Tonight I’m going to a baseball game between the New York Yankees and the Minnesota Twins in Minneapolis. It will be my first baseball game this year. In fact, I can count the number of games I’ve caught on radio or TV this year on one hand. High school friends will find this shocking, but many of my more recent acquaintances don’t even know I’m a Yankees fan. I’ve fallen away from my first sports love, and barely even noticed the change.
I grew up glued to baseball, with internet radio feeds of Yankee games running in the background every night, all summer long. I was a proud member of the Bronx Bombers’ elitist and cutthroat fan base, and poured out my soul on internet forums discussing their performance. I loved baseball in any form: adventures in the miserable old Metrodome, family outings to the bleachers at Wrigley, and nights in crumbling old Wade Stadium on the west side of Duluth, watching the now-defunct Dukes go on that 2001 title run. (I still have plenty of the old scorecards.) Bob Uecker’s voice was the soundtrack to countless childhood drives across Wisconsin, and in a home without cable, FOX’s Saturday Game of the Week was required viewing, even though I had to endure Joe Buck. Baseball’s lessons spilled over into life: Bill James taught me how to analyze the world around me, and Roger Angell taught me how to write with grace. I wrote my college admissions personal statement on being a Yankees fan.
Now, however, I just glance at the standings from time to time. Part of my apostasy is just a natural swing. My evenings tend to be more interesting now than they were when I was fifteen, and few of my roommates or housemates over the years have been baseball fans. It became hard to find time, and harder to multi-task as other chores became more demanding than the high school math I used to do during the middle innings. Baseball requires a level of commitment that is harder and harder to find in a busy life, especially when compared to other sports that only feature a game or two a week.
I also admit that part of it may be me being a fair-weather fan. The Yankees are treading water around .500, in need of a desperate boost if they are to avoid missing October baseball for a fourth year running. (No, I don’t count last season’s stupid wild card playoff.) I started out as a Yankees fan when titles seemed to fall from the sky, but those days are now long gone, and when you’re rich and still can’t win, it feels rather lame. With Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter riding off into retirement, even a new genuine star would pale in comparison. They set the bar so stratospherically high, and were so tied up in my childhood, that no one can ever fill those holes in the roster. At least the decline of the mid-2000s, and even into the first few years of this decade, still had some compelling drama. Now, the franchise just feels mediocre and tired.
I still enjoy a warm night at the ballpark, and will happily use any cheap tickets that come my way. My other major sports loyalty doesn’t overlap with it; in fact, it’s perfectly timed to cover for the few months when baseball isn’t on. I’ll confess to a rising interest in soccer; in recent weeks, the Copa America and Euro 2016 have commanded a little more of my attention. These international tournaments that come only once have every few years have much more urgency than one game out of 162 in June, and the pageantry puts any American sport to shame. But baseball still has so much potential.
The popular narrative says young people now find baseball boring, and while I don’t have any reason to doubt that, I find it highly ironic that a sport in which you’re lucky to see three goals in a game is eclipsing baseball. Don’t get me wrong, I think there is lots of beauty in the slow build-up of play in the 88 minutes of soccer when people aren’t scoring, but why can’t we see the same thing in baseball’s steady rhythms, and the slow pacing that builds to each climactic pitch late in a game? There are so many little details to appreciate, and so many ways the sport could still be great. It isn’t clear that anyone has noticed them.
There’s the usual list of in-game culprits that MLB should attack, and it has made a few efforts to speed up time between innings and to (allegedly) crack down on batters stepping out of the box. The sabermetrics revolution, both insightful and perhaps alienating to fans who don’t understand WAR or advanced fielding metrics, has to date mostly decreased excitement for those not in its thralls by emphasizing walks, long at-bats, and crazy shifts that depress batting averages. We can only hope that the next round of innovation speeds up the game by attacking some of the more dense forms of conventional wisdom such as by-the-book platoon pitching changes. Instant replay, MLB’s latest tone-deaf experiment, is a time-wasting bore. And while baseball has been dominated by pitchers in recent years after the heavy-hitting 90s—so long, steroids—a few rule tweaks could up the runs and make it a bit sexier.
Still, any issues with baseball go beyond the immediate game. Stadiums have become pretty but sterile containers for mild amusement, and amenities have taken precedence over the product on the field. There is no worse offender than the new Yankee Stadium, a gaudy shell of its raucous predecessor, where the seats were right on top of the field and the chanting rarely ceased. Sometime last year I popped in a DVD of the 2003 ALCS, and was shocked by how much more alive it all felt. Now even Wrigley Field has been brought into the modern age with scoreboards and ads and prices through the roof. Alas, the rickety old stadiums are all but gone now. Here in Minnesota we’re left with Target Field, a beautiful structure that facilitates quiet family picnics on middlebrow Asian food and ten-dollar beer. People will occasionally glance up to offer a few halfhearted claps along with the canned music, but otherwise keep to themselves. It’s almost enough to make one nostalgic for the Metrodome. Almost.
To rise again, baseball needs to rediscover its edge. A few young stars provide that, but it goes beyond the product on the field. Again, take soccer: how can their fans be so raucous, even in mundane midseason games with a lousy product on the pitch, while baseball fans idly play with their phones? Some baseball team needs to build itself a core of loyal hooligans who won’t shut up, much like the bleacher bums of old, and rekindle that old sense of tribal loyalty for a team. What they lose in ticket sales, they’ll make back ten times over in energy and hype. Instead, most teams will probably just add on new steakhouses and jumbotrons, convinced that fans need to be entertained by something that isn’t the game.
For all my gripes, though, I’m sure I’ll enjoy myself tonight, and with any luck, it will rekindle an old flame. Go Yankees.