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Tim McCarver's Baseball for Brain Surgeons and Other Fans Understanding and Intrepreting the Game So You Can Watch It Like a Pro
By Tim McCarver
Villard Books Copyright © 1999 Tim McCarver
All right reserved.
In and Out of the Booth
THE PREGAME ROUTINE
Viewers often ask me what I do prior to a telecast. It surprises them to learn that the broadcast itself amounts to only half of the work I put in on the day of a game. In fact, I usually arrive at the ballpark three or four hours before the start of the game, whether I'm announcing a national game for FOX or a Mets game for WWOR-TV in the New York metropolitan area. In the postseason, I might get to the park at three o'clock for an 8 P.M. game to familiarize myself with the extra graphics and statistics. I also will need extra time if I'm scheduled to tape interviews or special segments.
At Shea Stadium, my first stop is the control room, which is located downstairs next to the clubhouses. One of the few self-contained control rooms in a major-league stadium, it has monitors for each of the cameras around the field, replay equipment, and computers that call up statistics and place graphicsover images on the screen. Amid all the pregame bustle, I'll have brief, informal production meetings with coordinating producer-director Jeff Mitchell, executive producer Rick Miner, and associate producer-director Steve Oelbaum. We'll run ideas by each other. For instance, I might tell Jeff that I'd like a particular visual during the game, such as a "low-first" shot (so called because of the camera position) of a pitcher with a good pickoff move, and he might let me know about some particular graphics that have been prepared for the game. Also present is Arthur Friedman, who has been the Mets' statistician for thirty years. During the game, he will be feeding Gary, Ralph, and me stats, but here he'll just update me on anything that has happened in baseball that I might have missed and give me some random thoughts about the upcoming game.
When the Mets are on the road, only Jeff and Steve are on hand, working with a local crew and sitting in an equipment truck outside the stadium. FOX always works out of a truck, so I'll go out there to have pregame meetings with director Bill Webb and coordinating producer John Filippelli. Ed Goren, executive producer of FOX Sports, is usually back in the studio in Los Angeles.
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Next, I'll venture into the two clubhouses and dugouts and stand by the batting cage conversing with the managers, coaches, and some of the players. Often, we'll just renew old acquaintances; other times, I'll try to get some information that will help me with my broadcast. For instance, if I haven't seen a rookie pitcher, I might ask his manager or his catcher what to look for. Oddly, while I was standing by the cage before the first Mets-Yankee game at Yankee Stadium in 1997, outfielder Paul O'Neill asked me who the Mets' relievers were and what they threw. I had to laugh. I kiddingly told Paul that George Steinbrenner hadn't hired me to be an advance scout. While Paul and I are friends, I don't necessarily want to be friends with players. But I do try to be friendly.
I like to watch batting practice because I think it's very enlightening. Some players take the wrong approach, and it becomes a home run derby. It shouldn't be just for show. You can definitely tell the smart hitters by how seriously they take batting practice. The best way to approach b.p. is to hit from fine to line because it helps establish muscle-memory for the front shoulder to be locked in. Willie Mays hit to all fields in batting practice instead of just hitting five-hundred-foot homers. Dick Allen, when he took batting practice, always worked from the opposite side to the pull side. He'd hit ground balls the other way and then explode on the last couple of pitches-and he was ready. The remarkable Tony Gwynn, the hardest-working hitter in the game today, thinks it's vital to swing at one hundred balls a day in order to build and retain muscle-memory. Watching him take batting practice is an education on good hitting.
During batting practice, players often reveal what they will do during a game. One day, I saw Mets pitcher Rick Reed practicing squeeze bunts, which was highly unusual. When he came up in the game, I told the viewers to be ready for him to lay it down. I wasn't trying to be prescient; I was just using common sense. Sure enough, Reed squeezed his second time up. Before a game against the Phillies, I saw the left-handed-hitting John Olerud practicing going the other way so I wasn't surprised when he blasted a two-run homer to left off Curt Schilling in his first at-bat. When I see Mets catcher Todd Hundley going the opposite way during batting practice while batting from the left side, I might not predict an opposite-field hit during the upcoming game but I'm aware that his front shoulder is locked in and that he may hit homers to right on balls that he'd ordinarily pull fifty feet foul. You see, most good hitters use batting practice to prepare for the game. Perhaps b.p. should stand for batting preparation.
