The anatomy of a great baseball commercial
A couple years ago, during my lazy internet wanderings, I came across an acronym that tickled my sense of irony. The acronym in question is "GOAT", and it stands for "greatest of all time". People love to ascribe GOAT status to various media: movies (Goodfellas or Godfather?), music (Beatles or Stones?), TV shows (Breaking Bad or The Wire?), and baseball players (Ruth or Bonds?) to name a few examples. The irony is that calling someone a "goat" has traditionally meant that he has failed spectacularly. The punter who muffs a field goal. The soccer player who misses an open net. The actor who freezes up on stage. Charlie Brown, all alone on the mound, watching a game winning homer sail over his head. A goat is the opposite of the greatest of all time.
Anyway, I had never thought about ascribing GOAT status to something as disposable as a commercial. In my opinion, for something to achieve the status of "great" is has to first aspire to greatness. Do ads ever aspire to anything other than to successfully sell a product? Most--nearly all--commercials fall on a spectrum that ranges from "mildly amusing" to "soul-destroyingly annoying". Geico and Budweiser commercials have a pretty good history of landing closer to "mildly amusing" side. As for the other side--I'm looking at you Flo. Even the ads that try to break the mold and make a commercial with artistic merit--like the Super Bowl So God Made A Farmer ad--don't impress me, because I can never shake the knowledge that these people are just trying to get in my wallet. Sure, Paul Harvey is great, but what the hell does he have to do with Dodge Rams?
But a few days ago, while half-watching the World Baseball Classic on MLB Network, an advertisement came on that made me reconsider my position. Here is the ad in question:
By the end of the commercial I was laughing; not because it was funny, but because I was shocked at how much this minute-long advertisement affected me.
I'll try to describe it first. The shot opens, without preamble, with a batter swinging through a fastball. It's nighttime and floodlights bathe the field in an ethereal glow. The camera is about halfway up the third base line, and immediately starts panning around the rest of the field, while also wandering to and fro. It moves behind the catcher as he throws the ball back to the pitcher. As the sounds of chattering fans drift across the field, the camera zooms in on each player on the diamond, observing his actions and rituals. The third baseman dekes the runner. The left fielder shouts how many outs there are. The short stop calls to the outfield, "No doubles!" The pitcher attempts a pick-off at first.
I can't quite make out who the teams are; the defense appears to be the Rock City Ramblers, and the hitting team looks like "Ashland". I have no idea if those are real college or Minor League teams. The players certainly look the part; they carry themselves as if they were born on a ball field. The camera has now made its way to the middle of the infield, just behind the pitcher (this is all done in one shot, by the way). As the pitcher gets set for his next delivery, the camera pans around to his front and slowly zooms in. A trickling note from some stringed instrument rises above the background noise. The pitcher glances at the runner--little more than a dart of the eyes--and delivers the pitch. Smash cut to black.
This has taken place over 55 seconds of a minute long ad. The last five seconds show the rapidly shuffling words, "Every pitch, Every inning, Every game, Every season," followed by the Dick's Sporting Goods logo. I don't really care about those last five seconds; the important thing is that they don't ruin the previous 55 (an announcer braying about how batting gloves are 16 percent off through March might have done that).
There's so much to admire in that long tracking shot. The cinematography is gorgeous; from the stark reds and blues of the players' uniforms to the haze produced by the floodlights that makes the whole setting feel like something out of a dream. The way the camera drops behind the catcher and umpire (and uses them as framing devices) makes the viewer feel like a spectator on the front row; then, as it moves into the middle of the field, we feel like players; finally, as it zooms in on the intensely focused pitcher, we feel like we have become him. The evolution of the shot feels like something out of a Scorsese or P.T. Anderson movie.
I was also blown away by the verisimilitude of the game. Most advertisements involving baseball (and full movies too, for that matter) simply can't get the details right. In Major League, "Wild Thing" Vaughn's 100 mph heater can't be going more than 75. Actors trying to look like power hitters instead look like that guy you play softball with who swings out of his shoes and hits nothing but air. Like I said earlier, the players have to be real, not actors, just by the way they carry themselves. The lingo is also spot on, especially that quick shot of the second baseman covering his mouth with his glove and signaling to Short who would cover second base in the event of a steal. Open mouth means You, closed mouth means Me.
I've just written 1,000 words about a sporting goods advertisement. It feels a little silly, but I stand by everything I wrote. For me, this commercial has evoked powerful memories of sultry summer nights in high school, engaged in the balletic, almost ritualistic act of playing the American past time. Advertisement or no, this is a masterfully crafted artistic creation. And thus I confer the title of GOAT upon this ad.