WHAT A NIGHT, waht a crowd, what a game, what a flood. There were no runs, no hits, no errors and nobody on base, because the bases were sinking into a swamp. A downpour had turned the Cleveland infield literally into mudville.
And yet it turned out to be one of the greatest baseball games never played. At least, it turned out to be one of the most enjoyable baseball games recently shown on television, even if there was only about one hour of baseball to nearly two hours of watching rain fall on the field.
The Baltimore Orioles had traveled to Cleveland to meet the Indians, and this was the second of two night games; it was "getaway day." After the third or fourth inning, the rain that had been predicted as merely possible became quite irrefutable. It came down in soda pop cups. But the chief umpire thought it might let up at any minute and so he refused to scrub the game.
That meant that Chuck Thompson, the play-by-play announcer, and Brooks Robinson, the color commentator, would both have to stay on the air for Baltimore's Channel 2 (WMAR-TV) and two other stations carrying the game - Channel 20 in Washington and a small station in Pennsylvania - until the game either resumed or was called off.
Now a rained-out baseball game may not sound like particularly delightful television, but this one was a fiesta of the unexpected. As the minutes turned into hours and the announcers turned to everything but the Yellow Pages to fill time, the remaining fans took matters into their own hands.
They would give themselves a show and put one on for the folks at home, too. And in a way, it was a show as indigenous as a baseball game and, as television, somewhat more entertaining. Real people, not packaged people and not sports or show biz pros, had commandeered the fickle camera by default, and as they romped and rollicked and led security guards on a merry chase, they said something about the people's medium and the people.
What they said was, television usually tries to avoid the people as much as possible. Here was a case where there really was no choice. What us lucky viewers got - at least on Channel 2, since Channel 20 chicken-heartedly cut away for a "Get Smart" rerun - was a sense of event and spontaneity that few baseball games or programs of any kind on TV. Sometime after 11 p.m. after roughly two hours of rain dancing in Cleveland, the umps threw in the towel, which by then was a snoppy w mess.
A lot of the people who run television think the public has no idea when something is live and when it's on tape or film. Viewers probably do know that "Saturday Night Live" is live (though on the West Coast it is seen by tape delay) and that when the old newsreel of the Hindenburg crash comes up, this isn't what's actually happening at the moment in dear old Lakehourst, N.J. Probably nothing is happening at the moment in dear old Lakehurst, N.J., and that probably doesn't bother the citizens of Lakehurst one bit.
In television things must constantly be kept in a state of appearing to be happening, however,; reality has been "improved upon" with miles and miles of edited film and tape. Almost all the grace notes and breathing space common to human endeavor have been compressed out of television, so that what we get is condensed cream of artifice.
Sports, one would think, should be safe from this sort of manipulation, but that was before Roone Arledge came along and wide-worlded everything from water polo to the three-legged race. Baseball's friendly, leisurely tempos have been churned up for television through the dubious miracle of instant replay; the idea is no longer to give the viewer a sinse of "being there" but rather of being perpetually distracted. Last year NBC showed every play of the World Series four times, from four different angles, in slow motion and stop motion and no motion. It's the dervish approach, flashy and jazzy and often hypnotizingly repetitious.
But when the fans in Cleveland went on a bender and invented a new game for television on that rainy Wednesday, June 20, they brought into our living rooms the true cadence of a lazy summer evening. Channel 2 had about 25 minutes worth of pre-taped material with which to fill some time, but mostly the cameras just watched the field and the fans. They stormed the field one or two at a time, slipping and sliding across the slick tarpaulin laid out to protect it, cheered on by their fellows in the stands and pursued with semi-deliberate speed by a ragtag fleet of paunchy security guards.
Each time a new sould braved the dash across the field, the crowd roared, and if the man or woman evaded the security guards - which one lady in shorts did by mere inches, leaping into the stands while the guard tumbled like a Keystone Kop - then the cheering was tumultuous. Some fans danced on the shelter over the dugout, and others merely sashayed into the aisles for a little hootchie-kootchie when they discerned a camera aimed their way.
When network sports programs turn over much of their time to instant replays of this and that, they take time away from the folks in the stands who are part of the spectacle. We see little of the fans really, at football games or baseball games, and we miss a feeling of ebullience and brio (or, sometimes, of boredom) that it is completely within television's capacity to communicate.
One of the top directors at ABC Sports says, however, that he fears the fans and for good reason - that sometimes he'll zoom in on a friendly fan-held banner proclaiming "We Love ABC" only to have it suddenly turned over for a far less affectionate though no less intimate expression on the other side.
On that rainy night in Cleveland, banners were clearly impractical. It was a night for improvisation, bleacher theater and healthy American rambunctiousness. It was a night for reasserting one's individuality right in television's big fat face.
For commentators Thompson and Robinson, of course, it was also a night for vamping as they had never vamped before, and they were having one heckuva time thinking up things to talk about.
The boys never did get to their horoscopes, but that was probably just around the corner. They would say that perhaps the rain would stop, that maybe the rain might very well stop, that the umpires probably had good cause to think the rain was about to stop, and that gosh it sure would be nice if the rain stopped.
They praised the discretion of the fans because they had chosen merely to was prankish rather than to start a slugfest. Unfortunately for the announces, a slugfest soon evolved in one section of the bleachers. A portion of this was seen on the air and, though real enough, did cloud the merriment. Jack Dawson, executive producer of baseball and assistant news director at Channel 2, says the station has an agreement with the Orioles not to show "anything ugly" happening unless "it becomes so serious that it's a news story."
He's sorry word of the fight reached the airwaves. "One of the guys in the booth unfortunately mentioned it," he says. "I called him right up and said "Don't mention that any more," because it was threatening to get out of hand. People were taking sides and all that."
In a way, though, even the harmless, frolicking fans - the majority who did not join any fights - were taking sides. They were taking a stand against prefabricated television, against the camera that they so seldom find pointed their way, against television's persistent habit of turning proverbial old Life Itself into something neat, pat and marketable.
No, that probably wasn't on their minds. What probably was on their minds was having a good time. I the viewer will long be grateful for the very good time they gave me.