Our first date foreshadowed our eventual Oakland Athletics fandom, and of course, we had no idea. Nearly five years ago, we went to see Moneyball, the story of A’s General Manager Billy Beane, and his analytical approach to assembling a winning team. We didn’t follow baseball closely at the time, and we only caught a few Washington Nationals games here and there, just to enjoy a summer day at the ballpark. A few years later, as fate would have it, we found ourselves married and living in Oakland—and die-hard fans of the Swingin’ A’s with a rekindled love for baseball.
It’s not easy being an avid baseball fan these days. It comes with a lot of sideways glances and confused looks from friends, most of whom care little about the sport. Sure, everyone enjoys a game now and again, but it might as well be a day at the beach. It’s background entertainment for good conversation. Lots of friends have Super Bowl parties. We can’t remember the last time we were invited to a World Series party. But a love for a game is a complicated thing, one that we’re learning more about with each new season. This is especially true when you happen to love a game that’s down and out.
Sports exists in two parts: the experience of the game and the game itself. Every athletic contest—from curling to basketball—has its own beauty, self evident to the game’s devotees. An honest case can be made for the importance of any sport, especially when we consider the game’s rich history and cultural significance.
Of course, the relevance of any sport ebbs and flows over time, and has little to do with the beauty or quality of the game itself. Relevance generally is the product of the historical and cultural moment, and games find themselves at various times either ahead of, in line with, or behind the times. As a result, a sport can push us into the future, hold up a mirror to society at present, or remind us of things we’ve lost.
It is also true that a sport’s relevance has little to do with how exciting or action-packed a game is. It’s generally agreed upon that the experience of golf is tranquil and unexciting, but at the height of Tiger Woods’ rise, golfers and non-golfers alike found themselves following along and even watching the sport on TV. Or consider soccer, the world’s most popular game. From the perspective of scoring and activity, it’s hard to make a case for the game as “exciting.” And yet, the cultural relevance of soccer, especially as it grows here in the U.S., had never been higher.
Making the case for the beauty of the game of baseball is unnecessary. That much ought to be clear to the objective observer. The structure of a baseball game is certainly not designed to be as stimulating as high-scoring basketball or hard-hitting football. But the components of the game—hitting, pitching and fielding, the one-on-one match-ups wrapped up in a team effort—work together to create compelling story arcs both within a game and across a season.
The present cultural relevance of baseball, on the other hand, is very much in question, especially if we use popularity as our primary measure of relevance. The game was once at the center of American athletic life. At times it pushed culture outside of the game in positive ways. Now, however, attendance is down, the average age of fans is above fifty, interest in the sport is low, and few players have risen to the status of household name in the way that Jeter, Griffey or Ripken did in the last couple of decades.
It’s against this backdrop that we have found our love for the game. Maggie never cared much for the sport outside of the beer and hotdogs. I grew up a fan, but was eventually lured away by the excitement of football, only looking to baseball games here and there to round out my general love for sports. That changed after our first A’s game. It’s important that we paint the picture of the A’s clearly. The Oakland Coliseum, or O.co as it’s now branded, is a dump. Rumor has it that the locker room bathrooms back up with sewage when it rains. The food is decent at best, a far cry from the gourmet vendors at the new Giants’ ballpark across the Bay. And the A’s were without a star, a team of players intentionally cobbled together from the middle of the pack by the data-driven methods of the once-questioned-but-now-revered Beane.
In the face of a declining sport and a rag tag team, there was so much to love. Athletics’ fans are a diverse and dedicated bunch, armed with heads full of history and theatrics that rival their dressed-up Raiders counterparts. There is the guy whose loud “PIZZZZZAAAAAAA!” sales pitch can be heard from across the stadium, and the hotdog vendor who sneakily opens the warmer to let the smell waft up to his unsuspecting customers. The walk-up songs for the players are eclectic, including a smooth jazz number for a beloved outfielder accompanied by thousands of fans swaying in unison playing fake saxophones. There is also something engaging about the A’s brand of baseball that’s hard to put your finger on. They seem scrappier than most, and the fans rewarded them with their loyalty. Needless to say, we were hooked.
The experience of a game shapes its significance in the moment. The players, the atmosphere, the attention it gets in the media. None of these are presently big draws for baseball. Yet while the popularity of the game continues to decline, the game is perhaps more relevant than we recognize. It gives us an experience that is unique, relative to the other sports competing for attention. It may not be the sport we want, but it may well be the sport we need.
Baseball does not fit with a cultural moment. It suffers in the social media age and does not lend itself to the marketing tactics that prop up basketball and football. It lacks constant action and unrestrained physicality. People today love “fast” and “now.” We crave constant stimulation, delivered to us as short bursts of monumental effort—a long 3-pointer here, and big hit there. Baseball is slower and more methodical. It requires patience, something that seems to be in short supply these days. In the context of today’s world, it feels outdated.
These things, however, may be why we need baseball more than ever. Not because it harkens back to some bygone past, but because it is a game that does not satisfy our cheapest desires. It requires something of us. It is, as some have described it, a metaphor for our own lives. There are long periods of wins and losses, streaks and slumps, excitement and boredom. There is value in something that real, and our attention gives us a deeper appreciation for the game regardless of the pace of play.
The game also rewards strategy and preparedness in a way others don’t. In football, a given play can fail and it’s immediately back to the huddle to devise the next scheme. Or consider basketball, your team has a chance to score roughly every minute. But baseball offers you only a handful of visits to home plate or a few balls hit your way each game. The outcome of the game is the sum of hundreds of small decisions, both calculated and instinctual—shift a bit left, throw it just inside, take this pitch. Success is rarely achieved by skill or will alone. It is a combination of athleticism and awareness that few other games demand as much as baseball. And the reward is great for the fan that picks up on these subtleties.
For us, baseball occupies a unique place. Together we watch a lot of sports—football, basketball, tennis, and golf. Each is entertaining in its own way and provides a unique experience to its fans. It is the sum total of these fandoms that make sports such a rich part of our lives. We need baseball in there, playing the role of the game we respect.
How, then, are we to think about the relevance of baseball—or of any sport?
Perhaps relevance is MMA fighter Ronda Rousey pushing us to shatter stereotypes and change our perceptions of strength in unexpected ways. Maybe relevance is the NFL teaching us about who we are today, uncomfortably wrestling with fame and fortune, exploitation and instability. Or maybe relevance is baseball, gently reminding us to appreciate the things that take a bit more time and patience to fully enjoy.