Why I’ve Always Loved Baseball

It’s probably no surprise to you that I’ve always loved baseball. It hasn’t always been in the way I love it now. These days, I read about the sport all day and watch more games than I can count every week. It’s a self-enforcing cycle; the more I like it, the more baseball I get exposed to, which makes me like it more, on and on like that.

That’s not what made me like the sport in the first place, though. I’ve loved baseball for as long as I can remember. Every March, as I anxiously await the start of the season, I find myself reminiscing about how I ended up here. This year, those memories have come on even more strongly, because my dad’s birthday lines up with the start of the season and he’s turning 75 this year. I’m feeling so strongly, in fact, that Meg was kind enough to let me write about what got me hooked on the sport when I was a kid.

I didn’t grow up in a “baseball market.” We didn’t get Cardinals games on TV; for most of my childhood, we didn’t even have cable. But most of my fondest memories of being a kid revolve around the sport anyway. My parents got to work early on me, and they kept it up until I was a lifelong fan.

No baseball on TV? It was no problem, because my uncle taped a St. Louis promotional spot titled “Ozzie, That’s a Winner” and mailed it to us. It was a gas station advertisement, if I’m remembering correctly, with clips of great defensive plays interspersed around The Wizard talking about where he filled up his tank. I didn’t care about that part even a little bit. I watched that video until the tape wore out and tried to mirror Ozzie’s moves in our family room. Credit my mom and dad for sitting there without laughing while a small left-handed child tried to make himself look like the best defensive shortstop of all time, because they never once told me how doomed my dream of being the next Ozzie was.

Our family lore was packed with baseball, too. Most prominent was the time that my parents took me to an Orioles game as a baby and my dad started heckling mean old Jack Clark. At some point, Clark turned and said something back to him, at which point my dad held me up as a shield. “You wouldn’t hurt a baby, would you?” is an effective defense, even against curmudgeons, it seems.

Now, is that story real? I’m skeptical. The timing’s all wrong, for one thing. Jack Clark mostly wasn’t in the AL when we lived near the O’s. And he was a Cardinal before that; why would my dad heckle him? My mom is sure of this story, though, and my dad doesn’t spend much time denying it. I’ve heard it so often that it’s just part of the fabric of my childhood now.

Extremely important edit: my mom, dad, and uncle all confirm that this was Kirk Gibson, not Jack Clark. Sorry for the slander, Jack, and Kirk, I’m glad you didn’t throw anything at me.

That’s obviously a good story, but stories alone didn’t make me a baseball fan. They just reinforced the baseball-mad upbringing that I had. We might have lived in the MLB wasteland of east Tennessee, but that never seemed to stop my parents from taking me to games. We saw the Braves, the Orioles, and sometimes the Cardinals. We saw the Giants in Candlestick in ’93; Dante Bichette, in town with the visiting Rockies, tossed my sister a baseball for her birthday. Most importantly, though, we saw the K-Jays.

You probably haven’t heard of the K-Jays. That’s because they’ve changed their name to the Smokies – first the Knoxville Smokies, and then the Tennessee Smokies when they departed the city for Sevierville. Back when I was a kid, though, they were a 25-minute drive from where I lived, and we went all the time. My dad taught us how to leave pennies on the train tracks before the game and then pick them up, flattened to a pancake, afterwards. He taught us how to get autographs from our favorite prospects – Carlos Delgado for me, Alex Gonzalez for Louise. He taught us how to sweet-talk the concessions people into giving us the soft serve helmets we didn’t yet have, and we collected all 28 teams with ease.

I don’t know how my parents found the time to take me to so many games. In my memory, I was there multiple times a week every summer. I lost a tooth in the right field bleachers once, chasing down a foul ball, and I’m not quite sure whether I ran into something or it was just loose enough to fall out from general horseplay. The tooth fairy left me a dollar and a note saying that the baseball players had brought the tooth to her.

For my 8th birthday party, I wanted to go to a minor league game. The Smokies were out of town, though. What did my parents do? They booked a party package in Chattanooga, a two-hour drive away, and took my friends and me down there for a party plus sleepover. As an adult, this memory boggles my mind. Voluntarily taking a trip with six 8-year-olds? What were they thinking?! But they were always willing to indulge my love of the game, no matter how far out of their way they had to go.

