Take me out to the great big television

December 12, 2006|By JEAN MARBELLA

A woman who lives in Tribeca, just blocks from the World Trade Center in New York, told me this story a couple of years ago: She had been home the morning of 9/11 and heard a boom that sent her running outside to see what had happened. She and her neighbors watched from the sidewalk, aghast, as first one tower erupted in flames and smoke and, minutes later, so did the other one.

And then they did the natural thing: They went back inside to watch it on TV.

I thought about this when I heard about the brouhaha over the aging JumboTron video screen at Camden Yards. The Maryland Stadium Authority was about to order a $1.5 million replacement - state of the art, they say - but Orioles' owner Peter Angelos wants a bigger, more expensive and higher-def system. The team went to court to halt the purchase, and the dispute is now in arbitration - even though the stadium authority said Friday that if it didn't buy the new screen that very day, it wouldn't be ready for Opening Day.

Heaven forbid. How would we ever know what was happening on the field if we didn't see it replayed on the scoreboard screen? If we even can see it, that is, given the minuscule, 23-foot-by-31-foot, inaptly named JumboTron that we've been squinting at for these past 14 years. (Did you see in one of The Sun's stories that a college stadium has a screen 10 times bigger than ours, a "GodzillaTron"?)

What is it about those light-emitting diodes or liquid crystal displays or whatever high-tech hoo-hah puts pictures up on a screen - why is nothing real until you see it on TV?

It'll never happen, but if on my next trip to Camden Yards the JumboTron was dark, I would be thrilled. And - oh, dare to dream - if the shrieking audio system took the day off as well, I'd go insane with glee. Now that would be a Turn Back the Clock game worth going to.

Gather 'round, children, and let me tell you about the olden days. Once upon a time, baseball was unplugged. It was kind of like an acoustic concert. It was played in daylight; there might have been a little organ music. Flashing digital screens didn't tell you the speed of the pitch, whether it was a fastball or a curve, how often the guy struck out left-handers on sunny days in July. If you wanted to know what a hitter had done in his previous at-bat, you had to keep track of it yourself on something called a scorecard.

The point is, you had to pay attention. Which shouldn't be a problem, and which actually was the point of going to see this most engaging sport ever invented. It's slow-paced, to be sure, and even dull sometimes. But there were rewards for those who got with the program, went with the flow and let the game just wash over them like sunlight moving across the field. You might get an elegantly turned double play, a pitch that just freezes a batter (followed by a swift, no-argument retreat to the dugout), a rookie who out of nowhere saves the day.

But somewhere along the way, someone decided the game wasn't enough. Enter the ballpark as theme park, with baseball the theme for an ersatz experience rather than the experience itself. Charming, in-town parks sought to evoke baseball's past, Camden Yards being the first to hit on this now much-Xeroxed blueprint, but with modern updates.

Among them, never being out of eyeshot of a TV. It's not just the JumboTron, it's screens and sets and monitors throughout the park - from those in the luxury boxes to the ones that hover from overhangs in some of sections. Hard as I try, my eyes wander over to them, and away from the actual action.

I can't help it, and it's a losing battle, I suspect. As the late, great Neil Postman, author of such books on the media as Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, said in a television interview once: "For anything to be legitimate it has to come through television. And in that sense we have become a television people. Sometimes when I go to places and people ask me what Americans are like, I say, `Well, what we do is watch television.'"

Even at the ballpark. Lawyers for the O's are arguing we can't let the stadium authority go cheap on a new scoreboard screen because the Washington Nationals soon will be playing in a newer, higher-tech park than poor old Camden Yards. Yes, people are going to fight I-95 traffic and sit next to those same Washington fans that we've been dissing for bringing their chardonnay-sipping ways to our park all these years - all because the Nationals will have a vastly superior scoreboard screen.

So we better give Angelos his extra $2 million for a bigger screen and a new control room because, really, the problem with the audio-visual system at Orioles Park is that it just isn't intrusive enough. Sometimes, a stray, nonelectric sight or sound - the crack of the bat and a slide into home just before the throw - still emerges, distracting from the music videos, blooper reels and crab races that jangle from the JumboTron.

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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