In a perfect world, sportscasters would get long leisurely looks at the highlights they use in their live broadcasts. They’d get to rehearse a few times, using their own verbiage to describe a sweet double play or a long touchdown run.
But in the real world, there are times when sportscasters don’t get to view the video prior to a broadcast. Imagine trying to look pleasant, sound authoritative and knowledgeable, and having to describe a previously-unseen set of highlights, while someone is yelling in your ear. Now, try to do it when the highlights are poorly written.
At ESPN, there was a group of workers called PAs: production assistants who spent almost all their time observing games and picking plays for SportsCenter broadcasts. I’m sure to rabid sports fans the gig sounds like having one foot in heaven. A PA would be assigned a game, they’d sit back, watch, and pick three or four highlights. All they had to do was get the plays edited and write a script explaining what was happening in the shots they chose. A final score would then be added. That was it.
Generally, the PAs would appear at the anchor’s newsroom desk before the show and hand over their version of the script. I would always go view the video, make my own additions to the copy, and thank the PA. Beautiful.
However, sometimes there were late games that were still in progress during the SportsCenter broadcast. It was one of these contests and a subsequent set of highlights I received that got me into a bit of a pickle.
One evening, a sheet of game highlights was slipped onto my desk just as the crimson camera light blinked on. I smiled and read the intro. Then, as the video rolled, I eyed the script with my left eye and focused on my desk monitor with my right. (Not really, but it sort of feels that way.) And there it was, a screaming line drive hit into the first row seats, beaning a spectator squarely on the noggin. I read the script and immediately knew there’d been a mistake. The copy read that the fan had been hit by a foul tip. I knew this was impossible, but the next play quickly appeared and I had no time to right the wrong.
It wouldn’t be until the postmortem – the meeting that followed each show, a time during which errors were discussed by everyone involved in the broadcast – that I would get the chance to point out the obvious problem.
“Rich,” I said to the PA, who like all of his ilk was just out of college, sans any previous TV experience, and while they were sometimes treated like slave labor, were willing to do almost anything to get into the business. “Here,” I said, pushing the highlight sheet across the conference table. “Look at the first play.”
“The one where the guy gets hit with the foul tip?” He asked without looking at the page.
“That’s the one.” I smiled. “You don’t want to do that again.”
“Do what?” Rich squinted.
PAs lived in fear of making a mistake, knowing there was a long list of kids who’d do anything to get into ESPN. They worked without contracts for so little pay three or four of them often rented tiny apartments together, and they could be terminated without cause. Still, they lined up in droves to work at the network.
“It wasn’t a foul tip that hit the guy, Rich. It was a foul ball.”
“What’s the difference? The producer asked, palms up.
I looked around the table, finding it odd that no one else seemed to understand. “A foul ball is one that goes out of the playing area in foul territory. It’s a dead ball. Nothing can happen on the field. A foul tip, however, is a ball that generally goes directly from the bat to the catcher’s glove and is legally caught. A foul tip is always a strike and, unlike a foul ball, can result in strike three.”
“So?” Rich said defensively.
“A foul tip is a live ball.” I paused, waiting to see the light bulbs go off in the brains of my SportsCenter peers, but they just stared at me. “If there are runners on base, they can steal at their own risk,” I went on. “That makes it impossible for a fan to be hit with a foul tip. It was a foul ball.”
“It’s the same thing,” Rich insisted.
“No, it’s not.”
“Why do you care?” The PA said, sounding petulant now. “No one else does.”
I looked around the room. None of the other members of the crew had chimed in. Generally, in these meetings, everyone had an opinion and no one was timid about sharing.
“I care, Rich. I’m an umpire. And there are people out there who know that. It embarrasses me to make that kind of mistake.”
Rich’s face turned bright red. “You’re just being a picky bitch!” Then he got up and left the room.
The next day, I was called into my boss’s office. He had been apprised of my comments and insisted that I apologize to Rich.
“But he was wrong,” I said. “I never raised my voice or got defensive. I simply explained that he’d made a mistake.”
My boss was unswayed. That the young PA called me a bitch did not seem to matter. I was forced to apologize.
And all these years later, it still rankles.
Amphorae Publishing Group
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