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Baseball in a Parched Land
SABR UK Examiner - Examiner #3 - November 1993
Written by Martin Hoerchner   

October 15, 1986... The New York Mets and the Houston Astros are locked in the longest post-season game in history; it won't be decided until the 16th inning, when the Mets score three runs. The Astros came back with two, but Kevin Bass struck out with two on. All throughout America, eyes are glued to television sets as ears are to radios; individuals, game parties, sports bars watch each pitch. In a chilly flat in Stamford Hill, the game goes on past 1am, 2am, 3am. I am taping the game off the US Armed Forces Network, a feeble radio signal coming in from Germany that you can only receive once the sun sets, and then with varying strength. My alarm rings once more; my wife makes grumpy noises; I put the sound on low and hear that the game is still going on; I flip the two-hour cassette tape (hour each side) over in the radio/cassette recorder running by the bed; and set the alarm clock for an hour hence; and then both my wife and I try to fall asleep for another hour. This scenario is repeated three or four times - I can't remember. It was a long game.

October 12, 1986... The Angels are one out away from their first pennant. Donnie Moore gets two strikes on Dave Henderson, and the Angels are one strike away. This game's on at a decent hour - I listen on a Saturday evening. I've always liked the Angels, and I keep my wife updated with the details. The signal fades as Moore delivers...

October 13, 1987... St Louis is on the bubble in Game 6 of the NLCS vs the Giants. The only run in this game on either side is scored when Candy Maldonado loses a pop fly in the lights. This evens the series; the Cardinals go on to win it the next day. By this time I have lugged a monstrous reel-to-reel tape recorder from California to London; it has a four-hour tape capacity on slow speed. I set the timer to tape throughout the night, and wake up the next morning anxious to get the outcome. I discover that I had left the tape recorder on fast speed; only the beginning of the game is taped. I have to phone home to get the result.

October 17, 1989... Finally, live baseball on television comes to Britain! The first Bay Area World Series prompts me to splash out on a satellite system - all the games will be shown live on Screensport (with Mike Ross doing the color). The A's score two quick victories. Game Three will be the first in San Francisco. I tune in at 1.15am to find the entire area devastated by a 7.1 earthquake. They pick up the feed from CBS, the U.S network carrying the games. I watch for hours, entranced by the images of destruction. When I crawl into bed at 4 am, my wife asks me how the game went.

It hasn't been easy, keeping track of baseball in Britain. I'll never forget the first time I made contact with U.S. baseball in Britain. I had spent the day driving from London to Bridlington with a woman who would become my wife, to visit a woman who would become my mother-in-law. We had stopped and visited some ancient churches on the way up; I was delighted with their moldiness. That night I had a dream that a translucent woman in a wedding dress was holding my hand. This startled me awake. Whether this was a portent from the future, or my future wife sending her ka to put something in my head, I'll never know.

I had trouble falling asleep, so I listened to my transistor radio. I was dialing through the stations, when I come across the unmistakable sounds of baseball. It was a game - it didn't take me long to figure out that it was a live game. This was September 1985, during the time that Pete Rose was edging up on Ty Cobb's hit record and it was a Reds game. During the commercial break they said it was the Armed Forces Network. I was overjoyed. Only later did I find out that it came in on a lamentably weak signal from Germany; this was in the North of England in the middle of the night and it sounded fine to me. On my flight back to the States, the pilot announces that Rose had just surpassed Cobb.

AFN has always been my main source of baseball "over here"; it certainly has been the most consistent. It is, however, far from perfect. First of all, it's radio, not television. You'll never see a team's snappy new home uniforms, or see the incredible April sunshine in California. Another thing is that the signal is too damn weak. I'll never understand why they don't have an AFN station in Britain. You can only pick up AFN after dark, which varies according to season. In the height of summer you can't get reception until past 9. And just lately they'd had a Spanish station broadcast right next to it - sometimes over, with them howling a soccer match and trilling their R's as your favorite pitcher delivers. And you'll never be able to choose (or even know) what game they're going to broadcast. If you have a favorite team, chances are 14-1 against hearing your team.

They also have this annoying habit of pre-empting baseball for almost anything: an address from the President, the Country Music Corral, and SummerSlam 93 - not to mention football, basketball, and hockey. Having said that, they did most admirably in covering the National League West pennant race, even to the point of pre-empting the NFL. But most importantly I think, baseball over AFN just doesn't have the feel of BBH (Baseball Back Home). Instead of those wonderful beer and pickup truck commercials, you get snappy jingles on eating foods from all the major food groups, and reminders to clean your car thoroughly when you ship it back home after your tour of duty.

