The Rapture of Listening to a Fake Baseball Game

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The Rapture of Listening to a Fake Baseball Game


Even though I know that there’s no cure for insomnia, the same part of my brain that believes the polar bears might be O.K. in the end keeps me trawling the Web for miracles. Recently, bleary-eyed, I stumbled across “Northwoods Baseball Sleep Radio,” a podcast from the mysteriously monikered “Mr. King,” a humorist in Chicago. (On Spotify, Philip T. Hunter, Corrbette Pasko, and Beth King are listed as the show’s co-producers.) Episodes, which run around two hours, are full-length fake baseball games. The players have names like Lefty Thorn and Hiroki Nomo, and the fictitious sports commentator Wally McCarthy narrates their progress through a gently interminable, pleasingly varied dance of strikes, balls, and hits. It’s minor-league elevator music, honeyed with a small-town nostalgia. Pauses are filled by the crowd’s muted cheers, and, every few minutes, a man with the voice of a relaxed, grandfatherly robot reads ad spots for made-up businesses—Ted’s Fishing World, Big Tom’s Shoe Repair—over the faded brightness of Muzak.

I had come to the podcast as an insomniac, but I was intrigued as a consumer of weird texts. On the show’s Web site, www.sleepbaseball.com, you can browse sweet, possibly fake testimonials (“This takes me right back to those hot lazy Chicago summers of my youth, dad turning on the Cubs game in the Chevy Nova, while I dozed off, a fish in the sound-waters of baseball”) or subscribe to “Wally’s World,” an “infrequent and possibly entertaining newsletter.” A brief description of the podcast promises no yelling and “no weird volume spikes”—a hazard if you’re trying to fall asleep to the actual Cubs. The site also stipulates the existence of a genre, “baseball radio A.S.M.R.,” for which it suggests a slogan: “You don’t listen to it, you listen through it.”

I was puzzled, and beguiled. It’s true that no other sport carves up time quite like baseball. In a 1973 essay, Philip Roth discussed the game’s “longueurs,” “spaciousness,” and “peculiarly hypnotic tedium.” Mr. King goes farther, stripping his subject of everything but rhythm—pitches and swings, runs and outs, inning after inning. Athletes inch around the bases like light across a sundial. Time—how it’s apportioned, and the inner experience of it—seems to be the show’s main character. The series could be a sendup of Americana, the aesthetic’s essential boringness, or a love note to memory, with the hazy, preserved glow of a scene unburied from childhood. There is, too, the story of an audio landscape in which creators of white-noise podcasts can earn as much as eighteen thousand dollars per month. Baseball A.S.M.R. shares source code with ambient TV, chill-core playlists, and the sort of gauzily frictionless Internet content that you only half notice you’re looking at. The popularity of such products shouldn’t surprise us. Modern bandwidths swarm with stimuli; in this context, culture that aspires to deflect attention can scan as wholesome, benevolent, even virtuous.

Yet, as tempting as it is to sweep “Northwoods” into a broader trend, the podcast also feels sui generis. I’ve sweated bullets through my share of relaxation content. A lot of it bears the traces of market logic—let’s trundle you off to sleep, so that you can be shiny and productive tomorrow! “Northwoods,” by contrast, doesn’t seem optimized for anything—even if listening produces an agreeably lobotomized sensation. A palpable care and attention to detail ignites the league, softly, with life, or at least with a sense of autonomous purpose. Even the newsletter carries this hint of surplus. “Wally’s World” exists to alert subscribers when new episodes have dropped. But a recent edition also included a koanlike statement from the pitcher Hiroki Nomo: “I am melting snow, washing myself of myself.” The author of the newsletter writes that the quote makes him feel “kind of tingly and a bit freaked out!”—a fair response, incidentally, to the entire “Northwoods” experience, in which a ballgame’s sunstruck torpor never seems far from the somnolence of the dead.