About ninety minutes before a Mets game, I am handed detailed statistical sheets on the two teams. I use these in conjunction with the stats passed on to me before the game by Arthur Friedman. Arthur's computerized database is supplemented by the amazing Elias Sports Bureau. We have numbers for things like what a guy is hitting with runners in scoring position in late innings and how a pitcher does with men in scoring position. On FOX games, Steve Horn is our information man, and one of his many jobs is to sit in the booth next to Joe Buck and supply us with stats and pertinent facts. The people in the FOX truck receive a stat printout from Elias and, like Arthur Friedman, are constantly on the phone with Elias for verification of certain numbers.
I don't like to inundate viewers with numbers, especially toward the end of the game, so I only want to be given stats that are both interesting to viewers and important to the managers and players. Steve Hirdt of Elias, who is the source for much that goes on the air, tells me that almost every manager and general manager subscribes to their pitcher-versus-batter reports and most want general stats on pinch hitters and relievers. These are both significant stats and historical references interesting to viewers. (What else they want, Steve says, is confidential because managers don't want the opposition to know what they're asking for.)
Because baseball is a game of firsts, I'm interested in firsts, so Steve gives me data on them. For example, the team that scores first wins two thirds of the games. (I think this stat is particularly pertinent if Brady Anderson leads off the game you're watching with a home run.) Moreover, if the first batter in an inning gets on base, his team will score about 51 percent of the time, but if he makes an out, his team will get a run in that inning only 16 percent of the time.
What other stats do I consider valid? A batter's average and production numbers with two strikes. The strikeouts-to-walks ratio of both pitchers and batters. How many sacrifice bunts the number two hitter in a lineup has. How many pickoffs the pitcher has and how many runners his catcher has thrown out stealing. How often the batter has grounded into double plays, especially if the pitcher he is facing is a sinkerballer. How many inherited runners have scored and how many have been stranded by a particular reliever. The earned run average of a starting pitcher. On many other stats something has to be dramatically different from the norm to be of consequence. Two examples: A batter hits one hundred points higher in the daytime; a pitcher is 8-0 at home and 0-8 on the road. It's up to the announcer to bring the stats to life. Simply rattling off numbers doesn't get the job done.
I've learned that All-Star Games are the most difficult to broadcast because strategy goes out of the window. You prepare differently to include more about the personalities involved and how they do what they do. Statistics become magnified. Numbers become nuggets. And stories are pure gold. For instance, when ABC broadcast the 1986 game, I related a story I had heard from Yankees publicist Harvey Greene about American League All-Star Don Mattingly. I said that before Mattingly traveled to the game, he had graciously agreed to use the bat of his teammate Mike Fischlin, an obscure utility man on the Yankees who wanted his bat to make an All-Star appearance because he knew he'd never get to the game himself. I ended by telling Al Michaels, who was doing play-by-play, "This is probably the only time Fischlin will ever be mentioned at an All-Star Game." Without missing a beat, Al asked rhetorically, "What do you mean probably?"
It's easy to misuse stats. One April, I was watching a game where one team had the bases loaded with two outs and there was a 2-2 count on a right-handed batter. After a foul back, the announcer said, "Keep this in mind: He hit .352 last September, so the pitcher's not out of the woods yet." What does what he hit in the last month of last season have to do with anything? It doesn't prove he's a hot hitter. There have been only five or six months since he was hitting well.
In 1997, I got a stat sheet from the Pirates which said that in Jon Lieber's first seven starts the team scored a total of twenty-one runs but only ten with him in the game. They had mustered a total of only six runs during his five-game losing streak, and in his fourteen starts had scored a total of only twenty-three runs while he was on the mound, an average of 1.6 per appearance. With these numbers they were implying that Lieber was a hard-luck pitcher who deserved to be better than 3-8. What they didn't stress is that with his 4.52 ERA, he hadn't held up his end of the bargain. His record was warranted. It's to be expected that teams' publicity departments do a little spin-doctoring and enhance their players' performances by using numbers that appear to be impressive, so it's up to the commentators to determine if those stats have validity or are meant to obfuscate poor performances.
