Sports

MLB Analysis: Is Baseball Better Live or on TV?

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In August of 1970, my brother took three of my friends and me to see the New York Mets play the Cincinnati Reds at Shea Stadium. The game was sold out except for game day seats in the upper deck, so we got to Shea early to get in line for five nose bleed tickets. We were standing around waiting for the kiosks to open when a guy tried to sell us lower box seats. We declined and I told him we were going to sit in the upper deck. He started pitching us a rash of grief claiming that we might as well sit at home and watch the game on TV. “Our TV’s black and white,” was my response.

Sitting in the upper deck for a live game in living color was light years beyond sitting at home watching the game in black and white on WOR-TV, the skills of Bob Murphy, Lindsey Nelson, and Ralph Kiner notwithstanding.  And the game was a good one. The Mets won, but not all of the action was on the field.

About half-way through the game, some Reds fans had the nerve to walk around the upper deck with a huge banner proclaiming their out-of-town loyalty. They got hammered with hot dogs, drinks, you name it. They had to use their banner to shield themselves from all the flying food. Some fights broke out along the way and New York’s Finest were called on to remove a few guys who’d lost the spirit of the game somewhere around beer number five. Later in the game, Hal McRae, the Reds left fielder, chased a foul ball that landed a couple of rows deep in the stands along the left field foul line. As McRae returned to his position empty-handed, some idiot in the front row dumped a beer on him. The Reds’ bench emptied, and 25 professional athletes were about to climb into the stands to punish the beer-dumping loser for his indiscretion. Once again, the Men in Blue had to be called in to haul a few drunks away and otherwise restore some semblance of order. The raucous, sell-out crowd loved every minute of it. I’d never had anywhere near so much fun sitting in front of our black and white TV.

TV coverage of baseball has come a long way since then, and honestly I find the comfort of sitting in front of my high-def, wide screen tough to beat. The DVR gives me complete control over the pace of the game. I can surf between games, and if I wasn’t so cheap I’d have one of those packages that allows the viewer to have about eight games at a time on the screen. In short, today’s viewing experience has little in common with watching a game on a black and white set in 1970. But it’s still not live baseball, and that point was brought home to me over two successive Fridays.

Last Friday we had the good fortune to be treated to great seats for a Giants game. Our friends Mark Dolson and Cathy Roche scored some “Lower Club” tickets that put us about 15 rows back from home plate, just slightly to the first base side in the San Francisco Giants’ AT&T Park. As baseball fans well know, this is one of the premier venues in MLB. The setting right on San Francisco Bay is spectacular. During the early innings you can watch the Alameda Yacht Club’s beer can races on the Bay from the “View” level. You can wander around the park and take in vistas of China Basin, the Oakland Bay Bridge, and the East Bay Hills. Or you can just sit and watch baseball being played in this spectacular park.

Friday nights are “Orange Fridays” in San Francisco, and the faithful deck themselves out in the team’s colors. The place is nearly always sold out, and it was last Friday. For the most part, it’s a baseball savvy crowd that takes the game seriously. The fact that the Giants were world champs in 2010 doesn’t do the atmosphere any harm.

The Cubs were in town that Friday for the first of a four-game set. They ran up against Giants’ lefty Madison Bumgarner, a huge man. Remarkably, Bumgarner’s bigger in person than he appears on TV. He looks like he could play defensive end in the NFL. The big southpaw has a sweeping motion that must be terrifying for left-handed hitters. I was terrified, and I was an additional 100 feet away from the guy. For eight innings, it wasn’t much of a game. Bumgarner was dealing, and the Cubs were conforming to type – no runs over eight straight. But they made it close by scoring three in the top of the ninth. With Brian Wilson out, the Giants are closing by committee these days. The game was getting out of hand until Javier Lopez came in and got the last two outs and the save to shut down the hard luck Cubs. Friday night at the ball park – it doesn’t get much better than that.

Fast forward to this past Friday night. The Texas Rangers, the reigning American League champs, were in San Francisco as the season’s second round of interleague play kicked off. No tickets had magically found their way to our house, so I watched the game on the tube. You can’t compare the Cubs and Rangers; you can, however, contrast them. The Cubs have, uh, Alfonso Soriano, and, uh . . . oh yeah, Starlin Castro and Darwin Barney, and, uh . . . you get the picture. The Rangers, in stark contrast, have most of the personnel from two straight World Series appearances. They’ve got Josh Hamilton, Michael Young, Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus, Ian Kinsler, Nelson Cruz, blah, blah, blah. In short, they’re stacked.

Friday night the Giants’ offense phoned it in, but the Rangers’ bats provided some fireworks. Ian Kinsler homered to open the game. Nelson Cruz hit a double and later scored. Josh Hamilton crushed a Barry Zito curveball to the deepest part of the park for his 22nd home run of the season. And Craig Gentry, an outfielder who pitched in relief a couple of nights ago against the Oakland A’s, went 5 for 5 with 2 RBIs and a run for Texas. Of the three teams’ performances over the course of two Friday nights, the Rangers’ performance last night was easily the most impressive. At least on paper, on TV, on the DVR.

Of the two experiences, there’s no question that being at the ballpark with our friends a week ago was far and away superior to watching the game last night in the comfort of my modest man cave. And I’m not the only one that feels this way. The highest eight years of attendance for the league are the most recent eight years. And in spite of a still struggling economy, last year was MLB’s 5th highest total attendance mark in the game’s history, with the league drawing in more than 73,000,000 fans. Steve Kettmann’s fine book, One Day at Fenway, is further testament to the richness of attending a baseball game. Imagine, an entire book about a single baseball game! Try writing a book about sitting in front of the TV for a couple of hours. Can’t be done.

Exchanging high-fives with friends and total strangers, seeing legends of the game in person, cramming down some over-priced garlic fries, getting a shot at a foul ball, hearing the solid crack of a base hit, listening to the pop of a 95 mph fastball in a catcher’s mitt, trying to keep up with the speed of a routine double play, being greeted by an usher like you’re his oldest friend in town, singing “Take Me Out To the Ball Game” during the seventh inning stretch, excitement, frustration, dreams, hopes, camaraderie, memories, connections, and total sensory overload – these things are all part of the experience of every ballgame in every MLB park every time the game is played. High tech is nice, but if you’ve got a couple of tickets you want to throw my way, I’m there. Live Cubs over Rangers on the tube every time.

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