Sport on TV: The surreal world of the tone-deaf celebrity

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The Independent Online
JUST AS cricketing sages assert that bowlers win matches, so any bacca-chewing old feller will tell you that pitchers are the key to America's national pastime. The venerable Philadelphia Athletics owner, Connie Mack, once said famously, "Pitching is 70 per cent of baseball". And the chuckers themselves are a breed apart.

The fourth game of the World Series (Channel 5, Thursday morning), presented a couple of prime specimens, in the New York Yankees' Andy Pettitte and San Diego Padres' Kevin Brown. With the Padres 3-0 down in the best-of- seven series, they had to win on their own patch to keep the season alive. As history now records, though, the Yankees took the game 3-0 for their 24th championship and the unofficial title of Quite Possibly The Best Team Ever.

Unfortunately, the whitewash meant that we were deprived of seeing David Wells, the Yankees pitcher who had started the first game and was due back for the fifth in his home town. The son of "Attitude Annie", who rode with the San Diego Hell's Angels and looks like it, is somewhat incongruously a Babe Ruth freak who recently spent $100,000 (pounds 58,000) on memorabilia, including $30,000 on the great one's cap. He planned to wear it to the plate for the World Series until his manager, Joe Torre, told him to think again. And looking at Torre, who combines the build of Sylvester Stallone and the physiognomy of Joe Pesci, it's impossible to imagine there was much dissent from Wells.

Before we got down to the real business, though, there was the surreal business. One deeply distasteful feature of major American sporting events is the insane need the nation seems to have to wheel on some tone-deaf celebrity to murder their national anthem. On Thursday morning it was a case of Star-Mangled Banner courtesy of some actress from the nauseatingly cute TV comedy, Ally McBeal. It was a brave performance, admittedly, owing something to Ornette Coleman, or possibly intended as a cover version of Jimi Hendrix's legendary rendition at Woodstock, all random pauses and bum notes, littered with odd little discordant flights and swoops reminiscent of the electronic gull shrieks from The Birds. It lasted about three weeks, and every second was purgatory.

Still, once the game got underway (after an opening pitch from the record- breaking king of the homer, Mark McGwire, who hit 70 of them this season), the pitchers bore out the Mack dictum and ran the show.

Brown was first up, and immediately one of the features of baseball on TV that Channel 4 would do well to use freely in their cricket coverage next year, the close-up, came into its own. As Brown stared from the mound down at the batter, his eyes were paradoxically utterly expressionless and dead-looking yet throwing out what could be interpreted as beams of pure hate. In fact, what we were seeing was saddhu-like concentration, the face drawn and grimly focused yet immobile and in a strange kind of repose. You just don't get that kind of shot in cricket.

Pettitte has an extraordinary face, like a religious icon depicting one of the apostles. His eyes are huge, heavy-lidded and brooding, laden with menace, his nose Roman and imposing, his lips fleshy and full. Just to stand at the plate and have him stare down at you would be a brown-trouser job, much less have him hurl his bombs in your direction. Even when he was sat in the dug-out he looked a menace to society.

Unlike most C5 studio anchor teams, Jonathan Gould and Todd Macklin - Englishman and Canadian respectively - were a genuinely useful addition to the experience, with Macklin's expertise vital for an ignoramuses like me. The best line of the week from a pundit, though, came from Barry Venison on ITV's Champions' League highlights programme on Wednesday. Digital gremlins got into the works and the round-up of the non-domestic games was mangled almost beyond recognition (and the promised film of Real Madrid's six-goal victory, promised before the break, failed to materialise at all).

The voice-over was handled manfully by Max Headroom, while the stop-start, wildly pixillating visuals were a stoner's treat. Straight after, Jim Rosenthal asked Venison about Arsenal's performance, to which he replied, "At least they're not the only team stuttering in Europe." Boom-boom.