So when you see stats on your screen, you have to decide whether they are an accurate measure of a player's performance. Often you have to follow a guy on a day-to-day basis to know how much better or worse he is from the statistics that are presented. When we were teammates on the Cardinals in the sixties, Curt Flood, who would later sacrifice his own career to start the fight against the reserve clause, used to give himself up on productive outs about twenty times a year to move runners to second or third. He'd still bat over .300, but it could have been much higher-and people who didn't follow the Cardinals didn't realize this. What he did was the kind of thing that legitimized the line "You won't see that in the box score tomorrow."
Steve Hirdt correctly points out that statistics are no longer the domain of drooling eggheads, but are increasingly integral to the baseball-viewing experience. He muses, "People accept TV ratings that are determined by a tiny sampling, but a baseball fan needs to know exactly how many putouts Edgardo Alfonzo has at third base or what Tony Gwynn's batting average is to the third decimal point."
Steve Hirdt's stats mean something. Al Michaels says, "He piques your curiosity so that it brings out other stuff that usually is as important as the original point. The questions that one of his stats may spawn may lead us to say 'I didn't know that' four or five times." Stats should be catalysts for thoughts.
About forty-five minutes before the first pitch, I will settle into my chair in the still empty broadcast booth and do my final work for the game. I'll fill out the lineup cards and jot down any pertinent information, stats, or stories I have on the individual players, including anything I picked up since I arrived at the park. People often ask me how I prepare for a game. The answer is total immersion--I prepare for anything and everything because, as Douglas MacArthur said, "Chance favors the prepared man." I try to cover all the angles, and the temptation is to try to get it all in. But as esteemed broadcaster Dick Enberg estimates, "You only use ten percent of your preparation." If you try to get in all your research, viewers may stay tuned in, but they'll tune you out. If you've done your work, that 10 percent will add to, not detract from, a viewer's enjoyment.
During the game, you'll find me amid the thick cigar smoke in the corner of a broadcast booth in the second tier of the stadium, above the plate. I'm easier to spot than my broadcast partner to my left because Joe Buck or Ralph Kiner or Gary Thorne is usually seated. Perhaps because our location reminds me of all the years I squatted behind the plate, I often stand through much of the game. To our left is the stage manager, who will hand us promotional tie-ins after the wrap-ups each inning and, via the control room, let us know if a reliever gets up, a pinch hitter grabs a bat, or anything else occurs we might not be aware of.
I can hear Jeff Mitchell on my earpiece throughout the game, as can my broadcast partner. When I want to speak to him during an inning, I push a "talk-back" button, which prevents our conversation from going on the air. I can ask for graphics, stats, a replay, the camera to pick up a particular player while I talk about him, or even a split screen to show several people at once. Or I can ask Jeff for a "sequence," a concept he pioneered about five years ago. I remember that during the 1996 season, we had a fascinating sequence that showed Bobby Jones get out three Dodgers in succession, all on defensive two-strike swings, proving how in control Jones was.
On three-man broadcasts on FOX, when Bob Brenly, another ex-catcher, joins Joe and me for the All-Star Game and postseason fare, the potential for congestion exists. However, I feel we do a good job of not stepping on each other, with either feet or words. The longer you work together, the more you learn each other's rhythm and the times you talk at the same time become infrequent. Bob and I will hand-signal each other when we want to say something, but even that's not really needed. There is a silent language that the three of us understand. That's how it was at ABC when Jim Palmer and I worked as coanalysts with Al Michaels doing play-by-play.
A monitor that shows exactly what you see at home is positioned in front of the play-by-play and color men, jutting out from the booth. Watching the monitor is something I had to become accustomed to. As a player I was taught to always watch the game. While you sat on the bench, you may have fooled around or gotten into a conversation, but you never missed a pitch. When I became a broadcaster, I had the dual responsibility of watching the field to see the action and watching the monitor to know what part of the action the viewers were seeing. However, it's very dangerous to just work off the monitor if you are doing play-by-play because when the ball goes up in the air it flies off the screen and you don't know right away where it has been hit or how hard it has been hit. Even the best cameraman can't pick up the ball with his lens as fast as you can with your eyes if you are looking at the field. So it's up to the broadcaster to fill in the where-and-how-far information during the time the cameraman is trying to track the ball down.
