Baseball’s Opening Day is today. I have decided to write and submit this piece to our overworked Editor on Opening Day Eve—at 2:12 A.M.—and the post date and time relative to Opening Day depends on how much work my writing prowess requires prior to publish. (Editor’s Note: Honestly, Dennis, I hate your guts right now. No heads up that this was coming?!)
Luckily, baseball season stretches before us all like the miles stretch before my beloved Editor as she stands at the starting line of her insane, preferred recreational activity, so even two weeks from now will still qualify as the beginning of the season.
I really enjoy baseball, probably for the reasons that its popularity continues to wane. I like the slow pace. I like being able to talk to people between pitches and innings without missing anything. I like being able to wander the concourse and only miss 1/9th of the game. I like when the announcers run out things to talk about and have to get weird. I like that the National League and American League have different rules.
You know what I don’t like? That I now live in a place without Big League baseball. I grew up near Kansas City and thusly carry the burden of Royals fandom. Their back-to-back AL Championships and one World Series win still sustain me, but I will always remember the dark times of the 90s and 00s. Between 1990 and 2010 (minus the ‘94 strike year), the Royals averaged 90.85 losses a year. That includes four 100-loss seasons. Do the names Neifi Perez and Ross Gload mean anything to you? They do to me.
I once tried to break free of this. In 1998, the Dodgers traded Mike Piazza to the Marlins who would trade him one week later to the Mets. The Royals, featuring titans of the game like Jose Offerman and Tim Belcher, would outperform expectations to finish 72-89. Carlos Beltran, Jermaine Dye, and Johnny Damon were there, but even 14-year old me knew enough to realize they would become great elsewhere. The connection between Piazza and the subpar KC squad is that, in a fit of despair, I decided pick a different team. I liked Piazza as a player, and when he landed on the Mets, that was good enough for me.
I didn’t want to go full on bandwagon and pick one of the top teams, so I figured the other New York team would avoid any suspicious glances. Did I, a teen in Kansas, have any way of watching Mets games in 1998? No. Could I have chosen the Cubs or White Sox, two teams who appeared daily on WGN, a channel inexplicably broadcast in Lawrence, Kansas? Yes, but the White Sox were an AL Central rival, and the Cubs sucked just as hard as the Royals. Could I alternately chosen the Braves, who appeared on TBS? Yes, but I could not bring myself to cheer for Chipper Jones and the beige lunch pail trio of Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz. I feel that history has proven my decision correct. So, I picked the Mets, comforted by their National League residency which allowed me any conflict of interest in simultaneously caring about them and the Royals. (Editor’s Note: Due to your cross-division appreciation of the New York Mets, I no longer hate your guts. Please continue.)
I know that everyone has their own code of sports fandom and what constitutes an acceptable reason to start cheering for a team. Regionalism, which at the root is really just peer pressure and conformity, still plays a major role. Usually, there is a window in childhood where people accept someone just picking a team. Few would begrudge someone who grew up in Philadelphia, but as a child saw that the Phillies and their fans were insufferable, opting out of that life and cheering for a the Red Sox. Somehow we allow that decision in childhood, but if a 40 year-old admitted that they bailed on “their team” and chose another, we would question their honor.
I do not write this to defend my Mets fandom. I write it to defend my Nationals fandom. (Editor’s Note: Okay, hatred resumed.) Following a team halfway across the country through box scores and SportsCenter highlights, because your parents won’t spring for any sort of premium cable package proved untenable. I abandoned the Mets despite Piazza (and later David Wright) being cool players, and reverted to being only a Royals fan.
I struggled to find my place in D.C., since most people there treat politics like sports, whereas I treat sports like sports and politics like a necessary evil. I couldn’t connect. But the Nats helped me find something about the city I could invest in. Even so, I still thought of my interest in the Nats as a marriage of convenience. I couldn’t be with the one I loved, so I was loving the one I was with. My thinking was that once I left D.C., my interest in the NL East would fade.
Then, last fall when moving to Portland, Oregon became a reality, an unbidden thought popped into my mind: Now, I can watch Nats games on MLB TV, since I won’t be the blackout area. Shocked, I questioned myself. Why would I care about watching Nats games in Oregon?
At first, I went to games just to see some baseball. But what actually won me over were the $8 tickets on StubHub, ease of hopping on the Metro over to the stadium, the fact that Nats Park actually pulls off the Neo-Retro look, and watching a team with actual promise. And, I was still able to abide by my own Fandom Code of Ethics, because it was an NL team and didn’t conflict with my lifetime love of the Royals. I wasn’t really betraying my inherited fandom.
So without intending to, I realized I’d be taking that Nats fandom across the country, to a place with no professional baseball to win me over.
But there are two minor league teams in my area. The Hillsboro Hops and the Portland Pickles. I don’t know which will win my allegiance. I know that summer means baseball, and that it’s the best way I know to combine civic pride with getting sunburned and drunk.