It's 5:53 p.m. in Honolulu as Les Keiter pops a Parke Davis throat disc into his mouth and fidgets in his chair in the KSSK Radio newsroom. He eyes his engineer through a plate-glass window. Several yellow sheets are piled on the card table in front of him, face down, next to a drumstick and a hollow wood block stuffed with pink Kleenex. Keiter, with lineups duly entered in his Scoremaster scorebook, is about to broadcast a Pacific Coast League baseball game being played in Vancouver. From Honolulu.
Can it be done?
"Yoooou betcha," says Keiter, not to that question particularly, but to almost everything. Keiter, 62, is an optimist, and only an optimist could hope to pull off sportscasting's most ancient art—the "recreation" of the pitches, hits, catches, roars and inviolate rhythms of a ball game—in 1981. No one else is even trying to do it anymore.
There's a cue from engineer Leo Pascua. "Les Keiter Nat Bailey Stadium," Keiter says, devilishly omitting the preposition, "where the Vancouver Canadians are hosting the Islanders in the second of a five-game series." Already, Pascua has begun to pipe the buzz of a continuous crowd-noise tape over the air; later, on Keiter's cue, he'll augment it with a four-second ooooh; vendors' calls; your average booing; your nastier-than-average booing; staccato applause; a cadenza of cowbells, organ and crowd; 10 seconds of mild clapping; or unfettered rejoicing at a home team's home run.
September 6, 1981
As Keiter describes the weather and idiosyncracies of Nat Bailey Stadium, Jere Dougherty, a 31-year-old ex-serviceman Keiter has hired to provide him with the skeletal information from which he re-creates, adds a few more yellow sheets to the pile. Dougherty has already called the press box in Vancouver to get the setting, lineups and results of the first few innings. He'll call twice more, typing up the information, batter by batter, one half-inning per sheet, and feeding it to Keiter.
A Des Moines-based re-creationist named Ronald Reagan, who refashioned Chicago Cub games in the 1930s, used a less fail-safe method to get information from the ball park to his studio. He broadcast from pitch-by-pitch wire reports and, like his contemporaries, concocted endless streams of foul balls when the line went dead. Keiter's hairiest experience came when he began re-creating in 1949 on Honolulu's now-defunct KPOA. The rookie motorcyclist who was responsible for shuttling wire reports to the studio from Western Union's downtown office got lost, so Keiter and his engineer had to use thunder-and-lightning sound effects to fake a rain delay.
Now, in Honolulu, Keiter has fabricated another delay—though the weather in Vancouver is fine. "The game is delayed slightly because The Chicken is here putting on a show," he says. "He's bowing at home plate now, meeting with the umpires." Cowbells clang, then die out. Keiter goes through the lineups. "Now [Vancouver Pitcher Chuck] Porter has called his catcher out—they're having a quick confab." He turns to the first sheet, headed TOP 1.
"Wiggins 5-3 1 out" is all the yellow sheet tells Keiter of how Islander Left-fielder Alan Wiggins did against Porter in his first at bat. By striking that wood block with the drumstick, Keiter has Wiggins foul off a pitch. (The Kleenex is in the wood block to deaden its sound and make it more authentic.) Wiggins runs the count to two and two, according to Keiter, anyway, before grounding out third-to-first. Keiter describes each pitch as if he were the catcher giving signals from behind the plate—the Canadians had played 11 times in Honolulu, and he knows them well. He also knows The Chicken, which visited Aloha Stadium in June.
Keiter works about three frames behind the real McCoy and, after he has recreated 1½ scoreless innings, he gets the next four sheets from Dougherty. Keiter doesn't know what they have in store and prefers to keep it that way. "I learned a long time ago that if I already know what happened, I might not say something I would have said if I were doing it live," he explains.
And so it goes. Congenital first-ball hitters swing at first pitches, pitchers landscape the mound, batters step out to wipe gnats from their eyes. "I wish you could have seen Ramirez take Rodriguez out with that rolling slide."
