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The Strawberry Shadow

Watching TV through Met-colored glasses so you don’t have to…

In the 1979-80 season of The White Shadow, situated at a fictional ghetto high school in Los Angeles (and delved into on DVD over yet another baseball-starved weekend), members of the Carver basketball team said they were headed to “Crenshaw” to watch the cheerleaders practice, heh-heh. If they had made it there, they may have very well run into 17-year-old Darryl Strawberry, then a senior at the very real Crenshaw High School. Theoretically, Darryl Strawberry could have been posting Warren Coolidge up under the backboards before any of us knew who he was.

But it was the Christmas episode and there were trees to trim and parties to plan and so forth, because on television, high school students obsess on Christmas for days in advance. In other words, no Crenshaw, no Darryl, no Mets at all, not even a dig that “man, Richie Hebner could have buried that jumper.”

Sadly, in that same Crenshaw Christmas episode, Coach Ken Reeves, a retired Chicago Bull made memorable by Ken Howard, wore a Cubs cap while recent transfer student Nick Vitaglia — Salami’s cousin from New York (because the show apparently needed another over-the-top Italian kid playing hoops in the vicinity of South Central) — showcased his uncouthness with the wrong NY headgear to say nothing of a grating accent. You weren’t going to find a lot of Metswear in 1979 New York, why should you expect to stumble upon it in L.A.?

The only Met mention I can recall on any installment of The White Shadow came in a two-parter when the coach visited his alcoholic/dying father in Bayside. Portrayed by James Whitmore, the crotchety dad, an avowed Yankees fan (no wonder YES has been showing it lately), was so desperate to avoid chatting up his son in some Queens restaurant, that he went out to the car to “listen to the Mets game on the radio,” a.k.a. choosing Steve Albert’s play-by-play over his son’s reluctant company. That was in the astoundingly crappy third season, not available on video (just like that night’s Mets game, apparently). Mickey Mantle made a cameo, smiling just long enough for Whitmore to screw up his courage and tell him “you’re my biggest fan.” Whitmore dies anyway.

I liked The White Shadow a lot in its prime, the two years that coincided exactly with tenth and eleventh grades for me. The first season came out on DVD in 2005 and its mix of Afterschool Special earnestness, well meaning if kinda clueless topicality and sports — especially sports — was a big kick all over again. Every week, we’d find a Carver regular had a “real” problem (venereal disease, drugs, gambling) or a new transfer to the team was gay/unnecessarily militant/autistic. Either way, Coach Reeves would provide lighthearted, world-weary, fish-out-of-water guidance and we’d all learn a valuable lesson about ourselves. It was Lou Grant with training wheels.

Rewatching season one was fun. The second season, however, proves the memory can be selective, for I don’t remember the episodes being so, well, boring. I never realized how incredibly lengthy shows were in those days. An hourlong show when it aired on CBS, the average WS runs 48 minutes on disc, six minutes longer than The West Wing [1], for comparison’s sake.

It’s a huge difference. There’s lots of driving across town, lots of pointless chit-chat leading up to the unsurprising plot twist, lots of basketball drills. TV is so much faster now, literally and mentally. I took the Shadow down from the shelf after getting hooked on another socially conscious, high school athletics-centered show, Friday Night Lights. The football-obsessed hamlet of Dillon, Texas can endure eight crises, solve six, create five more and make the playoffs in the time it takes Thorpe to bring the ball up court and pass it to Heyward. Friday Night Lights could go three hours and never feel boring.

But FNL has never, even accidentally, evoked Darryl Strawberry, so score one for Carver High.
Also, for what it’s worth (admittedly not much if there were an actual game on right now), the sitcom writer and baseball broadcaster Ken Levine [2] recently recounted his experiences directing the late-’90s Al Franken vehicle Lateline, a sitcom set behind the scenes at a Nightline-type show (if you hadn’t guessed by the title). It was shot in Astoria, a factor he considered an imposition to the creative style of the series:

There aren’t too many multi-camera shows filmed in New York. So there aren’t a lot of cameramen familiar with the form. Of our four cameramen, two primarily covered Mets games on Channel 9. If a character reached for a phone they zoomed in on his hand. I had to tell them, this was an actor not a shortstop.

Rey Ordoñez, on the other hand, was a fielder, not a hitter. And something of a bad actor.