosaic of dots compelling audience participation: no knitting, no reading – everyone’s paying attention. TV works like a cartoon drawing; the viewer sees only a few of the many dots and must fill in the rest. TV is all at once and ongoing, unlike a book, which is sequential, like a long train ride, each passenger in a private, individual seat. TV performs its violence by capturing the viewer, who can not turn away.

McLuhan explains why baseball is individual and literate and a poor game to watch on TV while football is tribal and all inclusive and trumps baseball as a TV sport: “The characteristic mode of the baseball game is that it features one-thing-at-a-time. It is a lineal, expansive game which, like golf, is perfectly adapted to the outlook of an individualist and inner-directed society. Timing and waiting are of the essence, with the entire field in suspense waiting upon  the performance of a single player. By contrast, football, basketball, and ice hockey are games in which many events occur simultaneously, with the entire team involved at the same time. With the advent of TV, such isolation of the individual performance as occurs in baseball became unacceptable” (p. 284). The players in football are non-specialists (compared to the players in baseball). The team moves at once, together, in the same direction. All the players are viewed on the screen at once – this is almost impossible to do with a TV camera at a baseball game.

Baseball is a snooze on television, while football is an ecstatic TV game. Baseball is slow, the game of languorous summer, like reading a book. The reader can put the book down and pick it up again later; there’s no clock, so there’s no need for an official time out. In baseball offense, the players sit in the darkened dugout like unread pages in a book, while on the TV gridiron the all inclusiveness is all involving as both offense and defense assume their roles simultaneously.

The popularity of baseball is declining, as reading is declining, and for the same reason. Football’s ascendance in popularity parallels and mimics what’s happening in the culture, the increasing need for a game that is all inclusive, tribal in nature, and an all-at-once experience – a game that is nonliterate.

McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding media: The extensions of man. New York: New American Library.