More Than Meets the Ear

March 30, 2015

LIFE IS FULL of beautiful sounds—crashing surf, gospel choirs, ice cream trucks—and sports are an un-scored symphony all their own. Who isn't moved by the pocketa-pocketa-pocketa of a boxer working the speed bag, the death rattle of a golf ball as it falls into the cup, the hiss and pop of bratwurst on a nine-dollar parking-lot grill?

When Cubs rookie Kris Bryant hits a home run, as he does often, the bat strikes the ball with a distinctive thwock. It's the sound of pure contact, baseball's equivalent of perfect pitch, and it has made Bryant the talk of spring training. But then baseball has always held its ambient noises in high esteem. Walter Johnson was the Big Train because his fastball possessed a locomotive roar. Rusty Staub would stand in the outfield with his back to the hitter in batting practice and try to tell which direction the ball was traveling just by listening. Carl Yastrzemski knew if the ball would die or carom off the leftfield wall at Fenway by the sound it made when it hit the Monster.

In this age of analytics, baseball still listens to the sound of its own voice. Even the sophisticated statistics designed to demystify the game look like sounds, at least the ones Batman made when punching out the Penguin. FIP! VORP! BABIP!

Baseball isn't the only sport that's easy on the ears. The early games of March Madness, often played in half-empty arenas, are all squealing sneakers on polished maple. Basketball's most proprietary sound—swish—became a word in its own right. Never mind that a football striking a goalpost doesn't make a doink: We've persuaded ourselves that it does, in much the way that all Christopher Walken impressions sound more like Walken than Walken ever has.

Not every sound in sports is pleasant. He who enjoys Notre Dame's "Victory March" may not care for Michigan's "The Victors," and vice versa. Many of us could do without the ripping Velcro of a hitter serially adjusting his batting glove between pitches. The grunting, shrieking and wailing in tennis are at odds with a game otherwise attuned to the subtleties of sound. Players who like a pock sound when hitting the ball use a little rubber vibration dampener on their racquet face. Players who prefer a ping do not.

Some sports are only sounds. Fishing is the high zzzzzzzzzzzzzz of a line being cast, followed by the lower zzzzzzzzzzzz of gentle snoring in a boat. It is possible (though not advisable) to follow the progress of a hockey game while blindfolded. Listen to the skritch-skratch of skates on ice; the clicks and clacks of stick on stick, and stick on puck, and puck on plexiglass; the short scrape of a stopping skater abruptly snowing the goalie. If you've ever earwitnessed a team giving a stick-tap salute, you know it sounds like hail on a pressure-treated deck.

When it comes to sound, beauty is in the ear of the beholder (or the beer-holder, if you like that little sneeze or sigh the bottle makes when the cap is removed). Me, I like the sound of the Wrigley flags rippling to dead center, the voice of Vin Scully, a perfectly struck driver, children at recess, indecipherable singsong soccer chants and the distant cry of a hot-dog vendor issuing through a bad car radio.

For all the money lavished on sports, it's still a humble whistle that starts March Madness, and a whistle that ends the World Cup. A bell rang to commence the Rumble in the Jungle, and a bell played Secretariat out of the gate at Belmont. All around us, sports are ringing in our ears, thanks to aluminum bat or bullpen telephone or hockey crossbar. And while the biggest events don't need their metaphorical bells and whistles, they still need the bells, and we'll still take the whistles.

Silence can still be the loveliest sound of all, but sports are afraid of it, which is why we get piped-in music and scoreboard exhortations to "Make Some Noise." And yet nothing is louder than the hush before the big putt on 18, the mortuary silence of the loser's bus or Sunday Night Football briefly muted in midgame, revealing a backing track of crickets and croaking bullfrogs you never even knew were there.

When Cubs rookie Kris Bryant hits a home run, as he does often, fans and scouts gush with baseball's highest praise: The ball just sounds different off his bat.

What is the best sound in sports?

Join the discussion on Twitter by using #SIPointAfter and following @SteveRushin

PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYER/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED ILLUSTRATION

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)