Somehow, the last several Octobers have involved a lot of car travel for me, which has meant lots of listening to playoff baseball on the radio. Baseball has always been my favorite of the major professional sports, mostly because I have fond memories of it from my childhood and because I love essentially anything that makes me sound like I'm an old man and/or has a whole bunch of not-necessarily-earned "tradition" behind it.
But, weirdly, baseball has always felt to me like it "belongs" on the radio. Sure, I enjoy watching games on TV, and attending a game in person is like nothing else. But listening to a game on the radio, while driving along through the night hits some sort of cosmic level of perfection, especially if you can find it on an AM station, with a slight whine from some other signal, scratchy static calling the game in from across time and space.
There aren't other sports you can do this with, not really. Football has too much downtime. Basketball has too much happening. Soccer is so devoted to the intricacies of who's controlling the ball when that it can be hard to parse on the radio. Somehow, baseball hits the sweet spot between all of these things to work almost perfectly when all you have is somebody's voice describing what's happening to you.
Unlike soccer, baseball almost always closes in on two people locked in combat, usually the pitcher and hitter. Unlike football, while there's downtime, that downtime is almost always devoted to advancing the "story" of the conflict that's existing, rather than rearranging everybody on the field. And unlike basketball, there's very little going on. So much of baseball is locked into place. It's the tiny variations that provoke change. That makes it easy to imagine and, thus, perfect for the radio.
And the best radio broadcasters were fantastic at using mere words to create the atmosphere of the park for listeners at home. If you're trying to describe a football game, it's tough, because there are so many different variables to explain. But a baseball game, forever fixed, in some ways, offers a better opportunity for the well-spoken. Name a TV baseball announcer as iconic as, say, John Madden was to football. I don't know that you can. But even non-baseball fans will have heard of Vin Scully or dozens of others who work primarily in radio. (Yes, I know Scully works TV, too, but radio is where he pops.)
In contrast, baseball doesn't really work on television. All of the qualities that make it great for radio (the frozenness of the field and its players) just make for boring TV. Yeah, there are certain things that work really well on TV, like that instantly infamous inning between the Blue Jays and Rangers, in which three consecutive errors set the stage for a monumental three-run home run. But those are few and far between. The typical state of being for a televised baseball game is two people standing still, looking at each other, waiting to react. That's far from riveting television.
What's interesting to me is that the very thing that has long dogged baseball on TV, where it's a couple of moments of big action, surrounded by a lot of other stuff that seems like padding, is the very thing that makes it kind of fun to consume on the internet. The internet, forever interested only in the highlights, essentially boils every game down to the five or six biggest moments, which are turned into video clips and gifs. It's weird to think of our most traditionalist sport being saved by this technology, but I wouldn't be surprised in the slightest.
I have a half-baked theory that certain sports have achieved dominance because of how intimately they're tied to certain media, and the fall of baseball could certainly be tied to the slow decline of radio as well. Baseball feels like it's part of a different America for many reasons, but some of that has to be how intimately it's tied to certain media we just don't rely on anymore. Like... who looks at box scores in the newspaper? But those things used to be studied with great intensity by the fans of America.
This is why I tend to be a little dismissive of the thought that the NFL will always hold sway. Football is so uniquely tuned to what television does well, while it's not a particularly great sport to consume in online highlight form. (It's not abysmal or anything, but it's also not a sport where context-less moments resonate as deeply as they do in baseball or, especially, basketball.) It took baseball decades to fall to where it is now, and I imagine the same will be true of the NFL.
But imagine a world where somebody wanting to catch a football game is hurrying around their city, looking for a sports bar showing them on TV, like everybody used to watch it. I don't know how likely that world is, but I have to admit I'm intrigued by it. The way we consume media is going away very quickly, which means it will come to seem archaic. But then it will drive some form of nostalgia. We'll miss, someday, all of this. It'll just take some time.
Episodes is published daily, Monday through Friday, unless I don't feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox Dot Com.