I couldn’t have been happier Tuesday as I began watching the Los Angeles Dodgers home opener. One thing was missing though — I had to call my dad. I called him up to find out if he was watching the game, or so I told him. But the real reason I called him was because I wanted to talk to him for a while as I watched the game.
I remember my first Dodger game very distinctly. I was nine years old. My dad had just received a voucher for tickets as a gift from my older siblings. We chose a game against the Arizona Diamondbacks sometime in May. My mom and an aunt also went with us to that game. The Dodgers won 4-0, and from then on I was hooked.
I remember one of those siblings asking me years later why I liked baseball the most over other sports. Was it because I enjoyed the strategy in the game? Was it that I liked the fact that it’s played outdoors? Well, football involves strategy — all sports do — and it’s also played outdoors as many other sports are. I would say that all sports share certain qualities that probably attract fans such as the thrill of competition, the skill of the participants, the sense of identification with the competitors and the sense of fulfillment you get when your side wins. You can say this about baseball, basketball, football, hockey, or any other sport. But beyond these qualities, why do some people prefer certain sports over others? Why do I like baseball more than any other sport?
Might it simply be because that first baseball game was the first live sporting event I had been to? I think that’s part of it, but also because I associate it with family. In fact, baseball, more so than other sports, is often spoken of fondly because of its association with families, especially traditionally with fathers and sons. I wonder if my own attraction to this familial aspect of the game is only because the Dodger game was the first sporting event my dad took me to. I wonder: If he had taken me to a Lakers game or a Rams game, if my primary athletic allegiance would be to basketball or football? Fathers and sons can play catch, but they can also play one-on-one and throw the ol’ pigskin around.
So is there something to why baseball is more often than other sports characterized as fostering this special relationship between fathers and their children? Colum McCann recently wrote in The New York Times that when he’s sitting in Yankee Stadium with his son, it feels like it’s not just him sitting with his son, it’s his father sitting with him, too, and his father with him, and so on … He indicates that being there with his children brings him back to his boyhood. I can’t attest to the feelings of sitting in a stadium with my own kids, but baseball does seem to bring me back to my not yet so distant boyhood. I think McCann is right about the familial attachments that baseball seems to evoke and strengthen.
It may be that because baseball has been a mainstream sport in the United States for so much longer than any of the other professional sports, it’s currently conducive to these sorts of inter-generational attachments, yet other sports will eventually catch up. But I think there’s more to it than that. Baseball is a game played outdoors — there’s something special in how the “outdoors” functions as a means to build relationships for families in general and fathers and sons in particular — think of camping, or doing some sort of activity together in the backyard, or a park. Football is played outdoors, but it’s played in huge, impersonal stadiums — concrete bowls — where most fans are distant from the action. Although baseball can also be played in fairly large stadiums, most of the fields are rather smaller and often have much nuance in their layout. The structure of the stadiums, as well as the fact that they are often named “field” or “park,” suggests the sort of intimacy that may be more conducive to building family ties.
Also, the greater contact between the fans and the players — unhidden by helmets and pads, hitting or throwing balls into the stands, and signing autographs — adds to the intimacy and offers ample opportunity for a father to educate his son about the players. The possibility of conversation also makes baseball ideally suited for fostering familial relations as opposed to other sports. Baseball is played at a slow enough pace that it allows for conversations to take place, whereas the action in basketball and hockey is so rapid fire that it requires much more attentiveness to the game than who you’re with.
My mom’s burgeoning interest in the game and the Dodgers in recent years confirms to me that baseball has some quality conducive to bringing families together. Furthermore, it’s much more affordable to go to games as a family than any of the other major sport. The food has become quite expensive in recent years, but the hot dogs are certainly worth it. I think grilled Dodger Dogs are second only to hot dogs grilled at home. Perhaps it’s because they’re evocative of backyard summer barbecues. Incidentally, baseball is played in the summer which is traditionally the time of year (outside of holidays) most often associated with spending time with family.
One final thing that I think makes the Dodgers in particular evocative of a family is Vin Scully. The broadcaster can paint a picture with words like no other. His soothing voice has been a constant presence with the team for as long as most fans can remember (63 years this year, to be exact). Arguably the most beloved Dodger, he’s reminiscent of a grandfather figure. The sport has featured other beloved broadcasters — men such as Harry Kalas, Harry Carey, Jack Buck, Mel Allen, and Ernie Harwell — which testifies to the place that broadcasters can take within a team. Scully was notably absent on opening day given that he’s been struggling with a cold. Here’s hoping that he gets well soon. It just isn’t the same family without him.