sports

Baseball is the best. But maybe I’m also over it?

A few years ago, a friend, perhaps somewhat incredulously, told me I was the biggest baseball fan he knew. I chose to take it as a compliment. It’s good to be passionate, and baseball has been my No. 1 passion since I was 5 years old.

This year, other friends have inquired how I am surviving without baseball, because zero games have been played because of covid-19. The answer is, I’m not just surviving, I’m thriving.

I love baseball with all my heart. But maybe I’m also over it? Let’s start by investigating all the reasons baseball is the best.

Baseball has been the cornerstone of my travel habits.

When I was growing up, for many years my parents let me start summer vacation plans with a Major League Baseball schedule in hand. We didn’t have the Internet then, so I would use preseason magazines to do the planning. My first MLB game was July 6, 1982, in Arlington, Texas. I don’t remember it because I was only 3. But by the time I was 14, this Oklahoma Kid had been to all five MLB parks in California over the course of four unforgettable vacations. We took multiple trips to Kansas City and St. Louis. We spent a spring break in the Florida Grapefruit League. And we hit the East Coast (including Baltimore and the Bronx) when I was in college.

St. Louis, 1988
Chicago, 2002
Cincinnati, 2015

In adulthood, I have taken two extended baseball tours with my friends, hitting several stadiums each time. And Matt and I have tried to reunite with smaller trips every year since. Because of this, I have been to 25 MLB parks and about 10 or so Spring Training venues. Baseball has given me incentive to see the USA, or at least many of its greatest cities. A move to Missouri in 2014 afforded me the chance to catch MLB games on a whim in Kansas City.

Ballparks are a culinary delight.

I used to be one to catch batting practice. But these days, I much prefer to pregame at the neighborhood bars. Wrigleyville is the best for this, of course, but I’ve also enjoyed Pittsburgh and Cleveland. Once in the stadium, I take a lap to explore every nook and cranny. Every ballpark has unique food offerings, and I love scouting them all. One favorite is at Target Field, where there is a stand featuring the fare of the Minnesota State Fair. I bought cheese curds and fully intended to share them with Matt. But darn if they weren’t so good that I ate them all before I got back to the seats. Sorry dude!

Chicago, 2015
Chicago, 2015

Both the South and North sides of Chicago provide all the food and drink a person could handle in a million lifetimes.

The beer landscape has also gotten so much better. Local brews and craft selections are at every park now. My motto is quality over quantity, so I appreciate the finer beers in life. One memorable libation was Founder’s Red Rye IPA at Comerica Park in Detroit. The Craft & Draft area is also a must-visit when I’m at Kauffman Stadium.

Every game is an opportunity to see something you’ve never seen before.

Kansas City, 2018
Kansas City, 2018

In 1986, I saw George Brett notch his 2,000th hit with a bat that wasn’t his in a 17-inning game. In 1989, I saw Tony Armas hit a walk-off homer that immediately led to Fourth of July fireworks. In 1992, I saw Nolan Ryan ejected for the only time of his career (and amazingly, it wasn’t the Robin Ventura game because somehow he was not ejected for that). In 2006, I saw Ryan Zimmerman hit a walk-off homer on Father’s Day with his dad in the stands. In 2007, I saw Sammy Sosa’s 600th home run – against his old team, the Cubs. In 2009, I saw President George W. Bush throw out the first pitch. In 2018, I saw a game in Kansas City delayed for a toilet flood in the outfield. Two days later, George Brett himself came into to hang out with us in a suite. And the Hall-of-Fame-worthy wackiness had come full circle.

Baseball is a stylish game.

Colorado, 2018

I love the aesthetics of baseball. The logos. The hat designs. The uniforms that change. The uniforms that never do. The way the grounds crews sweep designs into the grass. The way the white lines are straight and crisp. The architecture of the stadiums. The irregularities of the outfield walls. A scorecard meticulously inked in pen. It’s all beautiful.

A few more good things worth mentioning.

