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Johnny Damon the myth of sports news

Local news on TV gets a scant few minutes of coverage, where the story of the day vies with weather to edge out everything else that isn’t fluff. In national news, interviewees can seldom get an answer in edgewise before they’re rushed off for the commercial break. “That’s all the time we have” ends every news story, yet the day’s sports story is paraded before sport desk after sport center. I used to envy the attention Americans gave to sports, until I saw the scrutiny was illusory. For example, Johnny Damon’s double stolen base in game four of the World Series.

It may stand as the most memorable moment of the series, giving Sunday’s game to the Yankees. Damon beat a tag out at second, but continued running because the ball was behind him and there was no adversary guarding third.

As I write, I already remind myself of the SNL skit about Norwegians staging their own translation of an American TV crime show. In the spirit of being an outsider I’d like to add that Fox Sports has chosen unfortunate replay graphics, featuring stars bursting from the center of the screen. Most cutaways leave closeups of baseball players, almost all of them chewing and spitting. The graphics seem to erupt from their mouths.

The fact that no one was on third wasn’t immediately clear to the television audience, for whom third base was out of camera frame. I thought for a minute I was spectating a Playstation game, where a specialist I know can always rundown the pickle, but Damon strode unchallenged to the abandoned base. None had seen such a thing before, such was the hyperbole. With what looked like impulsive genius, Damon confounded fans and critics who’d been comfortable to agree with Damon’s own self-deprecating image as a dumb jock.

Johnny Damon’s stolen third base was the talk of the post play-by-play. It turns out the Phillies had made a Mark Teixeira shift which left the base exposed. The very semantics offer a clue to the real story, but the jocks dropped it there.

The final analysis for the viewers? I’ll put it in layman’s terms: the Phillies had shifted their players in anticipation of batter Mark Teixeira, who hits to a very consistent hole in the outfield. The shift left the Phillies third baseman to cover second, and the pitcher, if warranted, to watch third. But the pitcher wasn’t watching, and as Damon passed the third baseman on second base, he calculated that he could outrun both of them to the empty base.

Great story, no one is credited an error, New York shorn Johnny Damon emerges a strategist, and the authenticity of the surprise of adrenalin rush which Damon gave the viewers is affirmed. But might not the media team calling the game have served the audience better if they’d called the Phillies’ unusual position shift? The sportcasters deserve the error on this play, but mostly I think for their lack of post game candor.

Both infield and outfield players shift their positions depending on who’s at bat. That’s not news. Apparently when Yankees Mark Teixeira comes up to bat, the adjustment is out of the ordinary. And probably that too doesn’t merit mention. No doubt every team playing against the NY Yankees coordinates itself differently. But can we not surmise that Yankee runners who find themselves on base when Teixeira is hitting, are looking for exactly the opening which Damon took? And if the Yankees batting lineup is fairly consistent, would it seem probable that this opportunity regularly falls to Damon?

It takes nothing away from Damon’s feat, but I think to read his action on second base as improvisational is to pretend the World Series baseball audience was born on game three.

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