You do, however, get Ken Allen. He may never make it to the majors (civvie style), but his depth of knowledge of professional sports and their relationship to the media makes him a joy to listen to. Because he is broadcasting on a non-commercial station, he has to freedom to offer strong and controversial comments on the running of baseball that other announcers couldn't get away with. But the moment the last out is scored, they cut to The Golden Age of Radio, or All Things Considered. Immediately. No postmortems. No manager's corner. No postgame interviews. No outfielder popping his gum and drawling, "Well, I think it was a good ballgame..." No sports talk. You don't even get final stats. Just public service spots. It's just a bit soulless. It's just not the same.

But I should be grateful to AFN, because it's immediate. Baseball is an everyday thing, and a "Game of the Week" just don't cut it. But any TV is better than no TV. Televised baseball in Britain has a sketchy history. The first time I saw baseball on TV in Britain was a summary of the 1986 World Series (sorry, Mike) in a broadcast on ITV very late at night about a fortnight after the fact. The next year they had a baseball show on for an hour at 3am. It used black and white photos and jazz music for its opening, and usually spent the first ten minutes explaining the rules of the game. It was about as good as it sounds. I think they had these shows on and off for a couple of years - but it wasn't until Screensport started broadcasting in 1989 did we get a World Series shown live. They have shown every one live since then.

Screensport started out with two different two-hour games a week, both in prime time - they were simply games, without a lot of local embellishment, edited down to two hours. They were eminently watchable, but the number soon dwindled to one. If they have ever shown a regular-season game live I missed it, but Channel 4 showed a live game a few years ago. In the middle of the night they broadcast a game from Wrigley Field, with Harry Caray announcing. During the U.S. commercial break they talked to players about different types of pitches, detailed explanation of baseball strategy - it was very well done. I got excited and phoned Channel 4 on Monday, and they told me it was a one-off thing. Oh well.

Of course Screensport wasn't destined to last - it was free. They kept threatening to charge us, and I gladly would have paid for baseball. But it never happened. This year came the announcement that Screensport and Eurosport had "merged". I phoned to ask them if this was the same thing as when Sky and BSB "merged". It was. I had to phone Paris to get the news - "no baseball". Screensport simply ceased to exist and Eurosport changed not a whit. Things looked dire when Sky Sports stepped in. In July they started broadcasting a weekly two-hour game with a promise to broadcast the World Series live. Sound familiar? This is a subscription service whereas Screensport was free, but it was worth it. So I went and ordered all the Sky channels, and today I am a happier and more contented person.

I must admit I haven't watched the Sky Sports weekly game regularly. First, we had a problem getting our satellite dish installed. We were told that we needed to get a new dish, as our old one did not support a decoder. Okay, fine, no problem. But as soon as we said this, the people in the flat above us immediately disappeared - on holiday? family troubles? suicide pact? We didn't know, they were just gone. So what's the point? Roof access. They couldn't get up to the roof to change dishes. It took almost a month before we could get the dish installed. We never did get a satisfactory explanation for their disappearance. I guess it's just none of our business.

The main reason I haven't been all that interested in the Sky Sports Game Of the Week, or Pontel for that matter, is that I have been able to follow baseball in a better way. Before Sky Sports picked up baseball, I thought that the end of TV baseball in Britain was here. A life without visual baseball is of course unthinkable, so I purchased a multi-standard VCR that would play games taped in the States. It has been my pride and joy. I get games from my favorite team sent from home - diligently taped and posted by my mother. The lag time is roughly what it is in Sky Sports and Pontel, plus I get the added bonus of always having my team, and having the original commercials, news spots, and weather from back home. By the time I get the tape I already know the outcome of the game: I don't think anything will ever replace live baseball.

To get my daily fix of baseball, I set my timer to audio-tape an hour of the AFN broadcast. I set it for 2.30 each morning - sometimes you get baseball, sometimes you get wrestling. And every morning you can keep up-to-date with scores by using page 162 of ITV's Teletext. This isn't always accurate, and sometime they do ridiculous things like showing Chicago beating Chicago (and it's not the 1906 World Series) or Montreal losing to two separate teams in one day. Well, I suppose it is possible... Despite its drawbacks, it's close to immediate. On November 15 CNN will start its Teletext service; hopefully they'll take baseball a bit more seriously.

One fine day, for the first time in their current city, my team will win the World Series. People will be shouting, laughing, crying. Tears will be shed and babies will be conceived. A millisecond later, I'll be sitting alone by my radio, in the middle of some awful rainy October night. I'll be trying to tune in a crackly signal coming from a faraway land, trying to share in the joy of the moment. No way, man! I'll be there, dude!

Last Updated on Wednesday, 17 June 2009 16:27