Notes from the DBAP: The Press Box as Flight Deck | Sports

Notes from the DBAP: The Press Box as Flight Deck

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When I was blogging sporadically about the Bulls last year, I sat in the stands even after I got my Media Pass. I like sitting in the stands, not only for the open air but for the proximity to the field. Last night, though, I watched the game from the press box. I intended to move into the stands after a few innings, but the press box was an interesting place to be yesterday.

There was general buzz about David Price's first start of 2009, and I wanted to be around it. Also, I've spent very little time in press boxes, and given that I'm planning to write a fair amount about the Bulls this season, I figured it made sense to get comfortable where the pros spend their time.

The term "press box" is a bit of a misnomer at the DBAP. On my right sat Mike Potter of the Durham Herald-Sun; at my left, however, was not another journalist but Bulls' employee Dave Levine. Levine's title is "Total Cast Operator," the exact meaning of which Levine himself couldn't quite explain. Levine spends the game entering each and every play (including every pitch) into an application on his computer. The play is transmitted via the Internet to a New York office, where apparently there is another guy watching a live feed of the ballgame (plus, Levine thought, a few others) in order to verify that the data Levine sends him is correct. Then that data is turned into a gamecast which you can follow, pitch by pitch, on the Minor League Baseball Web site.

Levine is a Duke sophomore, double-majoring in sociology and economics. I would bet that the unwavering and total focus he must commit to tracking and recording every single pitch of every single Bulls home game requires far more of his mental energy than any of his studies at Duke do. A couple of times, he had to consult me—a bit nervously—when he missed the outcome of a pitch. And after each starting pitcher was pulled, we compared pitch counts. (We agreed on Price, but diverged on Norfolk starter Chris Waters by three pitches. We went with Levine's figure.)

Next to Levine sat the official scorer, to whom I didn't have a chance to introduce myself, partially because he, like Levine, is tracking everything on the field closely. He not only makes scoring decisions (hit/error, wild pitch/passed ball), but illuminates the strike/ball lights on the scoreboard. He hasn't got time for much idle chat. When he has to make a judgment call, he watches the replay on a tiny black-and-white monitor before issuing a decision.

The reason that these two important Bulls cogs are stuck in the press box is that there isn't room for them in the adjacent broadcast booth, which houses not just the radio announcer but the Bulls' PA man and the video operators (and an imposing tower of technology that handles sound and image transmission). A sliding glass window allows "us" to talk to "them," which happens often.

The main connector between these two worlds is Matt DeMargel, the Bulls' genial and outgoing Director of Media Relations. But this title doesn't begin to describe DeMargel's duties during the game. There was a comically busy sequence last night that illustrated the sort of versatility and attentiveness DeMargel has to deploy:

The phone directly in front of me rang in the bottom of the fourth inning, not long after Price had been lifted from the game. I wasn't about to answer it, and Dave Levine regarded it as though it was someone else's crying infant: concerned and sympathetic, but not about to touch it without permission. From the adjacent booth, DeMargel instructed Levine to answer. It turned out to be the Major League Baseball offices in New York, who wanted information about Price's performance. Levine tried to keep an eye on the game while he took down the 212 area code and number; a moment later, he passed it on to DeMargel, who would later give it to David Price.

Not long after that, another phone rang, this one in front of Mike Potter of the Herald-Sun. Potter answered—strangely, the press box phones have no official administrator—and it turned out to be Buster Olney, the ESPN analyst. (Olney's excellent book, The Last Night of Yankee Dynasty, uses Game Seven of the 2001 World Series to look closely at how the most recent Bronx Bombers' Golden Age rose and fell. Olney's prescience continues, eight years later: the Yankees haven't won a championship since. You can also read this much briefer account of what it was like to watch that game from the world's most populous Muslim nation less than two months after 9/11.)

Potter gave the phone to DeMargel, who told Olney that of course he could interview Price for ESPN's Baseball Tonight program, although some way around the scheduled postgame autograph signing would have be found. Still, this was Buster Olney: If children clamoring for signatures had to be forcibly kept away from Price so Olney could interview him, so be it. ("What Buster wants, Buster gets," someone murmured. He got it last night.)

Not long after this exchange, DeMargel was looking down at the field between innings. The mid-frame sideshow was a game where a kid tries to toss beanbags (or something) into three buckets lined up at intervals along the third base line. DeMargel suddenly whipped out his walkie-talkie: "Straighten out the buckets!" he ordered. They were out of alignment. On the field, someone straightened them out.

A little later on, the Diamond Vision showed a replay of the play that had just happened. When it ended, the live feed came on in its place, creating a bizarre metavisual disconnect. DeMargel pounced on the oversight after just a second or two, quickly alerting the board operator, who cut to the lineup and statistics graphic.

It was then that it became clear that a Bulls game is very much like a complicated commercial flight, and DeMargel is its pilot. He maintains his poise and his good humor no matter the situation, and he heads off potential problems at the pass. (Late in the game, he instructed the PA announcer to wait until the very end to announce the autograph opportunity, so that the large crowd wouldn't clog the area near the Bulls dugout.) The press box is, by extension, the cockpit, and we in it are all playing some role in flying the DBAP jumbojet. From data managers like Levine and the official scorer to analysts like Mike Potter—constantly updating and altering his game story as the evening evolves—to video and sound guys endlessly adjusting the ambient details, everyone's operating some control or other and keeping the plane aloft.

The fans, of course, are the passengers, and much is done to keep them rather opiated, largely by encouraging them to focus on anything but the game itself. Just as passengers are distracted from the anxieties and boredom of air travel by food, video, magazines and other blandishments, fans at the DBAP are virtually besieged by shiny things and loud happy noises that help conceal the alternating sequences of crises and longueurs peculiar to the game of baseball: flight attendants become vendors and disembodied, miked voices, the Diamond Vision is the in-flight movie, starchy food is always at hand, Wool E. Bull makes his appearances and souvenir t-shirts are hurled into the crowd; and so on. (Surely the Bulls marketing people are quite aware that a large portion of its clientele isn't really there for the baseball at all, but rather for the fun and funnel cakes.) The environment in the stands is in sharp contrast to that of the businesslike, entertainment-free press box, where the only distraction is the complimentary food recumbent and crusting in steam trays behind us.

The air travel analogy extends to the game itself, which is essentially just the weather to which the folks in the cockpit are constantly reacting. In this sense, the ballgame is something close to a nuisance, a disruptive meteorological flux that forces the flight crew to change course and estimated arrival times every few minutes. Example: In the bottom of the eighth inning last night, the Bulls scored three runs to put the game more or less out of reach, and a sudden swell of that's-a-wrap energy rose in the press box. The bases were loaded with one out, but even the Bulls employees around me started grumbling: they wanted to finish their work and go home, not (as you might expect) watch their team pile on triumphant but extraneous runs in the rapidly chilling night. "Ground into a double play," someone muttered, eliciting agreement from others around him. Compliantly, Michel Hernandez did exactly that, and there was general relief all around. The ninth-inning descent and landing went quickly and smoothly (Bulls closer Dale Thayer struck out the last two Tides), and we all deplaned and headed home.

If you're going to the game today, be sure to keep your seat belt fastened while in your seat stay alert for foul balls, and remember that smoking is forbidden anywhere on board the aircraft only allowed outside the ballpark itself. Once we've reached cruising altitude... well, I think you get the picture. Above all, have fun!

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