When it's 5-0 in the third or fourth inning, you hope the game will sustain the interest of viewers. That's more likely to happen if the home team is ahead. On network television, we obviously don't care who wins, but we feel fortunate when the home team at least stays close because we want the crowd to be into the game. Noise creates interest. If the visiting team is way ahead, the crowd is quiet. So if you talk to network producers about ratings, they'll say, "Give me a home team that wins every time."
People always ask me how I deal with having to broadcast a blowout. It's no problem at all. What we may try to do is change our focus. For instance, the game may be over because of the lopsided score, but if Mark McGwire has two more at-bats, we will remind viewers of this. I don't refer to time, unless it is part of the story. A broadcaster should never complain about how a game is dragging. Baseball is one of the respites for those with Type A behavior, who want everything over with quickly, whether it is sex or baseball. That a game takes longer doesn't necessarily make it less interesting. A long, even poorly played game can be enjoyable. It's proper for the broadcaster to have the same enthusiasm and care that he would have in a close game. He owes it to new fans, all the other fans, the managers, his employers, the broadcasting profession, and all the players who are busting their butts on the field to not let down. I remember that Yul Brynner said he gave his all during every performance of The King and I because there were always people in the audience who had never seen the show before. As a broadcaster I feel the same way.
Strategy becomes moot during a blowout, so it's natural for us to go into the memory bank, as we do when there's a rain delay. During blowouts, it's natural to talk about comebacks. For instance, in 1964, when I was with the Cardinals, we were leading the Phillies 10-1 in the bottom of the ninth inning with one out and a man on. It was a laugher. Three relievers later, the game ended 10-9, when Alex Johnson was thrown out by Curt Flood, trying to stretch a single into a double. I can't tell you the anxiety that we felt.
I'll also recall a game in 1976, when I was a member of the Phillies. We were trailing 13-2 to the Cubs in Wrigley Field in the top of the sixth inning with one out and nobody on. We won 18-16, when Mike Schmidt belted his fourth homer of the game in the tenth inning off Paul Reuschel, his first having come off Reuschel's brother Rick. There are several parks in which you can be honest when you say during a blowout, "No lead is safe here." Wrigley when the wind is blowing out, Fenway Park, Coors, and the Kingdome have been the scenes of many improbable comebacks.
Everybody gets into trouble watching only the monitor. One time, when I was doing play-by-play for a game in the Astrodome, I was watching the monitor and I saw the batter lift the ball to the left side. Also on the screen, I saw the shortstop run out into the outfield. I told the viewers that he was about to catch an easy pop-up. Then I looked out on the field and saw that the reason the shortstop was racing out was to point to where the long fly ball was going. As the viewers now saw on the screen, the left fielder was backpedaling toward the wall in order to make the catch. I had no choice but to tell the truth, that a rare indoor Texas gale had taken hold of the ball.
Ralph Kiner laughs about the time eight or nine years ago in Montreal, when he was looking at the monitor and lost the ball off the bat. Judging by the sound of the bat striking the ball and the crowd noise, he said, "Gone, gone, good-bye." And then he saw that it had been a grounder that the left fielder was chasing down in the outfield.
There is a second monitor in the box that shows upcoming graphics. The graphic on this monitor will soon be on the monitor in front of us and on your screen. (Similarly, in the control room what is on the preset monitor will shift to the program monitor.) We see graphics in advance so that we will be prepared to either comment on them or say nothing when they appear on your screen. Steve Oelbaum tells me that the typical Mets broadcast has about two hundred graphics, counting the adjusted stats for every time a batter comes up and the changing scores of out-of-town games. And that is only about 30 to 40 percent of what is prepared by Steve and Arthur Friedman. Some of the ideas are inspired by Arthur's immense knowledge of stats, as well as suggestions by us in the booth, and by notes supplied by Steve Hirdt. Everything is programmed three or four hours before a game, so Arthur knows exactly what is available if a particular situation arises on the field.
