I’ve only been to two professional baseball games in my life, the second of which was only recently to see the Cleveland Indians at Jacobs Field (technically now called Progressive Field, but it will always be ‘the Jake’ to me.) The other came years ago in Arizona, observing the Diamondbacks in their air conditioned stadium on the surface of the sun. Baseball is called an American past-time, and it is: watching a ball game is part of this country’s recreational DNA. But my relationship with baseball, and professional sports in general, is complicated.
As a kid, I played tee ball and little league, I collected baseball cards and watched games on TV. The Indians and the Atlanta Braves were the teams of my family; the teams which I could identify even by the less-popular players. People may know Deion Sanders, but what about Mark Lemke? I knew. But in 1994 Major League Baseball players went on strike, at a time when my teams were on fire. In an instant, it seemed my devotion as a fan and kid were thrown out the window on account of money. My knowledge of Steve Avery or Carlos Baerga meant little in a dispute between players and owners. The average salary that year, according to Wikipedia, was $1.4mn…at that time, I only earned a few bucks in allowance.
I don’t want this to be a story about ‘innocence lost,’ but I guess that is part of my relationship with baseball. It was not in my control, it did not affect me directly, but it did affect my interaction with that recreational DNA Americans purportedly have. Kids don’t have much understanding of labor disputes, but there was already, for me, the impression that fairly well-off players were giving up on our journey to the World Series because they wanted even more money…more than I could ever think to have.
The bitter taste spread to football and basketball, too. I couldn’t watch the games the same way. I couldn’t support these guys, and these teams, because they didn’t support me.
I’m now in Cleveland, the home of Lebron, Johnny Football, the Dawg Pound, the Indians, etc, etc. This town loves its sports, and that devotion is a little infective. There is a common identity associated with watching the teams and the players, no matter if they’re good or bad, with a certain empathy. There’s a scene in the Cleveland sports film, Major League, where people wearing Indians gear randomly high-five themselves on the street. I sometimes feel like people here do that in a way…if only internally.
In watching a ball game with my family there was a certain magic. There was a magic in explaining the game to my son. There was a magic in seeing other fans enjoying my explanations to my son. There was a magic in holding our mitts, just in case a foul ball came our way.
But my relationship to the game itself is still distant. I think the Indians lost that day, I’m not sure. I can’t name any players. I enjoy sharing the essence of something ingrained in Americana with the next generation, but I can’t pass on the passion I held for it up until that strike. Perhaps in time this will change, but I’m no longer intoxicated by the magic as I once was. Now I am a journalist, a realist, ever aware of the (sometimes tragically illegal) antics of players off the field, and the money they earn while on it. I think a distant relationship to these games and players is all I can stand for now.