Keiter has been re-creating for more than 40 years and still finds it tougher to do than a live game. "You have to know the players as well as your baseball, and dovetail your imagination with hard knowledge. I never make up anything," he insists. "I embellish. After all, there's a box score in the paper the next morning. A retired nurse in her 70s has kept score of every inning I've ever done in Honolulu. My totals had better be right."
So, who's he fooling? Not the people who saw him do the 5:20 p.m. sportscast on Honolulu's KHON-TV. Not those who will see him do the TV sports at 9:20. And not those who possess a little common sense. Aside from a bone to the FCC—a theme tape played at the outset of every simulated broadcast announces it as an "Islanders' Re-create"—the station provides no other clue. "But you could have a disclaimer every inning and people wouldn't pay attention anyway, because they don't want to," says Keiter. "I'll bet nine out of 10 people don't even know what 're-create' means. To this day, people are befuddled. They'll ask, 'How can you be here when you were just there?' "
Actually Keiter, who spun his first ball game as a 9-year-old around a YMCA campfire, has made something of a career of never really being there. When he left Hawaii in 1950 for San Francisco, he ended up re-creating New York Yankee games; in New York, eight years later, he did the same for San Francisco Giants games.
Now, back in Honolulu, he's a perfect curator for the hoary technique, and recreation makes sense for his station. Islander roadtrips are unusually costly and exhausting, and a live broadcast from the mainland would begin at 4:30 p.m. Honolulu time, a grave of a time slot. Besides, Keiter is the last of a species worth protecting. Though he'll go no further than the drumstick and wood block and the canned crowd to achieve verisimilitude, some of his precursors replicated both the game's sounds and the aural eccentricities of every park the hometown team would visit.
The late Marv Bates, who used to recreate games of the Triple A Evansville Triplets, dedicated much of his life to finding the perfect pop of a pitch in a catcher's glove. "He had a long pencil with a little rubber ball taped to the end," says his widow, Edie. "He'd hit the desk, the telephone, the car—everything, trying to find the right sound. His desk calendar finally produced it—when the pages got to September." NBC's Charlie Jones, while re-creating games of the Dallas-Fort Worth Spurs, had an engineer who found there was a Catholic mission close to Tingley Field in Albuquerque. "When we had games there, he'd play a tape of chimes on the hour," says Jones, "always ringing them once fewer than they rang in Dallas, because of the time difference."
There's a classic re-creationist's voice, too, which lends its own persuasive touch. "None of these silky, urbane, modern-day guys could get away with it," says Joe Croghan, a former practitioner who once covered a Yankee-Red Sox series for a Baltimore radio station. "It took a sort of gut-bucket sound, so rough-sounding that you were forced to believe it—or he'd come over and punch you out." Keiter has that sound, and a throwback's vocabulary. Hitters can be "pestiferous," and good ones "stir up the nasturtiums." If "the bases are bulging" as a slugger "brings the shillelagh up to the plate," a pitcher's "big, jug-handled hook" had better be breaking just so. Only when the Islanders go up 5-0 does Keiter's gravelly radio voice growl out a concession to TV, the medium that has helped make re-creation all but extinct. "Well, what do you know, it's Hawaii Five-O!" In fact, Keiter appeared on that TV show several times, in bit roles ranging from a naval officer to a crooked businessman.
Histrionics serve him well. In the bottom of the first of the getaway game in that Hawaii-Vancouver series, Islander Pitcher Steve Fireovid fired a called third strike past Vancouver clean-up hitter Lawrence Rush for the third out. Keiter, who got word from Dougherty that Rush and Manager Lee Sigman had a "minor disagreement" with the umpire on the call, announced, "Strike three call! And Rush whirls around to argue with the umpire, and here comes Lee Sigman down from third! They're beefing with Craig Brittain! Brittain takes his mask off and they're nose-to-nose at the plate!"
Alan Elconin's live broadcast over Vancouver's CFVR Radio doesn't mention any rhubarb. He simply says, "It's a fastball right down the heart of the plate," and cuts to a commercial.
It was the optimist in Keiter acting up—lively arguments make for good ball games. The folks in Vancouver don't know what they missed.