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An Ear for The Game

When Red Sox second baseman Mark Bellhorn homered off the rightfield foul pole at Yankee Stadium in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series, announcer Tim McCarver called the resulting noise--an industrial rattle, amplified by Fox microphones--the worst sound he'd ever heard. Of course, it was the best sound Red Sox fans had ever heard. And Bellhorn's very surname evokes two more sounds that are, at once, the best and worst in sports: the bell (that saves one boxer but thwarts the other) and the horn (that tells one basketball player he's going in but another that he's coming out).

Against the Yankees, Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling looked forward to the sound of "55,000 New Yorkers shutting up." And indeed--like the hush before a free throw--sometimes the most satisfying sound in sports is the absence of all sound, as when you muted Howard Cosell in midsentence.

Sound is so central to sports that a single syllable of onomatopoeia can instantly summon a whole world: Vroom? Auto racing. Swish? Basketball. Schuss? Skiing. Shhh!? Golf. Even in that muted sport, sound is so essential that CBS used to pipe artificial birdsong into its tournament telecasts. The British Open is a flagstick loudly flapping in a gale. Happiness is a Titleist rattling in the cup.

If you've ever watched a baseball game from a sealed skybox, you know that the silenced action appears to be taking place underwater, as if viewed through the glass panel of an aquarium. The luxury suite is little more than a sensory-deprivation chamber.

So what are the best (and worst) sounds in sports? Ray Charles--and who could've known better?--listed among his favorite sounds on Earth the voice of Vin Scully calling a Dodgers game.

Certainly among the best is the music of a perfect tee shot, such an aspirational sound--ping!--it was turned into one of golf's most successful brand names. (These are the kind of drives that elicit, from a playing partner, the line "I didn't see it, but it sounded good.")

The very same sound in the College World Series--ping!--is an abomination, perhaps because the most beloved sound in sport is the crack of a wooden bat on ball. And when a slap shot strikes a pipe in hockey, the resulting ping--coming, as it does, after the gunshot crack of a slap shot--sounds like a stray bullet in an old Western striking a brass spittoon.

Indeed, the fact that we're not hearing that sound during the NHL lockout proves that it is possible to unring a bell. And speaking of bells, 1950s and '60s pitcher Gary (Ding-Dong) Bell was so nicknamed, in part, because his frequent deliveries in the dirt would make the protective cups of his catchers ring.

Some sounds in sport are disappearing altogether: the scratch of metal golf spikes on parking-lot pavement, for instance, or the Wheel of Fortune spin of a baseball card in bicycle spokes.

But others arrive to take their place: the metallic scrape of skateboard on handrail or the muffled drum of palms pounding the padded walls in foul territory at Fenway. Olympic swimming now begins with an odd electronic sound like that accompanying the illumination of the FASTEN SEAT BELT sign on an airplane.

Beauty is in the ear of the beholder. A splat can be exhilarating (if you're playing paintball) or somewhat dispiriting (if you happen to be skydiving). In college basketball, as on TV game shows, it's good to hear the bell, bad to hear the buzzer. A bell (chiming 12 o'clock) begins Midnight Madness, while a buzzer ends March Madness. (Technically it's a horn, but who ever heard of a hornbeater?) In between is a six-month symphony for squealing sneakers, percussive dribbling, bleacher-stomping--and whistles.

A large part of football's appeal, as NFL Films understood early on, lies in the plastic-on-plastic clash of pads. Fifty pairs of cleats clattering down a tunnel and into a football stadium can sound like buffalo thundering across the plain. (As a kid, I was told that actual thunder was the sound of God bowling. And so, until very recently, I thought that the brand name AMF, engraved on a bowling ball, was God's monogram: All Mighty Father.)

Thoroughbred racing is an eargasm: the bugle call to post; the fire alarm spooking horses into a sprint; the hammering hooves; the auctioneer's call of the track announcer; the soft flutter of losing tickets borne on a breeze. But then all of sports is an endless soundscape--of roars, boos, organs, air horns, starter's pistols, ripping Velcro, the dueling grunts of a tennis match, vendor cries and popping champagne corks.

Which reminds us. Heard any good food lately? A grilling sausage hisses and pops like an old LP or logs in a fireplace. Add to this cacophony a farting squeeze bottle of mustard and the popping pop-top of a beer can and you've rivaled, for my money, Ode to Joy.

In fact, it is one.

• For a collection of Steve Rushin's columns, go to

A single syllable can instantly summon a whole world: Vroom? Auto racing. Swish? Basketball. Shhh!? Golf.