My cable deal takes me to the Twilight Zone

Last September, I signed up for a cable television package that, according to the salesman, would include digital pictures of remarkable clarity as well as expanded channel choices. Swept away by his description, I imagined images so lifelike that they could substitute for certain realities. I imagined a Fireplace Channel, for instance, which would put me in front of a cozy fire without having to clean up ashes. Or an Aquarium Channel, which would allow me to follow the motions of angel fish and neon tetras without having to clean a fish tank.

There were no channels like those I had imagined, and perhaps that's why I paid little attention to my expanded television options - until Oct. 11. On that day, I learned that greater freedom of choice can carry with it greater opportunities for puzzlement.

On the morning of the 11th, I'd had a terrific sports discussion with Don, my neighbor. He believed that the New York Yankees would win that afternoon's American League playoff game because Roger Clemens, a Hall of Fame shoe-in, was pitching for them. I favored the Boston Red Sox because they were sending to the mound Pedro Martinez, a pitcher who is regularly among the league leaders in earned run average.

As a youngster, I engaged in sports discussions with my brother, but they lacked incisive analysis. They generally followed this pattern: I would claim that so-and-so is the best third baseman in the game, and my brother would say, "Is not," to which I would reply, "Is too," only to have him counter with "Is not." We would continue down that beaten path until the monotony of our debate lulled us to sleep on our bunk beds. If our disagreements did little to develop our reasoning skills, at least they ensured that we were well rested.

But my discussion with Don was thought-provoking and cogently argued. It might even have made a good segment on a sports analysis program, although I suspect that, under the stress of going public, I would revert to my "is too/is not" debating style.

Eager to find out whose theory would prevail, I switched on my television set that afternoon, flipped through the channels until I saw Roger Clemens's face, then settled back on the sofa. When the game was half over, I received a call from Don.

"It's not exactly the pitchers' duel we had imagined," he said. "Pedro's curve is hanging, and Roger's had better outings."

"They look sharp to me." I said. "How could they be doing any better?" Funny how two people can witness the same event and come away with different interpretations, I thought. Then something strange happened. Don spoke of "Johnny Damon's double off the green monster" and "Derek Jeter's home run to tie it in the third."

Wait a minute, I thought, the green monster is the left-field wall in Boston, and they are playing in New York, and there wasn't any home run by Derek Jeter. Before I could voice those thoughts, Don was saying goodbye, explaining that there was someone at his front door and he would call back later.

I had been leafing through a book while watching the game. Could that have kept me from noticing Derek Jeter's home run? Not according to my television set. It confirmed that the score was 0 to 0.

Could my neighbor be pulling some kind of practical joke? No, I was certain there was some other explanation. After 10 minutes of puzzling over it, I was leaning toward a "parallel worlds" scenario. I was expecting Rod Serling to step into my living room at any moment to provide narration while "The Twilight Zone" theme played in the background.

By the time Don called back, the game was over. He spoke of a 4-to-3 New York victory. In my world, Boston had won, 2 to 0. It was an unusual example of a win-win situation, each of us believing he had chosen the victor. If I hadn't been so perplexed, I might have enjoyed the dual outcome.

"I admit I wasn't paying close attention to the whole game," I said, "but here's what happened, Don. It was zero to zero until the ninth inning, when Trot Nixon hit a two-run home run for Boston. In the bottom of the ninth, Derek Jeter got a hit for New York, but he was stranded because Bernie Williams flied out and O'Neill struck out, and...."

"O'Neill? Do you mean Paul O'Neill?" asked Don. When I answered yes, he said, "He doesn't play for them anymore."

"Well someone forgot to tell him that," I said, "because he showed up for today's game."

Don paused, as if mulling something over. He said he had a hunch about what was going on and would be right over. When he arrived, he asked me what channel I had watched the game on. I said that it was on one of the three ESPN stations that came with our new cable plan. "Was it ESPN Classic?" Don asked. I checked the channel number with the list the cable company provided.

When I nodded, he said, "Aha!"

Don explained that ESPN Classic shows sporting events from the past. In honor of the Clemens versus Martinez playoff game, the station had aired a Clemens versus Martinez game from several years ago. The historical game commenced at the same time as the playoff game and was recent enough to include most of the same players. How was I to know one from the other?

"I knew something was off-kilter when you mentioned Paul O'Neill," said Don. "He's a retired Yankee." Relieved to finally understand what had occurred, we had a good laugh over it. Then I thanked Don for his detective work.

I would never have gotten that confused if I'd been watching the Fireplace Channel.

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