By Walter Biggins
We were a radio family.
Every dinner during the spring and summer, we listened to Mark Holtz and Eric Nadel announce our beloved, beleaguered Texas Rangers on WBAP-FM. Nadel did play-by-play, a gentle patter of data about pitch counts, on-base percentages, batting stances, and the luscious flavors of Dickey's Barbecue, the allure of Valvoline Motor Oil. He offered up details so vividly, with a quiet but direct singsong voice, that we could sense crisply what the players and coaches were thinking as we served ourselves tacos and guacamole.
Holtz was the Mutt to Nadel's Jeff—the color commentator. While Nadel gave us the mathematics, the thought process, the inner cogitations, Holtz's booming rumble of a voice let us see and taste what was happening on the field. We smelled the grass and the armpit musk and the tobacco-stained dugouts because of Mark Holtz.
Together, Holtz and Nadel gave us every sense of the field we needed. Television was superfluous. We didn't have a TV in the kitchen. On the rare occasions that we watched Rangers games on TV, we muted the television sound and listened instead to Holtz and Nadel. The TV broadcasters couldn't tell a slider from a breaking ball, couldn't pick up on the third-base coach's sign to steal, couldn't really tell a story about what was going on in the infield. They thought the camera did these jobs for them. It did not. The camera records but does not interpret; Holtz and Nadel knew the latter was the baseball announcer's most crucial role. Anyone can see. But not just anyone can tell us why we're seeing what we see, and how that affects what we will see in a few minutes.
In some small way, then, Holtz and Nadel introduced me to the idea of critical thinking—how to imagine a scene and its mindset based on language alone.
They also helped show me the pleasures of adult conversation. Both were deeply articulate. Holtz could do, and often did, play-by-play as well as Nadel. Nadel's voice could carry the rush of excitement and ecstatic surprise as well as Holtz's. Still, they had markedly distinct temperaments, different styles. That alone made for fun chatter. Nadel sometimes disagreed with Holtz on-air, and vice versa, but always amiably. In downtime, they joked about each other, admitted their faults of prognostication. When it came to the game they were announcing, though, I can't recall a time—in a decade of listening—that they stepped on one another's toes. Not one time. Whether they used signs of their own or mere telepathy, their fluid conversation acted, always, as a single, two-timbred voice.
Holtz's famous catchphrase—well, famous in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex, anyway—was “Hello, win column!" He bellowed it after every Rangers victory. Even today, it lights up the scoreboard at the Ballpark in Arlington. My family smiled whenever he shouted it. During the years I listened avidly, from roughly 1985 to 1995, he didn't get to shout it as often as he would have liked. The Texas Rangers of my childhood veered from terrible to mediocre. In the mid-1990s, we had a good hitting squad: Juan Gonzalez, Ruben Sierra, Will Clark in his twilight years, Rusty Greer, Julio Franco and his bizarre batting stance, the superb Ivan Rodriguez. We could always hit. Pitching was another story. If we had a collective ERA under 4.50 or a starter who could last six innings, Rangers fans considered it a miracle. Our bullpen was where four-run leads went to die.
In my adolescence, the Rangers star, oddly, was a pitcher. Nolan Ryan, the aging fastballer with over 5000 strikeouts (and over 2000 walks) and a slow climb to 300 wins (and nearly as many losses) in his career, inspired mania. His ERA with the Rangers, his last team before retirement, was a solid but not brilliant 3.43. His record with us was 51-39—again, respectable but hardly astonishing. But he piled up those strikeouts and threw 100 mph fastballs in his forties, and he grunted theatrically with every pitch. So he got butts in seats; his games were always near-sellouts.
As I said, we were a radio family. We didn't have season tickets, didn't really have the money to attend more than five or six games a season. (We always brought our own hot dogs and Dr. Pepper.) So I heard, rather than saw, Holtz and Nadel call Ryan's seventh no-hitter. Their telling built a great narrative—atmosphere, aroma, architecture, arias of movement and stillness—out of nothing but words and tone. The patter wasn't constant. Instead, they allowed for silence and crowd noise to create background. Every out—and walk; it wasn't a perfect game—was called lovingly. At our dinner table, and later in the living room as I did homework, and even later in bed, we hushed ourselves as Holtz and Nadel told their beautiful story. Tuned to WBAP, I had as good a seat as the skybox holders. That “Hello, win column!" was particularly triumphant.
