Every April, I beat myself up with the question of what I’m going to do all summer: Follow the WNBA, or baseball. And if baseball, then MLB, MILB, or 1948 (I find the 1948 American League pennant race endlessly fascinating).
This year, I’m fed up with major league baseball. The 1994-95 ‘labor stoppage’ pushed me away from major league ball for about a dozen years, and the 2021 kerfluffle might mean the end of the relationship. Driving home from the game store (The board game Wingspan is most remarkable; It holds the attention of those for whom games hold profound meaning — that is, me — while providing fun and education for the entire family. Nothing dies in that game but bird food, but slash-and-burn gamers also like it.) two weeks ago, I scanned the radio presets, and ran into Jon Miller calling a San Francisco Giants game.
Jon Miller is the best at what he does: He tells you what he sees on the field, and you fill it in with your imagination. Baseball is the sport that best lends itself to wordcraft, which is why the literature of baseball is so much greater than that of others.
Listening to Jon Miller in the middle of July while driving the panoramic Interstate 280 is a pretty good description of my ideal Sunday, but after a couple of outs were recorded, it hit me that I didn’t know any of the players Miller was talking about.
If I were to get into this baseball broadcast, I’d become the butt of a Jerry Seinfeld joke: Sports fans are rooting for laundry. Before the end of the reserve clause, and the start of free agency, if you backed a baseball team, you were backing mostly the same group of players for a long while. These days, the names change daily; it’s the uniforms — as Seinfeld said, “laundry” — that get one’s support.
It used to be that when the San Francisco Giants put new faces in the uniforms, I knew most of them when they were Class A San Jose Giants or Class AA Richmond Flying Squirrels. But my fondness for minor league baseball lessened when the Flying Squirrels lost their radio man who talked directly to me on the air. If the Flying Squirrels loaded the bases, their radio guy would say: “Frisco Del Rosario, the sacks are full of squirrels.” I loved that call, and he didn’t plan to use it more than the first time, but then the cards and letters started pouring in.
The last chance baseball had with me in 2021 rested with the Kane County Cougars (Geneva, Ill.) in the Pioneer League, so I could follow Atlee Hammaker’s son-in-law. My favorite player in the early ’80s had three daughters; two of them married catchers. The youngest, Anna, played basketball at Kansas State and Lipscomb; now she travels with husband Josh Rolette. Life in the minor leagues is grueling, but the Rolettes have some advantage in their ability to draw on the experience of her parents and her sister. I hope Josh realizes that big league dream.
But if you want to follow the Kane County Cougars, you have to buy a broadcast package for the entire Pioneer League, and that was that.
Which meant the summer of 2021 would be spent with basketball, where favorites Vandersloot and Quigley are league champions, and Sue Bird and Sylvia Fowles are on farewell tours. How could I miss that?
I made it through one half of an Indiana Fever game on opening night, and hung up on the WNBA because the broadcasters are atrocious.
One reason I work at attending basketball games is because if I’m there, I can write down what I saw. If I have to watch a game on television, broadcasters tell me what they see, with great excitement, even when they see so little.
Basketball isn’t designed for play-by-play broadcast like baseball is. Baseball can be described as three hours of waiting for a couple minutes of action, and while I don’t agree with that, it shows that there is a lot of time for a play-by-play man to tell stories, or describe the weather, or make note of an outfielder taking two steps toward the foul line. That’s really what I love most about baseball: the word pictures, as Jon Miller calls them.
Basketball is most poorly suited for that type of broadcast. The play-by-play is almost never more useful than ‘player A has the ball, now player B has it’. Baseball is well suited for statistical analysis and debate because individual performance has meaning in baseball. No matter what a basketball boxscore says about a player’s performance in one game, it was not an individual effort. Everything that happens on the basketball floor is team-driven, and the best a broadcaster might do to describe a team effort is to tell us who’s setting a screen and who’s running around it.
Meanwhile, eight other people on the floor are taking their cues from that, and reacting accordingly. Which is something you have to look for, and you don’t want some nitwit jumping up and down in your ears, so to speak.
The WNBA season is two-thirds complete. I’ll have to take some interest in the playoff teams, but with the sound off, and that’s not the right way to watch basketball, either. Basketball is a game of runs, and runs have their own rhythm, which you can hear in the crowd. Crappy broadcasters ruin that, too.
In brief, I haven’t watched sports since early April. Four months is probably the longest stretch of my life without sports. During my seven-week hospital stay in 2020, I caught some highlights, and even watched college football.
Do I miss sports? Oh, certainly. But I’m tired of both sides of a major league baseball labor dispute behave as they’re being screwed. And if the WNBA would put a team in the Chase Center, I could be there — working, ideally — instead of hating the W on television.
The college basketball teams have begun their summer workouts, while the coaches are on the recruiting trail. November can’t come soon enough.