Hobbies and interests are as old as time, most often seen as a way to find escapism from the mundanity of a life that doesn’t always live up to its promise. But what is it that helps one choose a hobby or interest? Is it mere luck? Chance and timing? And once it is found, is it ever possible to truly understand why you like something?
Or maybe it captures a glimpse of the way you wish the world to be.
Some years ago I had such a glimpse into the world of baseball.
For someone born and raised in suburban Australia it’s not common to have had much exposure to the game. And as someone not built for the rougher side of life, sometimes sport can feel alienating. Most of our western cultures equate sport and masculinity with machismo ideals. Anything less is soft, and any combination of entertainment and sport should be fought against lest purity of the “battle” is diluted.
So when I stumbled across a world where a sort of silliness was not only tolerated but celebrated, I had to know more.
It was a rebrand article in the blog Brand New, about the Reading Fightin’ Phils (subscription required). I learned that this was how Minor League Baseball was – strange names, and even stranger entertainment. I learned about the team’s main mascot, the Crazy Hot Dog Vendor, whose role was to run about the stadium in a costume that made him look like a hot dog vendor riding a turkey, throwing as many hot dogs to the crowd as possible. I learned they’d created kid-sized versions of the costume, and that children in the community bought them to use for Halloween.
What I learned in those early glimpses wasn’t about athleticism, or about riches or wealth or a sense of ‘cool’ or anything like that. It was a discovery of the charms of community, of something not aspirational but inspirational.
Every sport, I think, can be boiled down to some basic strengths. Football (soccer) is passion, basketball has flair, gridiron is the distilled experience of american capitalism.
Baseball has charm.
Regardless of the country it’s played in, baseball is a game that is played in front of you while you eat hot dogs or other basic food and drink beers with friends and family, sharing laughs and making memories. It’s a community focused less on the result of the game and more about “being”. It is long, warm evenings, where fun and relaxation are valued higher than each play on the field. It feels like a summer barbecue.
Charm isn’t as marketable as passion or flair, and baseball sure struggles when people compare it to others for things like game length. However these discussions miss the point. Show me someone that has just switched off for 4 hours and focused on relaxing with friends, family and community at a ballgame, and I’ll bet the house they don’t regret it.
I often tell newly formed acquaintances that I’m into baseball, one of the first things that people tell me is that they went to a Major League game and had a great time. They didn’t understand the game, but it was a fun experience sitting and taking it all in.
Recent events have shown me that Americans are rediscovering the charm of baseball. Minor League Baseball has had very stable attendance figures for quite some time, during a time when most other U.S. sports have seen declines in overall attendance. The rise of independent or collegiate baseball is a sign that locals love the game and want it to align with what the game is all about (see: the Savannah Bananas). It’s about local flavour, affordability and inclusion, not profit-at-all-costs. Finally there is the rise of the Sandlot Revolution, a U.S. nation-wide revival of community driven social baseball pioneered by Jack Sanders and the Texas Playboys.
Like many baseball fiends, I was dismayed at the recent removal of 40 minor league teams from the official system. I now believe that it could be a positive change for the long term heart of the game, as franchises freed from control get the chance to reconnect with their towns and cities.
Post-COVID, my hope for the game is that major league franchise owners take their grip off the wheels of profit and loss and start focusing on long-term growth. I hope they let the world know that the best way to spend time with family, first dates and friends is at the game. However it only happens when tickets are cheaper and beers and food are easy to get. The experience shouldn’t be designed by an MBA who wants to suck all the money out of a captive audience for fear of a poor balance sheet.
In Australia, my hope for the growth of the game is that supporters and those guiding the Australian Baseball League take the focus off winning and focus on enjoying and on capturing the essence of a relaxed summer on the deck. We know what it is to spend five days ‘watching’ a Test Match. Regardless of whether we feel the sport is ‘American’ (often used in a negative sense), the desire to switch off is near-universal. It’s time to find the charm.