By: Andy Crawford
Not that long ago, I was probably like most other twenty-something sports fans. I’m an avid football fan (Dawgs and Cowboys) who would get into college basketball in March and passively pay attention to the NBA playoffs. Like many fans, the football offseason is filled with scant moments of interest in the sports world, like the NFL Draft or National Signing Day. Non-football events will hold my attention for a few days, like the aforementioned March Madness, or The Masters.
I’ve realized over the years that I need something to fill the offseason void left by football. Some friends have recommended soccer, as writers on this site have documented their love of the English Premier League and whatever the US National Team happens to be doing. I tried that, and have gone on record with my grievances about the so-called global sport.
Baseball was another option, but it never caught on either. For one, I live in the Atlanta market and have never been much of a Braves fan. Despite moving to Georgia over 20 years ago, in the middle of a truly remarkable run of greatness for their ball club, I was never able to catch on. Despite the threat of ostracization on the playground, my allegiance was set with the Texas Rangers at an early age. Sure they are historically one of the most inept franchises across all professional sports, but I always cast my lot in with the likes of Nolan Ryan, Pudge Rodriguez, Rafael Palmeiro, and Juan Gonzalez. Unfortunately, there has never been much chance of watching them regularly in Georgia.
I was at this Rangers game. First row, third base side beside the White Sox dugout.
Moreover, like many Americans these days, I found baseball exceedingly boring. Despite playing it every season from the age of 5 to 17 and having an intimate knowledge of the game, baseball was too slow to enjoy it as a spectator. In our fast-paced culture, quicker and more physical games like football and basketball are more entertaining to watch on our big, high definition televisions. There are last second plays, circus catches, big hits, dunks, etc. Baseball is a slow-paced game with no clock and sporadic action performed by overweight old men, and each game counts for relatively little over the course of a long, 162 game season.
Or so I thought. But over the last several months, baseball has brought me back. Here’s how:
Anyone who has ever read anything on this blog knows I am a history nerd. Back around April, around Opening Day, I began watching Ken Burns’ documentary on the history of baseball (h/t Jason Smith). The first episode was full of amazing old photographs and anecdotes about the game, dating back to the early 19th century. Add in the fact that the documentary was narrated by the legendary narrator and author David McCullough, and I was hooked.
Baseball has an incomparable legacy and well over a century of continuity. For the same reason many appreciate singing the same hymns in church that their great-grandparents sang over 100 years ago, or walking the same college campus where their parents met decades ago, there is something special about watching the same game that captivated millions of Americans in the 1880s and 1890s. The thrill of watching Delino DeShields running 90 feet to first base to beat out a bunt is the exact same joy my great great grandfather would have felt watching Tris Speaker do the same in 1907.
It’s often been said that the Old West is America’s mythology. That may be true, but baseball’s Dead Ball Era (pre-1920) may be as well. Instead of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral, there’s Merkle’s Boner. While the Old West has Billy the Kid and Wyatt Earp, baseball has its Ty Cobb and Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown (an appropriate nickname for the pitcher who was maimed in a farming accident, and whose remaining fingers allowed him to throw one of the greatest curveballs the game has ever seen.)
Ken Burns’ documentary led me to read up on some of the early legends who made baseball America’s pastime, and instilled a greater appreciation for its larger role in American history and society.
Old Made New
While history is great, that doesn’t change the fact that baseball is quickly becoming an antiquated game, right?
Wrong. Baseball has a history of being on the cutting edge. Other than a few notable exceptions like instant replay, baseball has often been ahead of the curve (pardon the pun). For example, the league integrated in 1947, a full eight years before Brown v. Board of Education.
In this same vein, Major League Baseball has revolutionized the way fans can enjoy the game. Over the last several years the league developed the first live sports app, allowing subscribers to access any MLB game in the country. Whether on an Apple TV, tablet, Roku, or any other device, a subscriber can access the MLBtv app, select the game they want to watch, and the home or away team broadcast. All of a sudden, a Texas Rangers fan in Georgia can enjoy his team’s game every day. The NBA recently paid the MLB to build a similar service for their league, and the NFL is light years behind this kind of distribution.
As the baseball bug bit me in May, MLBtv ran a special where I bought an entire season’s pass for about $60 (regularly priced around $120). I jumped at the chance, and have watched the vast majority of Rangers games.
Acquiring a taste. Like bourbon.
Baseball is the kind of game that must be followed daily to be fully appreciated. While football has one game a week which stands as an isolated event, one week in baseball is an ongoing narrative that can seem like an eternity. A team can be no-hit on Sunday and three games out of the wildcard, and then run off five straight wins and lead the division by Saturday. Habitual viewing helps you learn the character of the players, their respective strengths and weaknesses, and the strategies of the team as a whole.
I used to drink beer, but not liquor. I found the latter to bitter and strong. It wasn’t until I started drinking bourbon on a regular basis that my pallet developed. I began to detect the subtleties in the taste, and could judge the quality of different brands. I learned to enjoy the slow sip from a lowball glass as opposed to the big gulp of a beer stein. In the same way, baseball requires daily viewing to fully appreciate and enjoy.
The Youth Movement
If you have any interest in getting into baseball, now is the perfect time. Never before has the game been dominated by a generation of such young talent. The old, disgraced names of the Steroid Era are almost all gone (looking at you, A-Rod). Strict enforcement of performance enhancing drugs has brought integrity and competition back to the game. The 2015 All Star Game included eight players under the age of 25 who had been named an all star at least once before.
Young pitchers like Chris Sale (26), Michael Wacha (24), Sonny Gray (25), and Madison Bumgarner (26) are dominating the game. To challenge their dominance is an even younger group of hitters, led by Bryce Harper (22), Kris Bryant (23), and Mike Trout (24). These guys could end up putting numbers up like Ruth, Cobb, or Mays by the time they retire in 15 years.
The other night an NFL preseason game was on. I turned it on, and began enjoying what is, admittedly, still my favorite sport. After a few minutes, however, I did something I never would have considered before. I changed the channel to a baseball game.
It’s good to have options again.
Andy wrote this while watching the Rangers blow a late lead to the Blue Jays. As a Georgia fan, he’s happy to extend this kind of torment and heartbreak to the whole calendar.