EVENT REVIEW: “THE ART OF TELEVISED BASEBALL”

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Tonight’s event at the Museum of the Moving Image, “The Art of Televised Baseball” was informative and absolutely fascinating. It was a great off-season diversion for any baseball fan. I learned, I laughed, I missed baseball just a tiny bit less for an hour.

The event featured Curt Gowdy Jr. and Bill Webb from SNY, but in reality, Bill Webb did most of the talking. These are old school cranky baseball guys, the kind of people who you want to listen to talk for hours and hours. The event was preceded by a brief clip that showed Bill Webb in action in the SNY truck at Citi Field, and how he directs a game broadcast, with the multiple cameras and director’s views. If you think a baseball moves quickly, it moves even faster when you have multiple cameras in front of you – or at least that’s what it felt like to me. It was stunning to see how every second, every movement, every foul ball, requires a decision to be made from 11 cameras in a split second. The video only lasted 3 minutes but I could have watched an entire game – hell, multiple games. (If you go to the museum, you can watch one inning upstairs as part of the permanent exhibit.) The clip opened with that familiar SNY intro music and damn, did I suddenly miss baseball even harder than I do right now.

There was some brief introductory Q&A by the moderator, but most of the talk was turned over to the audience for questions. I especially appreciated that the answers were not dumbed down for the audience, and that Webb did not stop each time to explain technical terms – the assumption was made that either you picked it up from the introductory video, or you’d figure it out through context as he gave his answers. Some highlights follow:

  • “Once you lose concentration in baseball, you’re screwed.” –Bill Webb
  • Webb does not use a playbook, except in his mind. At this point, his camera people know what to do based on the play – he tends to ask for the same things and he always knows what he’s going to do. For example, if a ball is hit to the outfield, the camera goes to where the ball is going, it doesn’t follow the ball.
  • It’s different on the road. Webb wouldn’t say which ballpark was the worst, but offered that he would give weaker camerapeople lesser responsibilities. Mentioned some frustrations – “You tell them to put the camera on third base, he gives me the third base coach.”
  • He directs 145 games a year.
  • He characterized his preparation for daily games is one of “survival”.
  • The moderator noted that Webb appeared very calm in the intro video. “If you become excited, your crew becomes excited,” and then they lose their concentration. There is a moment in the intro video where Webb reacts “Nice pitch!” which got a big laugh out the crowd.
  • When Keith is laughing and there’s nothing going on in the booth that’s funny, it’s because Webb is saying something to him in his earpiece. He told the story of the time Ralph Kiner sneezed, and Webb said “Gesundheit” and Ralph said “Thank you” on air.
  • The announcers take priority over everything that happens. It’s the director’s job to give them what they need.
  • He got his start in 1979 when he was working for WOR and asked if he could be the assistant director on the Mets broadcasts. He got the job because none of his coworkers wanted to drive all the way out to Shea.
  • He is not a Mets fan. Once he starts rooting for the team, he loses his concentration.
  • In 1979, he had 6 cameras. He has 14 cameras at Citi Field and there are 32 at the World Series. “You cannot miss a play.” The extra cameras are just for redundancy.
  • He keeps score during games, so that when the batter is up again he knows what footage to request from previous at-bats in the same game.
  • He isn’t a big fan of in-game graphics, but understands that the audience wants them and that they’re becoming more important, but that in his opinion, they’re just distracting because they take people too long to read.
  • He believes the most difficult camera position to man in the ballpark is high home. Center field is the easiest camera.
  • He can’t watch a game at home without wanting to direct it. Webb nodded to his wife on that answer.
  • His favorite camera was low home but that camera was lost with the advent of the new stadiums. It’s his favorite camera because he could see the pitcher’s eyes. “They say the eyes are the windows of the soul.”
  • Someone asked if he believed in the old adage about how at every game, you always have a chance to see something you’ve never seen before – Webb vehemently agreed. “I’ve never walked out of the truck and said I had a perfect game…. Baseball is omnidirectional… It’s going to bite you right in the ass.”
  • Mentioned both David Wells’ perfect game and David Cone’s perfect game as two of his most memorable ones. Someone then asked how he changed his coverage during a perfect game and he first said that he didn’t, but that he made sure that low 3rd, low 1st and CF cameras were always covering the pitcher so that if he blew it, the pitcher would be facing the camera.
  • Someone asked if there were significant differences in directing a game from park to park. Webb stated that to him, all the ballparks were essentially the same, that there were just little differences in what the ball could do. He was asked later about parks with a very different high home – like DC – and Webb immediately complained: “Isn’t that dreadful?” He says to acclimate himself, he goes to the high home camera and eyeballs the park from there.
  • SNY and impartiality, what happens if Gary, Keith and Ron are criticizing an umpire. “We’re on the side of the announcers,” Webb said, and that their job is to make sure they have the footage to back up the announcers’ assertions.
  • I asked about common misconceptions non-professionals might have about the job that they do. Curt Gowdy Jr. stated that he thought that viewers had become so much more sophisticated because of the quality of the footage, that you just cannot make a mistake. Webb stated that “You think of shots you messed up for the rest of your life.” They both stressed that this work was very high pressure and very demanding and laypeople probably didn’t realize quite how much.
  • Why they work from a truck at Citi Field and not from a control room: because the technology changes so rapidly, and it’s more economical to change out a truck than it is to rebuild a control room.

The bullet points above are not everything that was covered, but they do give you a good feeling for the tenor of the event.

The talk was only an hour long; the questions from the audience had started to fade out or ramble, which is never a good thing. I wish there had been more initial moderated discussion, which could have taken the two gentlemen through the basic questions, and more prompting to get Webb talking more; he’s very concise, and maybe with a little skilled facilitation, he could have elaborated on his answers. I say this only because the hour was riveting and I wish it had lasted longer. I wish someone who understood the jobs that Webb and Gowdy do could get them to expand more on what they do and what kinds of things fans would want to know about. I would have liked more amusing Gary, Keith and Ron (and Ralph, and Kevin, who did get a shoutout) stories. I would have liked to have heard about what it was like to direct a World Series game with 32 cameras. I would have liked to have seen more footage and more examples that Webb could have talked to. Again, I mention in all of these things only because it was a great event with a ton of potential.

The event was sparsely attended; I get that not many people want to schlep out to Astoria on a Tuesday night. It was also pricey: $20 for this event – on a weeknight when most people aren’t going to have time to get there early to view the museum enough to make it worthwhile – was a little steep, in my opinion, and kept more than a few baseball fans away. But from a content perspective, a highly informative hour for any baseball fan.

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