Years ago, I was driving through the night with some unfortunate passenger, on a road trip that was passing through northern North Carolina or southern Virginia or some similar locale. The description of the passenger has to do with the fact that we were listening to the Mets, and in this analog, pre-At Bat era we were out of radio range.
I refused to stop listening, even though the static was rising to painful peaks and atmospheric wow and flutter were killing two out of three words. When a protest was lodged, I insisted I could follow what was going on, and when that was met by doubt I proved it. No, I couldn’t follow the nuances of each play, or even differentiate between, say, a single and a batter being safe on an error. But I knew if a batter had reached, if an out had been made, if a run had scored.
It wasn’t the words so much as it was the rhythms and pitch of the announcer’s voice — back then it was either Bob Murphy and Gary Cohen or Gary and Howie Rose. Higher and faster narration meant something potentially big was happening; lower and slower was routine. That primed me to hunt for clues, and a third of the words were enough to fill in the rest of what had happened.
I didn’t have better ears than my passenger, just a lot more experience: I’d listened to the Mets so many times that I had an extensive library of calls committed to whatever shadowy part of memory handles pattern-matching. That part of my brain was pretty good at recognizing the sound signature of a single, a double up the gap, a home run, a routine fly, a managerial dispute and most every other ballgame component.
Last night I realized I can do the same thing with a televised game. We’re back on Long Beach Island for our annual week of sun, surf and sand, and game time found me out on the porch, eating dinner with family and our friends. I had recap duty, but I decided I could probably handle that by having one of the little bedroom TVs on about 10 feet away from where I was sitting. I couldn’t hear the game, and the TV was a small square, but I could see and thought that would be enough.
I could have guessed this, but baseball has a visual library too, one you can recognize at a glance if you’ve seen your share of games. Mostly you’re looking at the pitcher’s back and the reactions of whoever’s just been involved in events. Pattern-matching, though, depends on a small slice of the game: the important sequences are the transitions between the behind-the-pitcher shot and whatever’s next. If the shot switches to the infeld and someone’s vaguely hunched, you’ve got a routine grounder. If the shot jumps to half the outfield and folks are standing still, you’ve got a lazy fly. If the first thing you see after the pitcher’s back is the entire outfield and someone running, you pay attention.
With the Mets, that last shot was happily common. I couldn’t reliably see the ball, but I got used to seeing the full panorama of Citi Field’s outfield (such as its architectural missteps allow) and a Phillie hurrying to a location he wasn’t going to reach. I saw Asdrubal Cabrera  erase a brief-lived Philadelphia lead, and Kelly Johnson  put the game out of reach by launching a ball to the shoals of the 7 Line’s orange sea, and Neil Walker  add to the festivities.
And I saw Yoenis Cespedes  threaten my fellow al fresco diners of the Acela Club. That was fun, even peering through the New Jersey night. First there was a whole lot of Jeremy Hellickson ‘s back and Cespedes lashing at balls, followed by the things Cespedes does to reset himself: a little stutter-step away from the point of contact, then a knock of the bat on each heel — bap, bap — before digging back in and cocking a reloaded bat, (By now I’ve got a Cespedes visual library too.) Cespy even lost a bat and nearly beheaded Noah Syndergaard , to add a little variety. At the end of the at-bat came contact, and the SNY cameras pulling way back, tracking fast enough that the left-fielder was blurry, then climbing hastily so that the outfield wasn’t visible at all, just the upper reaches of the foul pole.
Good lord did that get smacked, I thought, and then leaned forward, trying to figure out if it had been fair or foul. Half of a video board’s message told me the good news, changing from 91 MPH FASTBALL to ME RUN. Which meant Cespedes didn’t have to run but could trot.
The routine shots brought good news too: I saw plenty of shots of Syndergaard’s back that needed no transition, because Philadelphia batters wouldn’t be concerning themselves with the bases. I saw glum Phillie get-togethers on the mound. I saw fans waving and yelling happily. I saw Met helmets getting ceremonially snatched off heads. I saw a rout , and that’s fun to witness, even if it’s at a slight remove.