Opening Day. Vin Scully. Fantasy baseball. Buster Olney’s podcast. The wild card games. Keith Law’s analysis. Ken Griffey, Jr.’s swing. Sammy Sosa’s hop. Baseball cards. MLB Network. Ken Burns’ Baseball. Father and son having a catch. Old Hoss Radbourne’s tweets. Harry Caray. Baseball movies. The Batting Stance Guy. An adult catching a foul ball and giving it to a child. Box scores. Bob Eucker. Baseball books. The Fall Classic.

But now, the bad: Strikes, steroids, salaries, sign stealing, and a superbug.

Look, I’ve been a baseball apologist for so long, it’s still hard to even write about the bad stuff. But there’s a lot of bad stuff to deal with. There are people, my friend Ben included, who have not fully come back from the 1994 strike that canceled the World Series.

The torching of the home run record book in 1998 was just what baseball needed to bring fans back into the fold. But at the time, we chose to ignore that Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa had loaded their bodies with chemicals to become unnatural baseball beasts. By the time Barry Bonds rewrote the records again a few years later, we had a better picture of what was going on. New rules were written, and promptly broken. MLB is still grappling with how to regard the legacies of its biggest stars who were users.

Noted steroid user Alex Rodriguez before a game in Texas, 2007

From there, player salaries skyrocketed to the $330 million mark, thanks to lucrative cable contracts and hedge-fund billionaire owners. Meanwhile, the average fan was priced out of attendance, or at least out of attendance anywhere near field level.

Instant replay was born of boneheaded umpire blunders, like when Jim Joyce robbed Armando Galleraga of a perfect game in 2010. But constant tweaks have yet to perfect the system, and we have ended up with a process that typically grinds games to a halt, while fans in the stands usually don’t even know what is being reviewed.

Speaking of pace of play, that has been such an issue that rules are being changed every season. And maybe that’s a big deal for younger fans. But as a hardcore fan, I never really wanted less baseball, I just wanted it to be fun and accessible, which brings me to my next point.

Blackouts. I’ve been a subscriber of MLB internet packages since the day they were invented. It started with radio calls in the 1990s and progressed to what they now call MLB.tv, which ostensibly provides fans with the home-and-away video feeds of every game. Except that MLB stays true to the cash that cable networks provide, and blacks out “local” teams on the Internet. But what is defined as local? At one point when I lived in Oklahoma, I was blacked out from the Astros, Rangers, Rockies, Royals, and Cardinals. Only two of those teams were frequently on TV in my market. How ridiculous that a massive fan like myself, always loyal enough to buy the expensive packages, still can’t see 20% of games on any given night. Eventually, I found technology to fool MLB into thinking I was in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, because apparently that’s the ideal spot to watch some hardball. As more people cut the cable cord, MLB has to find a way to provide all games to all fans (including the postseason) over the Internet.

The Astros cheated and won a World Series. The Red Sox cheated and won a World Series. Punishments were light for both. Enough said.

That brings us to the Pandemic Season before us now. Maybe it’s the pessimist in me, but even in mid-March I didn’t think there would be a 2020 baseball season at all. I guess maybe I was only half right, because it appears a combination of pandemic and labor strife could cancel the season. But you know what? I don’t really care. Supposedly it’s the owners’ fault, but I don’t know because I haven’t followed it because, again, I don’t care.

What’s different in 2020, and why could this be the straw that breaks the camel’s back? Maybe it’s because I’m over 40 and every active baseball player is now younger than I am. Maybe it’s because I have a family that I adore. Maybe it’s just because baseball has shown that it can disappear for long periods of time, and I realize that the world keeps spinning anyway. It’s weird that I’m not watching baseball every night. But it’s also kind of nice that I’m not. Judging from social media posts, I am not alone in this attitude.

How I spend my evenings in 2020

In place of baseball I have two new passions, photography and cycling. I have worked hard to improve my camera skills, and I thoroughly enjoy capturing images of my beautiful daughters. The bicycle is a more recent acquisition. But in five weeks I’ve already traveled 212 miles on it.

If the owners and players come together and resume for a shortened season, maybe I will watch. And come 2021, I’ll probably plan a trip to a ballpark. But at this point I can’t see myself ever returning to the level of daily devotion I carried for four decades. So I’ll pour out a little beer to commemorate my lost fanaticism. But it won’t be a ballpark beer. That stuff is way too expensive to waste.

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