I Ignored Baseball for Decades. Here’s What It Meant to Me This Year.

Mookie Betts of the Los Angeles Dodgers bats against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park on September 10, 2023 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images)

One of my happiest childhood memories is watching Kirk Gibson’s astonishing, improbable game-winning home run in the bottom of the ninth inning in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series. I was born outside of Los Angeles; the Dodgers had always been my team. I remember the image of Gibson pumping his fist as he rounded the bases, limping on two bad legs, and the sounds of delirious pandemonium in Dodger Stadium. 

But I also remember, even more vividly and happily, my dad and my two brothers and I jumping and hollering in our living room as we watched the impossible happen. 

I played five seasons of little league baseball with my brothers. I was terrible; I got maybe three hits in five years. I alternated between outfield and catcher. I was a decent outfielder until my eyeglass prescription could no longer keep pace with my deteriorating eyesight. It was hot, I spent most of those years on the bench, and the uniforms were scratchy and ugly. I didn’t even understand some of the arcane rules, like the infield fly rule.

And I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. I cheered my brothers on. My dad watched every game. (He umpired once and earned instant notoriety when a batter swung and missed—and he called it a ball.) I got my name in the local paper when I hit a double (one of my three hits). Every morning we hurried to get the paper off our doorstep to check box scores of last night’s big league games—just a few years before the internet destroyed local papers and the box score forever.

We drove to the local hobby shop and bought baseball cards and chewed stale gum. We traded cards and compared statistics. I still have boxes and boxes of pristine late 1980s baseball cards in my basement that, I now learn, are utterly worthless relics of the “junk wax” era.

Men bond over shared activities, and few activities bring us together more commonly than sports. For three or four years, I played and followed baseball with a nerdy intensity—because my dad and my brothers did the same. 

We moved 1,000 miles north, to Oregon. Each summer, Dad drove us five hours north to watch the Seattle Mariners play in the Kingdome, and once I got superstar Ken Griffey Jr.’s autograph. Then Dad drove us five hours back home the same night. Ten hours of driving for three hours of baseball that we could have watched on TV. Why did Dad do it? We all know parents must invest in quality time with their kids—but quality usually emerges from a good amount of quantity. 

I ignored baseball for the next three decades. I got cut from the team my sophomore year in high school, my oldest brother quit, my other brother was more into basketball, and we played a lot of video games. I told myself that it was frivolous and time-wasting compared to the Very Important Things I was studying in college, like politics and history. (This was before I learned that politicians are even more frivolous and clownish than organized sports.) 

I saw, but did not want to read, stories about steroids, strikes, and scandals. Baseball was simply not a big part of my life. I watched Mark McGwire’s record-setting 62nd home run on live TV in 1998. But I was alone, dining at a classic bourbon-and-barbecue restaurant in Georgetown. It was called Old Glory, and has long since faded away, closed and gone.

In 2020 and 2021, as COVID closed most venues of entertainment and shut down sports leagues, millions of guys rediscovered their sports cards collection in their basements. I was among those millions, reliving happy memories through icons of cardboard and ink. And I started to share those memories with my kids.

Even more happily, it led to my reengagement with the sport itself. I dove in this season, paying rapt attention every day to the ups and downs of Major League Baseball, especially my beloved Dodgers. And I watched all 22 hours of Ken Burns’ documentary, Baseball, a required rite of passage for middle-aged dads (as an overachiever, I watched it twice).

It also happened to be the year baseball introduced its most significant rule changes in 150 years. Bases are bigger and certain defensive maneuvers are banned. But most significantly, for the first time, baseball has a clock. The game had gotten slow and boring, with contests stretching past the three-hour mark. 

Now, pitchers have just 15 seconds to throw the ball—20 if there is a runner on base. Games are down to a brisk 2.5 hours—meaning more kids than ever will be able to stay up for the World Series games, starting tonight between the Texas Rangers and the Arizona Diamondbacks.

It’s a wonderful change and made it easier to take my kids to ball games at Nationals Stadium—but for me, it was only one among many I noticed after my years away. Baseball now has instant replay (introduced in 2008)! No more collisions between runner and catcher at home plate (banned in 2014 after too many injuries)! Baseball has even more arcane statistics! A system of sensors and cameras called Statcast installed in stadiums 2015 now measures pitch speed, spin rate, bat speed, exit velocity, launch angle, baserunner speed, fielder’s throwing velocity, and more.

There is also a lot of intentional positive energy surrounding the sport. Baseball nearly died from the steroid and strike scandals of the 1990s and 2000s. Attendance was down and crowds booed their home teams for their off-field scandals. People like me ignored the sport for years and fewer kids were growing up playing baseball. Football was America’s pastime. 

Now every baseball player and manager seems self-conscious about smiling, waving to the crowds, signing autographs, and doing silly celebratory dances when they get a hit or a home run. Every small accomplishment is celebrated—a rookie pitcher’s first strikeout, a new batter’s first hit and first home run, a veteran’s 100th or 300th home run, every conceivable franchise and league record that is broken. They know that baseball needs to be healthy and fun to stay alive for the next generation.

My favorite feel-good story this year: Trea Turner played abysmally after signing a $300 million deal with the Philadelphia Phillies. He’d been struggling to meet the expectations that come with such a contract until the night of August 4 when Philadelphia fans gave him a standing ovation. He ended the season as one of the best hitters in baseball. You can’t make this up.

Baseball needs to be healthy and fun because baseball is more than an exhilarating, beautiful sport. It is a cross-generational family tradition and an irreplaceable part of Americana. “The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball,” James Earl Jones intones at the end of Field of Dreams, “This field, this game is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that was good, and that could be again.” 

This year was the first year my son played little league. The first day I drove him to practice I smelled the dirt and heard the thwack of ball and glove and had to hide the unexpected tears that came from nowhere. “The memories will be so thick, they’ll have to brush them away from their faces,” Jones says. 

My son was immediately better than I ever was. He has shockingly good natural defensive instincts. In one of his first games he scored an unassisted double play, catching a sharp line drive and tagging out a runner. At 14, he can already throw longer and harder than I can. I watched every game (but have not volunteered to umpire yet).

I went to three big league games this year. The last time, my dad joined my son and me to watch the Dodgers beat the Nationals, three generations of Dodger loyalty. It was just one game among 162 they played, it rained out in the seventh inning, and it was unremarkable. We did get to see Freddie Freeman set a new record for the most number of doubles hit by a Dodger in a single season. (See what I mean about arcane statistics?)

But that is part of the point. It doesn’t have to be remarkable. Some moments—like Kirk Gibson’s home run—are indelible and unforgettable. But mostly, like any sport, baseball is part of the background, something you do with your dad, your son, your buddies, on Tuesday. It’s playing catch, watching the game, and comparing scores. It’s the thing around which we gather to enjoy fellowship, the common memories we share that makes us part of each other—one small strand in the “mystic chords of memory” of families, friendships, and nations. 

Remarkably, the Dodgers won 100 games and made it to the postseason. Unremarkably, they choked in the playoffs, like they almost always do. I got to teach my son that to be a Dodgers fan is to learn the mantra, “Wait till next year.” Some things never change. Including the fact that I still do not understand the infield fly rule.

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