A lot of it is hunch. For instance, if a guy comes up with the bases loaded, Arthur will want to have a graphic ready that gives not only his career stats with the bases loaded but also the last time he hit a grand slam. As Arthur says, "Bringing it up two batters later is sloppy." In 1997, Mets reliever John Franco came in with a three-run lead, so Arthur quickly prepared a graphic for the last time Franco had given up three runs in an inning. Surprisingly, Franco was pounded for three runs, yet we were ready with the graphic. Similarly, when Giants reliever Rod Beck came in to face the Mets, a graphic was ready showing that he owned the two hitters due up back-to-back, Todd Hundley and Bernard Gilkey. It provided a new perspective on a crucial situation. Beck might not have relieved that game and the graphic wouldn't have been used, but it still would have been comforting to know that it was available if needed.
Steve Hirdt tries to anticipate how a graphic may give a situation more import. So if Rickey Henderson, for example, is playing in the World Series, Steve will try to impress both us and the viewer with a graphic. It might have to do with Henderson's remarkable on-base percentage during Series play. When you see his name listed with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, you realize you are watching somebody who ranks with the all-time greats. And you wonder: Will he get on base now?
In terms of graphics, I think the golden moment is when you start talking about a player, say Andre Dawson, having done something rare--Dawson became one of only three guys to have three hundred homers and three hundred stolen bases--and the minute you start talking about it, the graphic appears on the screen. You haven't prepared anyone in the control room for what you're going to say at a precise moment, yet the producer hears you getting into something and, knowing what graphics he has on hand, quickly gets that graphic on screen. When you're on the same wavelength, you know you're really clicking.
As John Madden continues to prove in football, the Telestrator can be a very powerful tool if used properly. If viewers are just half listening or are confused, a drawing will get their attention, and if you're playful enough you can get a point across and have fun, too. I'd had one for many years at CBS, but through the encouragement of FOX I've been able to use it to better effect, especially in postseason play. In the '97 divisional playoffs, for example, I outlined Sandy Alomar's chest protector to show the wide target--much bigger than the mitt--that is used for a young pitcher like Jaret Wright, who throws hard and has a lot of movement. It has become easier to make marks now that we can just touch a screen that is hooked onto the monitor with a finger instead of using a pencil.
Television announcers have learned well from radio announcers that sounds can mean a great deal to the viewer. At home, while you're watching the game, you're also listening to it. You can sense the atmosphere at the ballpark when announcers allow the sound to play, as opposed to talking nonstop. The crack of the bat, the sound of a fastball hitting a mitt; the roar of the crowd, and the umpire's loud calls all make you feel like you are there. The good producers will run a playback in real time so you'll hear the natural sound. In tying to bring the game into your living room, the various networks have placed microphones around the field. I think FOX has been the most innovative. We miked the bases, which I find very useful. On a play at first, you can hear the ball hitting the first baseman's mitt, the batter's foot coming down on the bag, and the umpire's call. Like you, the umpire is basing his call on sounds as well as on what he sees, so you can judge whether he is right or wrong even before the replay.
We've miked the foul pole, and the ball has hit it. For the 1997 ALCS, we had sixty mikes along the outfield fence and on a real-time replay you could hear Cleveland center fielder Marquis Grissom slam into the wall trying to make a catch. Ouch. We've miked managers and coaches, but only to play back on tape so profanities won't slip in. I think the use of microphones is a real asset if handled properly. Anything that can make the viewer feel more like he is at the park is very helpful to television and ultimately the game itself. You want viewers to feel that they are part of the action.
Baseball is so much harder to televise than the other sports because it is a game of angles. It constantly amazes me how the good producers and directors like Bill Webb, John Filippelli, and Jeff Mitchell are able to cover everything that goes on during the course of the game, making viewers feel like they know every inch of the ballpark they are watching. These guys really know how to use cameras, not only to show action but also to bring out the emotion felt by the people they shoot. For the 1997 All-Star Game, FOX had sixteen cameras, including the new ten-ounce Catcher-Cam, on the receiver's hockeylike mask. This is about twice as many cameras as an independent station uses. On Mets games, Jeff has six or seven cameras at his disposal, for which there are five tape machines.
Camera-One, the low-third camera, is located next to the third-base dugout. Jeff uses it to shoot all left-handed batters, right-handed pitchers, the runner at first, and the trail runner. On fielding plays to the left side, the camera will stay on the shortstop or third baseman after the throw to get his reaction to whether the batter was called safe or out. That shot of him can be used in a replay. If a steal is a possibility, I might ask that the two dugout cameras shoot the second baseman and shortstop, so we can tell who's covering. The camera can sneak behind the gloves they use to cover their mouths. An open mouth means "you cover." (If there is a steal attempt, Jeff will have three or four cameras directed at second base.)
