THE AESTHETICS OF BASEBALL

November 3, 2009

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As I sit on my mysteriously stained couch watching Game 5 of the World Series, my mind wanders to the decision-making process of the game’s director, Bill Webb. He’s orchestrated 13 of these Fall Classics, with new technologies opening up more vistas of sweat and crotch grabs each time.  Webb, alongside producer Pete Macheska, makes decisions on shot selection and duration every second of the game, all of which subtly shape the viewing experience. Baseball is a game of lulling rhythms that occasionally spike into frenzied bouts of athleticism. How Webb handles the former, the batting-glove adjustments, talks at the mound, and endless foul balls, is the most fascinating aspect to his anonymous craft.

Idly charting his shot selection over the first few innings, a few patterns emerge. He averages around 5 shots per at-bat, but incrementally increases their number and cutting speed at more dramatic moments. In the top of the fourth inning, with no-one on base and a comfortable 6-1 lead, Cliff Lee is facing Nick Swisher with the count at 2-1. Webb starts with a medium shot of Swisher, cuts to a medium shot of Robinson Cano on deck, then shifts to a close-up of Lee, before settling in to the centerfield camera for the pitch. This is one of his routine setups: batter, on-deck, pitcher, pitch. It establishes the basic conflict while adding context for the next one.

Later in the inning, Webb alters his approach to match the actions of the crowd. With two outs and Brett Gardner at the plate, the crowd rises in applause to urge Lee to end the inning. Responding to the situation, Webb goes with the following shots: medium of Gardner, CU of Lee, wide shot of fans, CU of Lee, centerfield camera. In cutting back and forth between the crowd and Lee, Webb is subtly adding a narrative to this pitch, that the crowd is in a conversation with the pitcher, which he soon repays by getting Gardner to ground out to short. He generally dislikes crowd shots, and has limited their use at Fox, as he told USA Today:

‘Crowd shots I’ll do between pitches; it’s dead time,’ he says. ‘I’m not a big fan of them. During the regular season, you’ve got a lot more liberty. But in a platinum game like this, every pitch means something. You stay with what’s going on in the field.’

In other pitches, he cuts between the opposing coaches to juice the sense of conflict between each toss. He also opts for push-in close-ups on the pitcher and hitter to add an extra dollop of tension. His most aggressive technique is the split-screen, framing pitcher and hitter in the same shot, and adding the catcher’s signals in an insert between them. He thankfully uses this segmented shot sparingly. Michael Hiestand writes, again in USA Today:  “[They are] pretty busy. But, says Webb, at least viewers know what pitch is coming. And not as busy, notes Webb, as when on past Series action he split the screen four ways when bases were loaded — ‘too confusing, that was a strikeout.”

Webb also turned down the use of cameras that are suspended on cables and fly down the foul lines, which TBS used in their coverage. His aesthetic is appropriately conservative, eschewing most of the bells and whistles that Fox Sports likes to impose (their dancing NFL robot, the ill-fated glowing hockey puck), and toning down the tricks he does use:

‘Viewers may like them the first time but then the toys become redundant,’ he says. ‘The best way to cover baseball is to cover the baseball game. And the only real difference between a regular season game and the World Series is it’s more emotional. You need to make sure the technology never gets in the way of showing that emotion.’

Even in higher leverage situations with runners on base, where his shot selection is more varied, his cutting speed increases only slightly. He maintains a use of fairly long takes, even with his cut-ins (I’m curious to compare his shot length with the other networks, in case this is just the industry standard, but I suspect he’s slower than most). In only one instance did I detect any quick cutting: Ryan Howard’s walk on a full count in the first inning, where Webb  employs rapid-fire shots of the crowd, who were again riled up and waving their white towels (this was after the incredible Chase Utley and his hair hit a three-run home-run).

In a bit of serendipity, the MLB Network was showing Game 5 of the 1956 World Series, Don Larsen’s perfect game over the Brooklyn Dodgers, at the same time as 2009′s game 5. Flipping back and forth, it’s a quick and dirty way to see how camera angles effect the way one views a game. The default camera position in 1956 was an elevated view behind home plate that would pan up to catch a ball in play. There are also cameras on the first and third baselines, but they are only used for accents, either introducing a player or offering a profile of the pitcher. It distances you from the action, with no sense of balls and strikes, and no close-ups of the players. Mickey Mantle seems even more otherworldly from the back. After he breaks up the scoreless game with a mammoth home run, one feels it appropriate that his face is hidden. One shouldn’t look too close to such (drunken) godliness. The distance of the camera must have added to the mystical aura that surrounded these 50s titans.

In a fascinating article for Slate, Greg Hanlon offers a brief history of the centerfield camera, which he claims was introduced in 1950 on NBC’s Game of the Week. Apparently it took a while to become standard, but now almost every team uses this look, which provides a more intimate view of the details of the game, from the catcher’s signals to the pitcher’s fidgeting in his glove. What Hanlon explores is the distorted angle of this view, as most of these cameras are located 10 to 15 degrees off-center to left field, offering a skewed view of the ball’s path to home plate. Only the Red Sox, the Cardinals, and the Twins place it at dead center, which requires a higher camera elevation to keep the pitcher from blocking the view of the catcher. But for the majority of telecasts, including Fox’s coverage of the World Series, the view is distorted, sacrificing verity for intimacy. Hanlon says the biggest impediment to switching to dead-center views is simple architecture:

In Oakland, Calif., a wall of luxury boxes precludes placing a dead-center camera. The Crown Vision center field scoreboard provides a similar obstruction in Kansas City. In Denver, the “Rock Pile” bleacher seats make installing a dead-center camera a “seat-kill,” in producer parlance. Other stadiums have advertising signage where a camera would be placed.

ESPN attempted to install a dead-center camera for all of their 2001 broadcasts, but it was declared impractical after less than a year.

Webb simply deals with the cameras he has given, and does a wonderful job. The fact that he also directs the Mets broadcasts (my sad, sad favorite team), has no bearing on this praise. He simply stays out of the way, elegantly incorporating dramatic arcs during down time, and limiting graphic bells and whistles that clutter too many other broadcasts. All he’s missing is “..a camera operator on the fields, just to trail pitchers to the mound or batters to the box. ‘I don’t see what the problem is when there’s no action going on. … I won’t get in your way.’” Bill Webb is a master of not getting in the way.

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