May 5, 2010

Broadcast booth.

At the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, there’s an exhibit where you get to record play-by-play commentary for a few seconds of a hockey game. Once you’ve done that, you get to listen to your recording and compare it to the actual broadcast play-by-play for the game. I was never the biggest hockey fan growing up, but I visited the Hall of Fame often, and my first stop — while the rest of my friends would run up to see the Stanley Cup — was the broadcast booth exhibit.

We used to play a game, a few friends and I, when watching sports on television together. We would put the basketball or baseball game (never football — football was sacred, not to be played with) on mute, and pretend to be in the broadcast booth, providing play-by-play and commentary as the action unfurled in front of us. In the most elaborate of these scenarios, we would each take on a persona complete with fake names and backgrounds and see just how long we could keep up the charade until someone broke out in laughter.

Some people idolize sports pros and Hollywood stars. Me? I have a healthy respect for athletes and actors, but I’m more enamored with sports broadcasters and movie critics.

It’s a bit strange, or so I’ve been told very often, to have favorite sports writers and commentators. Many people find it odd that I can easily recognize the voice and mannerisms of broadcasters like Mel Allen, Harry Caray, Ernie Harwell, Suzy Kolber, Pat Summerall, Marv Albert, Chuck Swirsky, Michelle Tafoya, Dick Enberg and Bob Costas. And yes, it may not be normal that my favorite television programs are shows where writers sit down for half an hour and just talk about sports: Around the Horn and Pardon the Interruption. That’s okay with me.

Last night, I heard that Ernie Harwell had passed away; the news got me thinking about why I have such a fondness for the people who are the voice of the game.

I think that the reason sports writers and broadcasters, like movie and food critics, appeal to me so much is because they are, in essence, storytellers. Their role is to observe, analyze, and then tell a story to an audience. These stories, whether in print the next morning, on the radio in real-time, or even on a commentary show a few days later, make the athletes and their feats accessible to a larger audience; they provide historical context, professional anecdotes, and personal opinion that make the game feel richer, more alive.

Don’t get me wrong. I have an incredible appreciation for the people who create and entertain: the chefs, the athletes, the actors, the novelists, the architects, the directors, the artists, and the musicians who make our lives more exciting every day. I just feel that without the people who tell us about these creators and entertainers — that is, without the people who provide access and context to the work through narrative and opinion — our experience would be less full, less intense, and less rich than it is now.

Ernie Harwell was one of those people that made my baseball experience that much richer, that much more full and intense. He will be missed.