EDITOR’S NOTE: This report also appears in this week’s issue of TimeOut Chicago, as part of our weekly web-to-print partnership.
All through summer and into fall, I’ve been bothered by a notion that baseball has lost its grip on the nation, that it’s too slow, too dull for our Internet-addled brains, that it’s a relic from another time, a time when people thought for themselves, carried on coherent conversations, and concentrated for stretches longer than a 30-second Bud Light commercial. Baseball was doomed, I’ve been telling myself, soon to go the way of Tiddlywinks, Atari, and maybe even books.
Then I received an invitation to an opening at the Arts Club of Chicago. It said an artist named Janice Kerbel was presenting an “audio play” called Ballgame (Innings 1-2), which, according to the program, “draws upon meticulously researched data covering 100 years to construct a ‘mathematically average’ baseball game. Extracted from the ambient noise and activity of the field, the soundtrack of this fictional, yet probable, contest becomes unfamiliar and strange.”
Swell, I thought. Someone has found a way to make baseball even duller. But I’m a glutton for punishment, at least where baseball’s concerned, so I checked it out.
At the southern end of a white, brightly lit gallery, a black loudspeaker sits atop a black tripod. A fictional baseball game, being read by an actor, pours forth: “She’s in there, across the belt, strike one called, and we are underway,” the actor says, as the game between two unnamed teams begins.
At first, the sensation is bewildering. There is no crowd noise. No crack of the bat. Yet the rhythms are perfect. There’s a pause after each pitch when a ball is supposedly struck, longer pauses between plays, and longer pauses yet between innings. Baseball has a lot of pauses, I notice.
The artist, Kerbel, is a petite woman in her 40s, dressed all in the black and gray except for a silver ring on the index finger of her right hand. She’s leading a tour of the exhibit and explaining that she likes to take things out of their natural environment and see how they look, how they sound, how they feel. She’s a Canadian living in London who says she knows little about baseball. When her father took her to Blue Jays games as a child, she said, she never followed the action.
I asked her what her work might convey to a sports fan.
“I have no idea,” she said. “I don’t even know any.”
And yet she listened to countless TV and radio broadcasts, going back to the 1930s, and studied baseball statistics enough to qualify for SABR membership. Everything about the game is average, from the score to the number of hits to the number of errors. “Did you know most hit-by-pitches occur in the second inning?” she asked me.
And, so, in the second inning of her game comes this action: “That ball may have hit him. Off he goes to first base! That ball did hit him!”
There’s more poetry in her broadcast than one might get from Ed Farmer, although perhaps not as much as Vin Scully. There’s a subtle touch of romance to it all, and some playfulness, too. What does a game look like that hasn’t happened? How much does it matter if there’s no one to cheer and no one to cheer for?
At first, as I listened to Kerbel’s game without meaning, I thought baseball was even duller than I’d feared.
“Straight down the middle for a strike,” the announcer said. “Ball one, strike one. Took him by surprise.”
My, God, how much time had I wasted on such blather through my rooting years? In what way was this supposedly entertaining?
But as I listened, I soon fell into a pleasant mood. There was a gentle rhythm to the sentences, like poetry, and a familiar language with a magic all its own. It tickled the imagination. It drew me in, or perhaps back, to a comfortable place, a place I wanted to stay.
A silver-haired man, dressed elegantly in a blue blazer and gray slacks, stood listening to Ballgame a few feet from me. A woman in a blue skirt and white turtleneck approached him.
“What is it?” she asked.
“An average baseball game that she scripted,” the silver-haired man said.
“I don’t understand baseball,” the woman in the turtleneck said.
“It’s just idioms,” he said. “A can of corn is a high pop, an easy high pop. Because a can or corn is easy to grab off the shelf at a country store.” He pretended to make an easy catch. “I wasted my youth on this education,” he told her, trying to pry a grin.
She nodded skeptically and fish-eyed the gallery. “It’s definitely not Renoir,” she said.
The man smiled.
“I think we can comfortably say it’s not Renoir,” he said.
I walked away charmed, thinking football would never inspire such a dialogue—not now, not in a hundred years.
Maybe there’s hope for baseball after all. Tell the boys in the MLB marketing department we’ve got a new slogan for them: Hey, it ain’t Renoir.
Janice Kerbel’s exhibition can be seen at the Arts Club of Chicago, 201 E. Ontario St., through Dec. 21.