Evolution of a Baseball Fan

My love affair with America’s Pastime

Photo by Jon Eckert on Unsplash

“Baseball, it is said, is only a game. True. And the Grand Canyon is just a hole in Arizona.” — George Will

My father used to say baseball was so boring that he wouldn’t walk across the street to see the World Series. For free.

He took great pride in this, as if the statement somehow set him apart from the teeming masses who would enjoy such a pastime. To him, it was purely dull. When I was Daddy’s Girl and wanted to be just like him, I saw baseball the same way.

We lived far enough from Cincinnati and Cleveland that no Major League Baseball team had a strong influence on my childhood, and in the years before the Internet (or even cable for that matter) we’d only be able to track another city’s sports team through scores in the daily paper. To do that, you had to actually care.

Childhood: Daddy’s Girl

We were a football family, but even that had specific parameters, very much defined by my father. College football only — there was something about the NFL Daddy didn’t like. I followed in his footsteps for years, reserving a particular distaste for the Cleveland Browns because a boy I knew in junior high who turned out to be a girlfriend-beating imbecile loved that team. And we were Penn State fans — though fan, even with the understanding that it’s short for fanatic, might have been an understatement. In the fall, Daddy ate, slept and breathed Penn State football, and I was right there with him.

Football is fall, Daddy, beer, petting the stone Nittany Lion statue perched by the TV when the team needed a boost. Football is yelling loud enough to startle the rest of the family when your team loses. It’s the Budweiser Clydesdales, Get a Piece of the Rock, Pink Panther selling fiberglass insulation. It’s Gillette (the best a man can get), Michelob and Lowenbrau. It’s being quiet so Daddy could watch the game. It’s telling my mom and sister they’d be relegated to another room if they didn’t stop chatting. It’s sneaking liquor from the easily-accessible cabinet into my OJ and Cap 10 at nine or 10 years old. I really was my father’s daughter and I wanted to be just like him, except for the smoking because it made me sick to my stomach. (That came later.)

My dad attended Penn State for undergrad and graduate school in the 1950s and was president of the renowned Blue Band his senior year. He impressed upon me from a very early age the integrity of the Penn State football program, and especially of its legendary coach, Joe Paterno.

Joe demanded academic achievements from his players that many other coaches and schools did not. He didn’t allow stickers on helmets, or player names on the backs of shirts, because it was supposed to be about the team not the individual. He turned down NFL coaching positions that would have tripled his salary or more, because he was where he wanted to be.

By the time the Jerry Sandusky scandal hit in 2011, my dad was almost 80, and it was excruciating for him to hear the accusations that one of his Most Admired People had participated in the cover-up. Our heroes fall especially hard.

The Chicago Years: City Girl

I attended my first baseball game in Chicago. A friend invited us to join him in a suite, and I remember my now-husband saying “Don’t get used to this…it isn’t how we’ll normally experience baseball games!” I still followed football in Chicago, though as an adult, I’d mostly crossed over to “the dark side” — the NFL.

The Bears went to the Super Bowl in 2007, and I remember it vividly. We’d been to Vegas for the weekend on my frequent flyer miles. I was not thinking clearly when booking that trip…had no idea it was Super Bowl weekend until I was making the hotel reservation! Flew back Sunday, rushed home from the airport, and walked into our loft just in time to see Devin Hester return the opening kickoff for a touchdown.

I think that was the last time we cheered during the game, as Da Bears were pretty much shut down by the Colts after that. I remember sitting on the shabby grey wood floor in the corner of the open space we had designated our living room, sobbing at the end of that game. I take my sports very seriously, and if I’m a real fan of a team, then I’m All In. There’s most definitely crying in sports, at my house.

But we moved later that year, and we didn’t focus much on sports during the surreal three-year period we lived in North Carolina and Virginia. By the time our journey brought us back to Ohio in 2010, baseball season was just about over in Cleveland. The Indians weren’t very good in those days. But BECAUSE they weren’t very good, my husband was able to snag tickets to the home opener the following year, and the rest is history. I was hooked. While I first started paying attention to baseball in Chicago, it was in Cleveland that I truly fell in love.

Photo by DJ Johnson on Unsplash

Cleveland: Coming Home

Since arriving in Cleveland almost nine years ago, I have found myself consistently impressed with this off-market, low-budget team that over the years was even referred to by its fans as the farm system for the New York Yankees. The team’s a perfect metaphor for Cleveland itself — my city that never gives up.

After all, we went to the World Series in 2016 with basically 2 1/2 starting pitchers, and took the Cubs (who’d won more than 100 games for the first time since 1935) to Game 7. We lost in extra innings to a possibly-better, definitely-healthier team, but we also showed an extraordinary amount of grit, spirit and determination, and that playoff run will be with me as long as I live.

It’s going to be the thing my husband and I talk about when we’re 80, sitting on a porch swing somewhere, holding hands and telling our stories. We’ll be cursing the rain delay that we believe cost us the game, but remembering how we screamed ourselves hoarse from the Right Field District and hugged strangers as Rajai Davis hit the game-tying home run in the 8th inning. Remembering our sense of sheer amazement that we were there in the first place.

Progressive Field (known as The Jake to die-hard fans) is nestled into downtown Cleveland, and that’s just the way I like it. It’s a Cleveland team, not a Richfield team, or an Avon team, or a Middleburg Heights team. Stick it right in the middle of the hub where it belongs, not out in a field somewhere. To me, if you love both baseball and Cleveland, the best seats are in the upper level, right behind home plate. You can see the entire play unfold against the backdrop of the city skyline, and it’s absolutely breathtaking.

“There are only two seasons — winter and baseball.” — Bill Veeck

There’s just something about a baseball game. Baseball is spring, summer and fall, warm breeze off the lake, local microbrews and Take Me Out to the Ballgame. It’s Tom Hamilton and Jim Rosenhaus on the radio (“A swing and a drive…to deep left…a-waaaaaay back and GONE!). It’s statistics and pencils and scorecards. Bobbleheads and dollar dog nights. Walk-up songs and pitching duels, extra innings and The Star Spangled Banner. It’s America’s Pastime with a deep, rich history, beautifully chronicled in Ken Burns’ Emmy-winning documentary miniseries “Baseball”. It’s spring training and my annual countdown to Opening Day. I end the season ready for a break, but by February, I’m more than ready to dive back in.

I’m fascinated by the nuance, the elegance of baseball. As my relationship with baseball deepened, football no longer seemed to have the same allure.

Football was my past, but baseball is my present and future. I’m glad to see the Browns climbing out of the dark pit of that 0–16 season (the vile boy from junior high is barely a shadow of a memory). I’ll watch some games on TV this season, but from late March to (crossing my fingers) late October, I’ll be feeding my baseball obsession.

I realized recently that football and baseball are connected so strongly to the two most important men who have ever been in my life. Football is my dad, childhood. Baseball is my husband, adulthood.

Baseball is, perhaps, my declaration of sports independence.

Daddy passed away in early 2015. He lived long enough to know I was engaged, but not long enough to see us finally get married. Not long enough in general. If he were still alive, I’d take him to an Indians game. I don’t think I could change his mind about baseball, but I could show him why I love my city, my team and my ballpark so much. I think he’d get it. I think he’d even have fun. But I suspect he still wouldn’t walk across the street to see the World Series for free, and he’d be more than happy to tell you that.

“Love is the most important thing in the world, but baseball is pretty good too.” — Yogi Berra

Life’s a journey. Sometimes a peaceful hike in the woods, sometimes a screaming joyride down a dark highway. I’m on a quest to discover my truth by sharing it.

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