Game Theory 

How We Turn Sports Into Stories

“It is only at our moment of death that our life, to that point undecipherable, ambiguous, suspended, acquires a meaning.” So wrote Italian director, poet and provocateur Pier Paolo Pasolini about the creation of ordered stories from disordered reality. But what can be taken as an artistic truism — that stories, while changeable, become increasingly fixed (and slowly “die”) once routes are chosen from a range of infinite narrative possibilities — seems only partially adequate in explaining how narratives and meta-narratives are woven from sporting events. At their core, all sports feature the dreadful specter of mortality (this is why, for instance, we speak of overtime periods as “sudden death”), and when the end inevitably arrives, with the sound of the buzzer or last out called, it’s the people who play and care about these games that fashion from a chaotic stream of thousands of implemented strategies and split-second maneuvers storylines that accord with an already ingrained sense of narrative, birthing miracles (“The Shot Heard ‘Round the World”), symbols (Jackie Robinson) and allegories (the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry) from the overwhelming messiness of contingency.

But what of the ordering of life as it happens, before it ends? This is the odd realm of broadcast sports, where stories are constructed and continuously reconstructed as they unfold. Take for example what would be out of context a fairly routine 3-1 victory by the New York Mets over the Colorado Rockies on Sunday, June 22, 2008. Today’s game finds the Mets at the close of one of the stranger, more embarrassing weeks in their history. On Monday, June 17th, after a month of indecision, the team finally fired embattled manager Willie Randolph at 3am East Coast time, making the official announcement via email from California, where Randolph had traveled all the way for a West Coast trip before the front office sent him packing. The manner in which this was handled was slaughtered not just by the New York papers but the national sports press, who called the move “disgraceful,” “classless” and “an outrage on level with Abu Ghraib and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.”

Thankfully, Mets television announcers Gary Cohen — whose smooth Semitic drawl has practically raised fans like me since 1989 — and former Mets pitcher Ron Darling approach Game 74 of the Mets’ 2008 regular season with calmness, and perspective. The circus surrounding the team only seven days prior has receded far enough into the past that the CW11’s Cohen and Darling (usually on SNY, extra color commentator, Mets legend Keith Hernandez, has today off) barely mention it at all. “Time is Lethe,” wrote Thomas Mann, and while the Randolph saga won’t exactly be forgotten anytime soon, the “humiliating” circumstances of his ousting have by now made way for a new storyline, the reign of interim manager Jerry “I told him next time he does that I’m going to get my blade out and cut him — I’m a gangster” Manuel. After an opening sequence of the Rocky Mountains and Coors Field that works as a series of establishing shots, Cohen’s forthright, unhyped introduction to the game spells out the possible narrative the Mets seem to be writing: finishing this short road trip “on the right note.” And if games are stories, then pitchers are their usual protagonists, main characters who drive the action. On the mound for the Amazins is young starting pitcher Mike Pelfrey, whose gradual maturation is beginning to attract attention. Over the course of the game, Pelfrey’s performance will be interpreted by Darling as an important one for him to “get back on the right foot” after his last bad start; a potential continuation of “the best baseball of his career”; a chance for the 6’7” kid to “regain his confidence” (never underestimate baseball’s power of cliché).

And that he does, pitching 5 2/3 innings of no-run, three-hit ball, though his five walks are deemed “disturbing.” As guided by Darling, we monitor Big Pelf’s progress as he works out of a first inning jam and intermittently tweaks his location and mechanics with the help of batterymate Ramon Castro, who by not framing pitches forces Pelfrey to aim for the strike zone, and who also gestures to the youngster to “drive” his body through to the plate. Technical stuff, but that’s the focus in a brisk, low-scoring contest involving two currently underachieving franchises. Baseball telecasts are notoriously distracted affairs, and this game is no exception: with a noticeable lack of action there are dugout peeks at trainers repairing gloves (it’s one of the few times shots dictate the announcers’ narration and not the other way around) and excessive instant replay (the need to see a routine groundout in multiple-angle slo-mo has only risen, it seems, since FOX invented the ADD sports telecast).

If baseball tells stories, numbers are its language. The X-Files once summed up the relationship perfectly: “I’m reading the box scores, Scully...  It’s like the Pythagorean Theorem for jocks. It distills all the chaos and action of any game in the history of all baseball games into one tiny, perfect, rectangular sequence of numbers. I can look at this box and I can recreate exactly what happened on some sunny summer day back in 1947.” Darling takes us inside the game, but Cohen provides the foundation to do so, rattling off a consistent litany of statistics at appropriate moments that tell us what to look for. Some stats predict the future, some trick us with the comforts of probability. No sooner have we learned that Rockies starter Greg Reynolds historically has trouble with batters the third time through the order than the Mets’ bats go silent. A new storyline: Reynolds solving his issues, or the Mets unable to pounce on weakness?

Of course, we can only answer such questions over the course of a six-month season. Subplots emerge along with larger narrative threads: the Mets’ MASH unit of injuries (Alou, Church, Schneider, Castillo), and the improved fielding of David Wright, who makes several slick plays. Small details brighten the corners, putting sad and silly characters into relief: Todd Helton’s age and decline; Manuel Corpas’s diminishing role as a reliever; Jason Grilli’s father’s bar, which Cohen reports cooks the best chicken wings he’s ever tasted: “not mushy but not deep fried.” Banality trumps the extraordinary today, and the plethora of verbal communication over ostentatious camerawork (an overhead of the on-deck circle, for instance) or unnecessary cut-tos of adorable children strangely spells the mood of this game just as much as its raw action.

“If one picture is worth a thousand words,” Vin Scully reported at the end of the unforgettable Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, “You’ve seen about a million words.” During a lazy summer afternoon game featuring ten total hits I’d say Cohen and Darling have allowed us to “see” about several hundred words, a quotidian short story serving as a refreshing respite from a week of fiery melodrama. It’s proof that though games are inherently metaphors for our earthly demise, they’re not necessarily all matters of life and death. And if we still want them to be even when they aren’t, we always have the New York Post. Their front page — front page — headline a day after a controlled Mets win? S#!T HITS THE FANS: MANUEL LIKENS ANGRY METS FANS TO FERTILIZER. “When the legend becomes fact,” a movie about stories once suggested, “print the legend.” Or, in the case of the Post, print the S#!T. 

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