Covering All the Bases
By Susan R. Goldstein Henley
When I began my career as a freelance court reporter in 1973, it never occurred to me that one day I would be paid to watch my boys, the Houston Astros, play ball. It's a dirty job, but someone has to do it! The "magic" that has brought me to this is CART (communication access realtime translation).
What an honor to be the open captioners for the first two seasons of the Houston Astros at Enron Field, Houston's pride-and-joy project for the year 2000! The field wreaks havoc on every team who plays here because of the odd angles, strange wind currents and overall newness of the place. However, how the players may feel about the new stadium has not impeded my personal enjoyment of the games.
Our job is open captioning via realtime the in-stadium public address announcer. Our hookup to the big screen situates us right next to the announcer, who is located in the writing press box one level up from the field, directly behind home plate. The broadcast press box is one level above us. If the game is not captivating enough, the media celebrities floating through the press box certainly make it interesting. Of course, asking for autographs is strictly verboten!
The captioning screen is built into the main scoreboard and is a three-line screen, nine feet tall by 30 feet wide. That means each letter is three feet tall and about a foot and a half wide. Not a big deal until you see a misstroke float across the screen. Then the letters seem huge.
We have three reporters with press pass privileges. So far, only I and Melodie Thompson have written all of the games. Melodie said she chose reporting as her second career because she wanted something fun to do instead of the oil and gas work she had been doing. She had only been reporting for three years when this opportunity came up, but she leapt at the chance to write the games and fine-tune her realtime talents, not to mention the fact that she is as much an Astros fan as I am. My partner, Peggy Antone, is the third reporter with a press pass, but she has not yet had the opportunity to "pinch hit" for us at a game.
Our job begins two hours before game time. We initially anticipated needing to be at the stadium one hour before game time, but found out quickly that 60 minutes is not enough time for inputting job dictionary entries and troubleshooting or replacing equipment and/or reporters in time for all of the pre-game activities. Pre-game can be anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes long and includes writing video promotions and commercials projected on the big screen. Pre-game has varied from honoring as many as 35 people for their part in making Enron Field happen to acknowledging just one fan or celebrity throwing out the first pitch, and then announcing who will perform the national anthem that night.
Pre-game activities consist of the usual ceremonial first pitches, pre-game warnings to the crowd about how to conduct themselves in the park, safety comments and the two sentences that warm the cockles of my heart: "The Astros welcome visitors with disabilities. Located just to the right of the main scoreboard, the Astros are the first major league team to have an open-captioning board installed for our deaf and hard-of-hearing fans." For the 2000 season, the announcement stated the Astros were the only major league team to have an open-captioning board. In 2001, however, the Pittsburgh Pirates also have installed a captioning board in their new stadium.
During the game, the announcer calls out each batter as he comes to the plate. We also write the promotional programs for Enron Field and the Astros' sponsors between innings; and, of course, there is always the seventh inning stretch. When player changes are announced, things really start to hop in the press box. When a new pitcher comes in or a new player comes to bat, there is no warning of the change before it happens. Everybody has their binoculars out and they are shouting out names until someone finally says who it is for certain. This is why we have the entire team roster written ahead of time, not just that game's lineup. You never know who will come into a game, and I personally do not enjoy fingerspelling that much!
Of course, a job like this cannot be all fun and games. I have seen a few things in those three-foot-tall letters that made me cringe. One game had the "Enron Field Screw" come on the field instead of the Enron Field Crew. When Russ Johnson was still one of our boys, he was going to sign autographs in The Shed store at Enron, but it came out "our very onerous Johnson" instead of "our very own Russ Johnson." And my favorite blooper so far, Roger Cedeno, bless his heart, once translated as "Wrong Irrelevant Cedeno."
There have been moments when I wondered if it was really necessary to have the open-captioning screen because most of the information we write is also on the big screen, but there have been situations when I was reassured of my purpose. During the first game that I wrote, President Bush and his family entered the stadium to a standing ovation. They were seated down in front of me, and I knew not everyone in the stadium could see them. I wrote a parenthetical note on the screen which stated "The Bush family has entered the ballpark. (Applause.)" Another time the fire alarms went off. People were getting up to leave when it was discovered it was a false alarm. The announcer came on and told everyone to remain seated and ignore the alarm, but if deaf or hard-of-hearing fans had not read my screen, they would not have known what was happening.
As I walked into the stadium before one of the games, I saw two people talking to each other in sign language and the enormity of what we are doing at Enron Field finally hit me. I am very proud to be using my skills and experience as a court reporter to help make everyday events for the deaf and hard-of-hearing population more complete and fulfilling. Who knows where CART/captioning will take us next.