You were beyond psyched as you flicked on the tube. It was time for Game 7 of the American League Championship Series. Time for the final dramatic movement in the divine baseball dance that had been staged over the past nine days in New York and Boston, set to climax in Yankee Stadium. Up came the first hitter, Red Sox center fielder Johnny Damon. Out to left field shot the game's first hit.
Then, before the second hitter could even reach the batter's box, came the high-volume, middle-of-the-screen assault:
"Baseball fans! Grab a cold fresh Budweiser! It's game time!"
You wanted to smash in the bleeping television with an ax -- but if you had, you couldn't have watched the rest of the game.
As the Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals limber up for the World Series pas de deux that begins tonight at Fenway Park, these truths have become self-evident: That watching baseball on TV is a debilitating, infuriating experience that is getting steadily worse. And that somehow -- miraculously -- America's most venerable game still manages to transcend the crudeness and attention deficit disorder of the television culture by which it is framed.
To watch the Sox dig themselves that three-game hole and then claw their way out; to experience that ecstatic scrum at Fenway after David Ortiz's 12th-inning homer won Game 4; to feel the intensity of the two Dereks, Lowe and Jeter, as they faced off with a century's worth of history on the line -- how could these things not be worth whatever price TV extracts?
Thinking back, though, it was sometimes a close call.
Take the very first words you heard one night when you flicked on Channel 5 a couple of minutes before game time. "I just came from convincing Mom to have sex with Dad," someone blurted out on what turned out to be a promo for "Arrested Development." Very funny. Especially since you were watching with your wife and daughters. Later on, you'd get another chance to squirm as a smirking twerp with horns ogled a lingerie-draped mannequin in a Viagra ad.
When it comes to TV baseball, though, between-innings ads are hardly the problem. You're used to them. That's why God invented the mute button, after all.
No, the problem is the total unwillingness (look at this!) of the tube (now look at this!) to let you (look! over here!) simply watch (look at this one more time!) the game unfold.
Instant replays have been around for decades now -- but have they ever been more abused? Whoosh . . . here's the sound cue for the replay of that strike to Manny Ramirez in Game 6, in case you haven't noticed the giant Fox logo that signals a replay as well, and whoosh we're back live for another strike, which we'll replay, too, whoosh-whoosh, and here we are back live again, barely in time to catch Ramirez flying out. All right, let's cut away from the field -- hey, we're three batters into the game, after all -- to a graphic that shows how the Yankees line up on defense. It's brought to you by State Farm, you are loudly informed, in case you missed that prominent logo.
You seem to recall that on radio broadcasts, the announcer simply tells you in a calm voice who's playing where.
And yet -- there are things you would have missed if you hadn't watched.
Those mottled, scuffed Red Sox batting helmets, for one, which look like they haven't been washed all season and fit right in with the scruffy-bearded grunge look many Sox players favor. (The Yankees are clean-shaven by corporate edict.)
Hideki Matsui's face, tensed almost to the point of vibrating as he waited for his pitch.
Curt Schilling's body language, back bent, right arm raised, as he tried to pull back Jorge Posada's long drive before it could hit the right field wall.
And, of course, Alex Rodriguez slapping the ball out of Bronson Arroyo's glove.
You missed that play, actually. The tension in Game 6 was so great that you finally couldn't watch; you abandoned the TV in the eighth inning and moved to a room with a radio on. When you heard what had happened -- the ball rolling loose near first base, Rodriguez being called safe, Jeter motoring home -- you rushed back to watch the replay, grateful to see it over and over. It proved clearly what the huddling umpires eventually decided: That A-Rod had interfered with Arroyo and should be out.
A few minutes after the craziness died down, though, you were favored with the "Sharp Aquos Play of the Game," in which a fancy flat-screen TV popped up within your unfancy curved-screen model and showed the play yet again -- sponsored now, and smaller, so it was harder to see. At least that went away quickly, unlike the virtual billboards that hovered in the very center of the action whenever the camera focused on a hitter at the plate.
You know you're not supposed to be outraged by those anymore. Heck, they've been around for three years, performing the essential public service of infiltrating the game itself -- as one adman explained it -- to put advertisers "inside people's minds." No, the commercial frontier this year was advertising on the bases themselves, and you are cynical enough to have been surprised when a public outcry and an objection from the Yankees (bless 'em) combined to keep Spider-Man's masked mug off home plate.
Still, you couldn't help but notice the way your eye went straight to the ad for "Nanny 911" before you could focus on the classy Yankee veteran, Bernie Williams, or to the one for "My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss" as the classy new Sox shortstop, Orlando Cabrera, came up, or to that oh-so-familiar credit card logo with the overlapping red and orange circles . . .
Watching baseball without this crud -- priceless.
For everything else, there's MasterCard.
Yo, Fox, you wanted to scream, what's with the miniature fireworks display that stays up long enough to distract you from the action but not long enough for you to absorb whatever information it's supposed to provide? Or the huge "Right Now" box that blocks your view of half the field to tell you who's pitching and who's batting -- information so basic that it's useful only to people hopelessly addled by previous interruptions? Or the "game break" that took you to St. Louis when there wasn't a game being played there that night?
And yet, and yet . . .
Baseball triumphed in the end. You could still hack through the jungle of crass distractions and find its soul.
You could find it in moments as small as the late-inning stolen base on which the whole Sox turnaround hinged (unless you thought it hinged on Ortiz's little flare into center, or the ground-rule double by Tony Clark that bounced straight up and then barely dropped into the stands, or any of two dozen other such moments). You could see it in the eyes of Sox pitchers Schilling and Lowe -- wounded in body and psyche, respectively -- as they gritted out the last two wins.
Long after the final game had ended, after the raucous group hug and the clubhouse champagne spraying, you could still find that soul in -- of all things -- one last ad.
It showed a row of old-timey fans at Fenway Park. You noticed a subtitle reading "1918." One by one the years began to pass, to a quiet violin and piano score, as the fans time-lapsed toward modernity -- changing suits, hats and dresses but wearing the same hopeful resignation on their faces as they passed through 1946, 1967, 1975, 1986 . . .
The ad was for Nike, as you found out when its progress toward 2004 was over. Like baseball itself, it was simple yet intricate, dignified yet mesmerizing.
It was so little like television, in fact, that it made you want to rush right out and buy a pair of overpriced shoes.