Sports Nut

Game 2: Angels 11, Giants 10

A good Salmon run

In the eighth inning, just after Tim Salmon hit the dramatic two-run homer that would win the game for the Angels, the Giants made a pitching change, and Fox got a chance to hit us with a few more ads. One of the spots was part of a series that had been running throughout the night, those dark ads for John Hancock financial services. It showed a middle-aged couple in a restaurant having a very anxious exchange about the husband’s bungling of the family’s finances. The wife nags him about what would she do if “something happened” to him. He has no answer, there is just uncomfortable silence; the screen goes dark and we see the scripted logo of John Hancock.

My girlfriend, who up until this point had been entirely unenchanted by one of the most exciting World Series games in quite some time, was suddenly outraged. “How depressing,” she said. “What are they trying to sell, a way to kill yourself?”

A few minutes earlier my friend William had phoned up, and he too was incensed about an ad, one of those raucous Coors Light spots in which drinking their beer is equated with “parties that never end … burritos at 4 a.m. … and … TWINS!” What put William over the edge was the spot that juxtaposed a guy painting his face in team colors for the game with a couple of the hot girls flashing their best “come-hithers,” as though Coors Light was the bridge between these two distant realms.

Actually, both ads made perfect sense to me. One company wants to show that by using its product, you can decrease your odds of becoming a particular type of person (a hard-luck stock-market loser who gets hectored by his wife), while the other wants to show that by using its product, you can increase your odds of becoming a particular type of person (a sports-loving party animal who scores with supermodels).

Thinking about this disjuncture made me feel a little sad about the Lonely American Baseball Fan just trying to make it through the game at home, buffeted by images designed alternately to entice him and to scare him. But it also made me aware of why it’s been so strange watching these first couple of games on television. Fox covers baseball in a way that the images of attraction and repulsion are actually combined.

Here’s what I mean: With Thunder Sticks and Rally Monkeys and gorilla suits and everything else, the crowd at Edison Field has been gleefully indulging in the basic appeal of baseball, that rare opportunity to revisit your adolescence, to share vicariously in the accomplishments of powerful men. No single image captured this better than the shot of Michael Eisner decked out in a matching, pajama-like ensemble of Angels cap and jacket and looking, let’s not dance around this, quite a bit absurd, like America’s highest-paid mascot. This is the Coors Light approach.

Operating at counter-purpose to these images, we have the voice of Fox color man Tim McCarver, an extraordinarily prescient and knowledgeable baseball observer who manages to strip away the adolescent charms of baseball with every word that comes out of his mouth. When someone hits a mighty blast of a home run, McCarver seizes on the hanging slider that made it possible. When a player ventures too far off the bag and gets thrown out on an infield grounder, it’s time for a lesson on Proper Baserunning Etiquette. Every play is occasion for an autopsy. I would guess that 90 percent of his praise is reserved for when a catcher successfully blocks a pitch in the dirt.

The cumulative effect of all this is that over the course of the game, you, the viewer, become increasingly glad that you’re NOT a baseball player and being endlessly subjected to this godlike judgment from up in the booth. Forget the vicarious, childlike thrills of athletic accomplishment. Better to be on the side of the omniscient grown-up geeks. This is the John Hancock approach.

Now about that game last night—the finish was excellent, but if you’ll allow me a McCarver moment, let’s spend a few moments ruminating on what might have been going through the minds of Giants Rich Aurilia and Jeff Kent when they came up to bat in the ninth inning. If one of them had only managed to reach base, Barry Bonds would, of course, have come up with a chance to tie the game. Instead, the Aurilia/Kent attitude was, “Let’s try to hit our own home runs and then mean old Barry won’t get all the credit when he hits his!”

Oh, the folly. Aurilia and Kent fail to even reach base, Bonds hits his solo blast, and then Benito Santiago, the Ancient Latino Mariner, pops up to end the game.