Jeff likes to use the low-third camera to cross-shoot into the opposite dugout. It's a better way to get the true emotions of the manager, coaches, and players than by using the camera right next to them, which makes them self-conscious. Moreover, if the other team has a camera in there with yours, they will often obstruct each other. So cross-shooting is usually preferable, particularly if everyone in the dugout is in a bad mood and doesn't want a lens in his face.
Camera-Two, the high-home camera, is located on the far left of the broadcast booth, opposite me. Turned into the booth, it is the camera that is used when we do our on-camera pregame intros and postgame wrap-ups. Facing forward, it can display the entire field or zoom in for a shot of the backs of the umpire and catcher, side of the batter, and front of the pitcher. Usually, the cameraman has the plate, mound, and second base centered in the frame, but with men on second and third, he might frame it so that second base is at the far right on your screen. He will zoom into a close-up of the pitcher on rare occasions.
As soon as the ball is hit fair, Jeff will switch from the center-field camera to the high-home camera. The cameraman won't look at the monitor or viewfinder to find the ball but at the field. He will zoom in as outfielders track down flies and grounders or as infielders or the catcher near home catches pop-ups. He will follow the ball through the play. On a grounder to short, Camera-Two will follow the ball as the shortstop picks it up, throws it across the diamond, and is caught by the first baseman. High-home is a reaction camera--the ball is hit, the cameraman follows; the play ends, the camera goes back to a wide-angle shot of the field. The other cameramen are thinking more about the specific players the announcers are talking about. In a situation with base runners, they're asking: who's got the batter, who's got the pitcher, who's got the lead runner ...?
Camera-Three, the high-first camera, is located on the second level of the stands behind the first-base dugout. It can get crowd shots, shoot into both bullpens, double-cover plays in the outfield, and pick up the catcher getting a pop-up if he comes back toward the screen and is lost by the high-home camera. It can be an important "shag" camera, which means it follows the ball wherever it is hit. Jeff is adamant that no camera should be used to get a meaningless shot of the ball against the high sky. He doesn't think the overhead camera is better for close plays at home than for balls and strikes. The umpires complain about it, but what it does is confirm that they are right most of the time.
I do like the Catcher-Cam, which gives the catcher's point of view on pitches coming into home plate and lets us see what the catcher sees as he fields bunts and pop-ups and makes throws to various bases. It also shows the runner coming down the third-base line--as long as the catcher keeps his mask on. In the All-Star Game, we didn't have any live shots using this camera, just replays. This camera will probably be used more in time, but I doubt if it will be used on a consistent basis because pitchers and umps believe it reveals too much. I think it can be fun and enlightening and offer a unique perspective.
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Jeff will use his cameras differently if a game lacks excitement. He'll find something off the ball, like the left fielder trying to stay interested during the third or fourth pitching change. If it's a blowout, he'll try to jazz things up, perhaps finding some unusual people in the stands. The emphasis changes late in a game. If it's a tight game, he stays with the action. Jeff and I both like to have tension shots, such as close-ups of eyes and jittery fingers on the bat. You can isolate on the pitcher in the dugout, maybe the starter watching the reliever. Dissolves were originally set up to show a transition in time, but they are effective in a nail-biting situation when you dissolve from one manager to the other manager to the pitcher to the batter, even to nervous fans. Emotion is exciting to watch.
Televised baseball works when the audio and pictures complement each other. The picture should support the words, and the words should support the picture. At its best, when you start talking, the producer doesn't wait for you to finish a thought but already has the visual that supports what you're saying. Or he has a visual and the announcers try to weave a story around it. I often think of the roles everyone has in a telecast. But Jeff is the one who expresses it best. He says, "I consider the announcers to be the authors of the television story, the players to be the actors, and myself and the crew to be the illustrators. They narrate the story and we put the pictures up there, and when we work well together, we have a hit show."
Excerpted from Tim McCarver's Baseball for Brain Surgeons and Other Fans by Tim McCarver Copyright © 1999 by Tim McCarver. Excerpted by permission.
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