That the show evidently means to function as art only intensifies its oddness. Some fiction podcasts ape true crime, borrowing that genre’s structure and tropes in order to achieve a suspenseful gravitas. There are fake documentary series and fake therapy series, which serve up the pleasures of their real-life counterparts—intimacy, conflict, drama—minus the inconvenience of the events needing to have actually happened. But what do you get when you subtract the reportage from a baseball broadcast? Something like a phone book full of invented names; something like rainfall statistics for a C.G.I. town. The more you think about the “Northwoods” league, the more mind-bending its inquiries appear: into realism, into data, into form itself.

Still, an analysis from three thousand feet can’t capture the full headiness of the show. To access its dark magic, I listened to all (O.K., most) of its roughly nine hours of soporific droning. Non-spoilers ahead: in the first installment, the Big Rapids Timbers took on the Cadillac Cars at Foghorn Field. Led by the pitcher Blinky Malone—“not known as a fast worker”—Cadillac won, 6–4. Next, the Cars faced off against the Manistee Eagles at Sam Nolan Field. I could not tell you the final outcome, but at one point the score was 18–2, which was shocking, because when had the teams made all those runs? In the third episode, the Timbers played the Tomah Tigers at Kitamori Park. I perked up when a P.S.A. came on. “When I was a kid, we did all kinds of crazy things, like stand on our heads and eat a cracker,” a man mumbled sadly. “Later, some of my friends turned to the drugs.” The man introduced himself as Giovanni Gasparro, which is also the name of a notoriously awful Italian painter.

During this particular listening session, I was walking to Nationals Park, in D.C., to catch a flesh-and-blood baseball game. In my earbuds, Wally, the commentator, seemed happily stoned. “It is a perfect night for a ball game,” he said. (It’s always a “perfect night” for a ballgame on “Northwoods Radio,” but the actual weather was lovely—breezy and cool.) I attempted to concentrate on the action, but, as with the previous episodes, it was brutal, like trying to pick up a bar of soap with wet hands. At one point, Wally described the physique of a player named Ernesto Stern: “Ernesto appears to be packing on the pounds a bit. He is poured into that uniform. Well, it happens to the best of us.” Later, a woman subsequently identified as the “famous Wisconsin Dells Kissing Bandit” jumped onto the field and gave chase to the pitcher. (This appears to be a pattern for the league: the Timbers v. Cars game was paused so that officials could remove an errant goat from the diamond.) As the Bandit was escorted away, Wally noted that she “apparently had her eyes on Mr. Nomo, but it was not to be this evening.” The kicker: “She might have had better luck catching up with Ernesto Stern.”

Wow, I marvelled. These jokes are very intricate! They actually seem to reward attention. Yet the show’s best feature remains the pure sonic contentment it delivers. Real or fantastical, baseball commentary unfolds as metered poetry: “IN there for a called STRIKE,” goes the rising question. “It’s OH and ONE,” goes the falling answer. In the nineteen-tens, Robert Frost introduced his theory of “sentence sounds,” which he would gloss as “the brute tones of our human throat that may once have been all our meaning.” Frost asked his audience to imagine two people talking on the other side of a closed door: “Even though the words do not carry, the sound of them does, and the listener can catch the meaning of the conversation.” For baseball, perhaps the better analogy is a staticky broadcast picked up, a few cities over, by an AM radio—an event more likely to occur at night, when the reception is clearer. Mr. King’s games have that Frostian ghostliness, and Wally deploys his voice—wry and untroubled, though it can be a hair reproving (“That’s LOW, for a BALL”)—like an aural pacifier, the syllables undulating like hills. “Northwoods” seems to want to operate as music does, or as Frost believed that some poetry does: expressing emotion while bypassing sense.

But Mr. King doesn’t just uncouple the sound of individual words from their meanings. Severing the cord between Wally’s narration and reality, he places story itself behind a closed door. The games floating down from “Northwood,” gutted both of matter and of fiction’s compensatory adornments, evoke only a bare trace, a shape, of incident. They’re all melting snow, washing characters of themselves, and making listeners feel, if not sleepy, then perhaps a little less real. Some forms can be cradles; they don’t have to hold anything but you. ♦

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