Baseball Highlights: Aesthetics and Context

Over at ESPN.com, Sam Miller recently wrote an article entitled “Dig the long ball? Here’s why home run highlight videos are the worst”. Clickbait title aside, Miller’s article has some solid points about why home runs might not make for the best highlight reels. I especially like how he draws attention to the hard cut which invariably comes when broadcasting a home run, breaking the flow of what is really a continuous action. (Compare that to a defensive highlight, where the cut serves as an act break: the batter makes the contact, then the fielder catches it.)

But the part which most caught my attention was the following passage about the various home run highlights that Twitter users named as their favorites:

Most of these votes were for home runs that were memorable only in context. More than half were postseason homers, and a healthy share were walk-offs in either the postseason or the regular season. I can’t decide what to do with these. On the one hand, they’re memorable highlights, even career defining highlights, and home runs are the best thing a batter can do. On the other, the joy that these voters feel toward these home runs is mostly detached from the actual video of the thing. It’s more about the line on the play log: “David Freese: Home Run (Fly ball).” The significant point was that the home run happened, not why it happened or how it happened or what it looked like.

Miller leans toward drawing a distinction between what we might think of as a highlight’s aesthetic value (which comes from the play itself) and its historical value (which is dependent on the context in which the play occurred). I happen to share this perspective, in part to keep my own biases as a sports fan in check. Sure, a diving catch is more meaningful when it comes in 2-2 nail-biter in the bottom of the ninth, rather than a 10-0 blowout in the top of the fourth. But if we’re deprived of said context, as in a montage of web gems, I think we’d be right to say both catches are aesthetically equivalent.

To make this discussion more concrete, let’s take one particular highlight as an example: Aaron Boone’s home run on October 16, 2003:

In terms of aesthetic value, this home run’s alright. It’s not hit especially deep, but that arc toward the left field foul pole is lovely. And the way Boone pounces on the pitch is a nice touch. But on its own, nothing too special. Home runs like that are fairly common.

Add in the historical value, though, and it becomes a lot more interesting. There is of course the macro-level context: it won not only a postseason game but also a series, in a match-up between two of the league’s biggest rivals, after the Yankees had overcome a 5-2 deficit in the eighth to force extra innings. But there’s also the micro-level: Aaron Boone of all people takes knuckleballer Tim Wakefield’s first pitch of the inning out of the ballpark. Now there’s an unexpected development. There’s a highlight worth replaying.

(For me, there’s also the personal value: I was a ten-year-old Yankees fan, whose brother was an eight-year-old Red Sox fan. The joy and schadenfreude that home run gave me then is incalculable.)

Of course, delineating what is intrinsic to the play and what is merely context is a bit tricky. Are the identities of the players properly part of the play, or not? The teams involved? I bring up these potential ambiguities because Miller’s proposed saving grace of home run highlights is, for me, in such a gray zone: reaction shots.

Think of the most iconic home runs in baseball history, like Carlton Fisk’s World Series walk-off in 1975, or Kirk Gibson’s in 1988. Even more than the home runs, we remember their reactions: Fisk waving the ball fair, Gibson pumping his arm as he hobbles around second. There’s drama in how they react, in that seemingly endless moment of uncertainty or the ecstasy of an unexpected triumph. It’s what elevates the moment from highlight to theater. Not the deepest theater, admittedly, but theater nonetheless.

Or, to use Miller’s own examples, take home runs in which the batter’s teammates or opponents just gape in awe at the blasts. This is theater of another kind: seeing that even professional ball-players, people for whom the home run is routine occurrence, can still be amazed by what they see. Such reactions go a long way in selling a particular home run as a real highlight.

And let’s not forget the commentators! After all, you can’t think of Bobby Thomson without hearing, “The Giants win the pennant!” Even when the commentary itself isn’t memorable, the emotion can carry the clip. In the Aaron Boone highlight, hearing Joe Buck transition from staid reportage to excited home run call mid-sentence just underscores the surprise of Boone’s game-winner.

(Slight tangent: the importance of reactions also applies to web gems, which Miller believes make for generally better highlight fodder. Going back to the article: take the GIF of José Fernández casually snatching Troy Tulowitzki’s line drive out of the air. Technically impressive, yes. But imagine it without the footage of Tulowitzki just stopping, bat in his hands, dead in his tracks, as Fernández nods and grins. For me, such a highlight would lose a lot of its charm.)

But back to the question: are reactions shots part of the play, or just more context? Should we understand them as having aesthetic value, or historical value? I think it depends. The reactions of other players seem like clear cases of the latter case, in that they have as much impact on the run of play as my reactions at home would. The source of those reactions might have a unique perspective, but in that sense they more resemble theater critics than actors.

As for cases like Fisk’s and Gibson’s, I’m genuinely unsure. They are simultaneously performing and commenting on an act of athleticism, which seems to put it in both categories at the same time.

What do you think? Are reactions to a play part of its aesthetic value, or just its historical value? Is that value distinction even the right one to make?

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