For a while, I made fun of my mom for muting the TV as Holtz and Nadel called games, but I noticed something that put her in perspective. Going to games in the 1990s, I saw lots of people with cheap portable radios and earbuds in the stands. “What are they listening to?" I asked. “The game's right in front of them." Mom replied: “WBAP. What else?"
On two occasions, I wish I had had a portable radio of my own. There have been 21 perfect games pitched in Major League Baseball history. Given how rarely I got to see pro baseball live, it should be statistically absurd that I've attended one perfect game. I've seen two. On September 30, 1984, the California Angels' Mike Witt threw one against us. I was seven and bored stiff—“Nothing's happening, Mom! Why do we have to stand and clap for the guy who beat us?" On July 28, 1994, our own Kenny Rogers returned the favor to the Angels, and I was old enough to appreciate how lucky I was to be in the stands. Still, Holtz and Nadel's guidance would have improved both games.
My beloved Rangers got to the playoffs for the first time in 1996, surprising even their most avid fans. They got blown out in the first round by the Yankees, surprising no one. Holtz called that series, though he'd left radio for TV by then. On May 22, 1997, he got to cry “Hello, win column!" one last time—the Rangers won his last game as broadcaster. Holtz died of leukemia in September 1997, a month shy of his 52nd birthday.
The man with the low, stentorian rumble of a voice never got the chance to narrate his Rangers through a winning playoff round. Even sadder, we never got to hear him call it. This year, 2010, the Texas Rangers won the AL West commandingly. Mom and Dad scored tickets for the first-round home games, three and four, against the Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays. We beat the Rays at Tampa Bay for games one and two; they slugged us out on our home turf for three and four. I took to muttering, “All we need is one more game, one more game, one more goddamn game." My heart ached to believe but my mouth was already tasting aluminum. Mom and Dad, who saw the struggles and defeats from the stands, probably felt worse.
And suddenly I was muttering my way into Tuesday, October 12, 2010. I only have basic cable on my television, which does not get TBS. KRLD's website didn't stream the game. Instead, I bit my nails and fingertips while staring at ESPN.com's Gamecast, refreshing the screen every 40 seconds. So, I could scroll down text and read that Cliff Lee was pitching a complete game and giving up only a single run. Sure I could. I read about Ian Kinsler's two-run homer in the ninth, but I had to imagine Holtz and Nadel's voices. There was no subtext, no change of inflection, no witty asides, no delicate pauses, no sighs, and no callouts to Dickey's Barbecue mid-inning. It was just strict play-by-play in texting mode, with graphics on the side colorfully taunting me with what I wasn't seeing or experiencing in the flesh—a striptease with all the unfocused male rage and none of the beer buzz.
When I hit refresh that final time and saw that Elvis Andrus had caught the final fly out, the voices I missed came back. My dad called me while my hand was still on the mouse. As he cheered, I heard the bleeps of other incoming calls—my brother, my mom and stepdad, my best friend up in Portland, Oregon. Over the airwaves, we shouted congratulations, we retold the stories of those final outs, we shared our happiness. Our baseball love radiated out into the night. I spent the next hour fielding calls, glorying in happy voices.
But I still missed that two-timbred voice. I wish it had been the first voice I heard, ringing out that, after 38 long years, the Texas Rangers had finally won its first playoff series. We did it. Then we beat the New York Yankees for the ALCS, at home, in six games. The final out came in a flash of poetic justice, with Neftali Feliz striking out one-time Ranger Alex Rodriguez—whose parting shot before leaving the team for the Yankees was to snidely call his fellow players “a bunch of kids"—and I missed Holtz and Nadel then, too.
At least Eric Nadel got to shout jubilantly, at the end of the divisional series, one last “Hello, win column!" for his old friend. Somewhere, wherever he is, that old friend Mark Holtz is beaming.