When Vin Scully died, several of the tributes to the broadcasting legend cited lovely memories of trips to the L.A. Coliseum and Dodger Stadium, where among the crowd were hundreds of transistor radios brought from home, piping in his commentary right beside the action. It was the highest compliment those spectators could pay him. “Dodgers fans in the early years in Los Angeles couldn’t believe their eyes, unless they heard it,” a reshared Atlantic piece from Scully’s final season said. “That’s how powerful Vin Scully’s rendering of baseball was. It was better than seeing.”
Two weeks before, in a fit of old-timeyness, I’d gone online (maybe not that old-timey) and bought myself a portable radio to take to the ballpark. Nothing fancy, just a $20 thing about the width and height of a kitchen sponge. It was one of those moments that make being an adult with disposable income feel like a superpower, one of those whims I like to act on and then rationalize after the fact. The radio became more practical the longer I thought about it: The MLB app audio stream is always way behind. I can’t see the movement of the pitches from my favorite seats way out in left-center field. And the play-by-play would make keeping score a little easier, like when the other team has a weird shift on and you can’t tell their second baseman and shortstop apart. Mostly, it just seemed like a fun thing to do. The spiffy little radio, a pair of earphones, my trusty scorebook—what a dreamy ballpark experience.
I sent a photo of my new radio to every baseball fan I know, inviting them all to “check out this guy!!!” My colleagues, who it must be noted are very cruel and unromantic people, called me a “nerd” and “Steve Bartman” upon hearing the plan. But there was no avoiding it: This bespectacled, headphone-wearing baseball fan was, indeed, going Bartman Mode.
The test run took place on a Monday night with a modest crowd and went better than I imagined it could. Like they knew the game would be experienced twice—first with my eyes, and then a split-second later through headphones—the Tigers pummeled the Padres. Though I like the Tigers broadcast very much, I was not quite the Dodger fan in the early years of Los Angeles, craving profundity from the man on the radio. (Vin Scully himself couldn’t wring poetry from a Victor Reyes bloop single.) What I liked best was just cold, hard information: The practical part of me appreciated having someone relay the stats and the injury updates. In the tense seconds of replay review before a hit ruled an off-the-wall double became a grand slam, a comforting voice was in my ear, filling the time, chattering away. It was the best time I’d ever had at a baseball game.
I brought the radio again a couple nights ago, to still fun but less dreamy results. There were more people there this time, and I spent the first inning chatting with a suspicious woman behind me. Only half-satisfied by my answers to her questions—Was I training to be an umpire? Was someone paying me to do this?—she eventually turned back to her husband and told him in a very loud whisper, “She’s paying attention!” The husband nodded. “Yeah,” he said. “I saw.” That I was paying attention felt like the great drawback of Bartman Mode. I don’t mean that paying attention to the Tigers is bad—well, it definitely is—but that for all the laser focus Bartman Mode enabled, it had also left me, in another sense, disengaged. Just as quickly as it transformed electromagnetic waves into “GOT him on the inside corner,” the radio had turned me into a terrible crank.
Suddenly I became hyper-aware of people standing up in front of me, shuffling in and out of their seats during the inning. I was so locked in, paying so much attention to the game, it seemed almost offensive that no one else around me was doing the same. As a guy in my row asked to sneak by me for the millionth time—where is he even going? I’ve been to this place a million times, I know there are only so many places to go!—I thought of that meme with the loner at a party, watching everyone else dance while he stews in the corner. They don’t know I’m going Bartman Mode. I longed for the wait-in-the-tunnel-while-the-puck-is-in-play death glares of the Red Wings ushers down the street. Stop doing the wave, I kept thinking. Stop doing the goddamn wave!
But I don’t like being a crank. Not paying attention is the right of every baseball-goer. It was a sticky summer Friday evening at the ballpark. I’m not sure the Mode of the standers and shufflers was any more sacrilegious than mine. That is what I reminded myself as I let the guy past me one last time and fixed my earphones back in place. It’s fun to tune in—I’ll keep doing it—but tuning out has its merits, too.