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.