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April 08, 1990|STEVE WEINSTEIN

Vin Scully, the Walt Whitman of the baseball broadcast booth, has been known to describe the afternoon sky above a ballpark as "azure blue with pewter gray clouds." Joe Garagiola, the former catcher for the Cardinals, Pirates, Cubs and New York Giants, will look at that same sky and say, "I'm glad the clouds are there today, because they will help in seeing the pop flies."

Whether you see baseball through the eyes of a poet or a player, the sky, Garagiola says, is just one of many signs and signals connoisseurs of the game will want to observe-even when watching on television.

Obviously, TV viewers are prisoners of the pictures the director and producer decide to show. If you want to see how the Dodger outfield is positioned to play Darryl Strawberry in the late innings of a close game, but the screen is filled with the svelte figure of Tommy Lasorda scratching his head in the dugout, too bad. Yet even with the inherent restrictions of television, Garagiola, who on Tuesday will begin his first season as the color man for the 35 Angels telecasts on SportsChannel, says that viewers can often experience treats of the game that they'd never notice from the stands.

"I was once broadcasting a 'Game of the Week' when Stan Musial was playing, and I noticed the trainer working on him in the dugout," the former NBC commentator reminisced. "So I said, 'Stan Musial is being worked on by the trainer. And you won't believe what he's doing. He's actually trimming Musial's eyelashes so that they won't interfere with his vision when he gets up to bat.' And the camera zoomed in real close on his face.

"You miss the ambience, the flavor of the game, sitting at home. I'm sure lots of people watching on television got real excited when Kirk Gibson hit that home run in the World Series, but being there was something else. But at the same time, watching on television you get the benefit of those closeups and replays that you just can't see from the bleachers."

On the eve of this lockout-plagued season, Garagiola, 63, the 27-year veteran of NBC who left the network following the 1988 season, offered several tips to help baseball fans get the most out of watching their favorite game on TV.

* Know the starting pitchers. "If Nolan Ryan is pitching, you'll want to listen for the grunts, which I find entertaining, but also you'll want to see if the hitters are fouling the ball off or pulling it. If they foul it straight back, that means Ryan has his good stuff, but if they are pulling it early in the game, that means they are starting their swings very early and his curve is going to make a lot of people look silly."

* Check the flags. "If the wind is blowing out, you can say, 'Hey we might have some home runs,' but also if a knuckleballer like (Texas Ranger) Charlie Hough is scheduled, that wind will make his pitches even livelier, and you'll want to watch to see if the catcher is having trouble handling those things."

* Note the dimensions of the park. "In Atlanta or Oakland, there is tons of foul territory, so balls that might go into the stands in other stadiums are easy outs there. And Fenway Park in Boston has that fence that juts out down the left field line, so a hard hit ball just inside the bag can turn into a play at first or an easy out at second if the shortstop is alert for the ricochet. That's a fun thing to watch for."

* Observe how the ball moves through the grass. On the first hit ball, Garagiola recommends noticing whether the ball dies in the tall grass or skips with some juice right through it. "In Wrigley field, the grass sometimes gets so high that the ball has to eat its way through, and you can expect some runners to try to take the extra base."

* Keep an eye on the catcher. "See where the target is, inside, outside and whether it's a true target or just a decoy. Sometimes the catcher will put the glove in the center of the plate as a decoy, and the pitcher will use his shin guard as a target for pitching low and away."

* Watch the baserunners. "Mark how far the runner on first goes for his lead, and then check to see f he's in the same place or if his lead is shorter or longer after every pitch. That gives you a clue about whether he wants to steal."

* Look for the bunt. "With a man on first, watch the catcher motion for the pitcher to throw to first, and when he does, don't watch the ball, watch the batter. Sometimes at the first bit of motion from the pitcher, the batter will start to slide his hand down the bat, giving away the bunt."

* Zero in on the tags. "Television gives you closeups of plays on the bases, like around second on a double play. You can see if the shortstop actually touches the bag or if he is just in the neighborhood. It's interesting to be the umpire on things like that. Or on plays at the plate-Mike Scioscia, the human dead end, is great at blocking the plate. But sometimes he does it too soon, before he gets the ball. Sometimes he gets away with it and sometimes he doesn't."

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