Dialing it down

Steve Simmons, Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 11:32 PM ET

Dan Shulman grew up like a lot of us did, addicted to radio.

It was his, and our, introduction to baseball. There wasn’t enough television back then. Not enough games, not enough channels.

And before he was a baseball announcer, he was a lifeguard. The highlight came in his fourth summer on the job: He became the supervising lifeguard.

“When you were in charge, you got to control the radio,” Shulman said Wednesday. “It meant, the baseball game was always going to be on ... In those days, if you were a diehard baseball guy, you got maybe two games a week on television. That meant you listened to the radio five days out of every seven. Radio was your lifeline to the baseball team.”

Shulman’s first full-time radio job came at CKBB in Barrie. He worked the 3-11 p.m., shift but still lived in Toronto.

“Every night, I would drive home between 11 and 12 and listen to KMOX in St. Louis. I’d usually get the last inning or so. And even if the signal didn’t come in clearly, I would take a crackly baseball game over my favourite song. It helped me get through the drive.”

Why does any of this matter now? It matters because Ernie Harwell has passed away. It matters because so many of us grew up on baseball by listening to our radios, by hearing Harwell in Detroit or Jack Buck in St. Louis or any of the legends and they became part of our lives, voices as familiar as friends.

As the tributes for the late Harwell continue to pour in —and really, you couldn’t have met a finer man — a broader question is certainly worth exploring: Has the magic of baseball on radio died long before the famed Detroit Tigers’ announcer passed away?

Shulman, for one, knows that it has changed.

“When I was 16 years old, baseball on television was Wednesday night, a national game of the week on Saturday and maybe a game on Sunday,” the famed Canadian announcer said. “Now, if you have the digital package, you can get 15 games a night, every night. You can get every hockey game, every football game, and add to that the Internet, Nintendo, XBox, Wii. The attraction to your team isn’t the same. Now, if you don’t want to watch your team, you change channels.”

Which means what for the relationship between radio announcer and fan?

“It’s still there, but it’s not the same,” said Shulman. “Baseball lends itself to radio more than any other sport. You can tell the story, paint the pictures. The nice thing about baseball on the radio is, you can mow the lawn and listen, you can barbecue and listen, you can be outside sunning, or just sitting in your car.

“The game is helping you get back from the cottage or the in-laws or wherever, and there’s an intimacy between listener and broadcaster in baseball that doesn’t exist in any other sport.”

To many, the death of Ernie Harwell felt like a death in the family. Even if you didn’t know him, you knew him. The way people in Toronto knew Tom Cheek. A guest in our home who became so comfortable he was like part of the furniture.

“When I think of the Mount Rushmore of baseball broadcasters, it’s Vin Scully, Harry Caray, Jack Buck and Ernie Harwell,” said Shulman. “And that’s not a slight to anyone who isn’t on that list. For longevity, popularity, they became synonymous with baseball, synonymous as the voices of the Dodgers, Cubs, Cardinals or Tigers.”

Shulman grew up listening to Jays’ games.

“I’ve met famous athletes in every sport but the most nervous I’ve ever been was meeting Tom Cheek,” he said.

“I loved the guy. I was 10 years old when the Jays came in. I figure I listened to him call 2,000 games. He was the constant throughout that time. And when I met him, he was so nice. It made it a lot easier.”

My kids, both in their 20s, are baseball fans. They don’t listen much to ball games on radio. They watch them on television or on their computers. They follow, pitch-by-pitch, on the Web. They don’t feel for Jerry Howarth and Alan Ashby the way people felt for Cheek. They don’t scan radio dials for other games: They scroll on their BlackBerrys for out-of-town scores. This is the new world, not necessarily a better world.

Baseball lost a treasure in Ernie Harwell, but long before that, it sadly lost that radio magic.

steve.simmons@sunmedia.ca

http://twitter.com/simmonssteve


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