When my dad got a job at the University of Tennessee, my baseball fandom followed. The Vols let children of employees go to non-revenue-sport home games for free, and we took full advantage. I saw Todd Helton hit – and pitch! – so many times in one year that I swear he recognized me in the stands by the end of it. It probably helped that our band of children spent most of the game hanging over our seats onto the roof of the dugout and yelling.

As much as I loved baseball as a kid, it would have been easy to let that slip away as I hit college and then adulthood, but my dad didn’t take any chances. He cleverly linked up a set of college tours with the first time the Cardinals played interleague games in Boston and New York, and we made it a baseball trip. I can’t remember a thing about Columbia, where I never even applied, but I saw Roger Clemens’ 300th win decked out in Cards paraphernalia and got good-naturedly heckled by Yankees fans while doing it.

My first year of college, the Cardinals made the World Series. I’d never been, and so my dad and I drove 12 hours from Charlottesville to St. Louis and scalped tickets to Game 4 – whoops! One of my strongest baseball memories, to this day, is getting gas somewhere in West Virginia during that drive. I went in to pay and buy a soda and some snacks, and when I came back out my dad was hopping around the car and howling, actually howling. We had the game on the radio, and Jeff Suppan had just gotten lost off of third base and walked into a double play.

There’s something special about moments like those. When baseball gets its hooks in you early, it doesn’t let go. I don’t remember a lot of statistics from any of these years. I didn’t follow the game the way I do now. I didn’t even read Moneyball until 2011, long after it was a cultural touchstone. But I remember the personal moments, the way the sport wrapped itself around my life and family, vividly.

In late July of 2013, I’d just recently met my wife, though I didn’t know it yet. We were in the early dating phase, trying to see each other as frequently as possible. Naturally, I planned a last-minute four-day trip to Cooperstown with my dad and uncle to stay in a dingy hotel (miles outside of town) and watch the rare year where no one alive was inducted into the Hall. This was objectively crazy. We didn’t have any particular player to see. It was just about going. We ate so-so food, shared tiny beds, and tried to stump each other with baseball trivia. We waited in an hour-long autograph line to see Ozzie. We toured the museum, twice, and went to batting cages that threw honest-to-god sliders.

At the time, my friends thought I was crazy for going on this trip. I did too, to be honest. But looking back on it, I’m not surprised that I did it, or that I remember it so well. Baseball and family have always been wrapped up together, and our unplanned-yet-recurring baseball trips are just a part of that. Luckily, Jenna grew up a baseball fan too, and completely understood the instinct.

Even when I think about recent years, when I’ve been a full-time baseball writer, my strongest memories of the sport are about family. There’s the time we went to a Hudson Valley Renegades game the weekend of my wedding and my parents secretly got the team to bring us on the field (to get water balloons thrown at us — gee thanks Dad!) between innings. There’s the time we watched a Savannah Bananas game and made friends with the people around us in the stands. There’s the trip to Wrigley, a first for both my dad and me, when it was inexplicably freezing in late May. There’s the time my mom came to visit and we took in a Giants matinee, only for all kinds of weird baseball to break out.

I’m not alone in this relationship with the game, I’m sure. Sports aren’t so popular because of the data they collect; they’re popular for the feelings they engender. The on-the-field product matters a lot, but so does the sense of community, the togetherness with friends and family. No one taught me that lesson better than my parents.

I can’t wait for Opening Day. But I also can’t wait to talk with my parents about Opening Day, or about whatever game they’ve been to most recently, and I know they’ll want to hear about the same thing from me. I hope I pass that on to my kid some day. Baseball has always been a huge part of my life, and I wouldn’t have had these experiences if it weren’t for my parents. So thank you, guys, and happy 75th, Dad. I hope the year is filled with the real-life equivalent of inside the park home runs and double steals.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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2 months ago

Thanks for this Ben. This article made me call my dad.

1 month ago
Reply to  Francoeurstein

This article made me wish I still could.