- January 31, 2018
I’m going to let you know now, readers, that this week’s column is a little self-indulgent. Next week will be back to regularly scheduled programming, I promise.
The last time I wrote a column like this, the calendar had just turned to 2017, and I was writing about all the things I was looking forward to in the new year. The most prominent thing on that list was Baltimore Orioles spring training baseball.
Well, spring training is finally here, and I had the opportunity to attend the O’s March 5 game against the Philadelphia Phillies. I could tell you that they won 3-2, that starting pitcher Mike Wright went three innings and gave up just one earned run, and that new Baltimore catcher Welington Castillo got a key hit, a floating double to left field that landed inches away from diving Phillies left fielder Cam Perkins’ leather. I could, but I won’t, because even I’m not dumb enough to think anyone but me cares about spring training results.
What I really want to talk about is the club’s Youth Baseball Day promotion. The Orioles welcomed youth teams from around Florida, and even a few teams from the Baltimore area, to the stadium. Several Sarasota Little League teams were among them. Before the game, those youth teams, dressed in their forever-mismatched team colors, got to participate in a parade around the Ed Smith Stadium's field and wave to their cheering admirers. After the game, the kids got to run the bases like their heroes, or at least their pretend heroes. Some kids seemed more interested in looking around the crowd or horsing around with their friends than watching the game, which is great. I’m certainly not here to tell anyone how to enjoy a baseball game. There were other kids, though, who seemed enraptured. Those kids stuck to the railing like magnets after their time on the base paths was up. They were waiting for an autograph, any autograph. Sure enough, Orioles journeyman infielder Robert Andino came out and signed for anybody who wanted a memento. He even gave one extra-enthusiastic fan his bat.
I’ll always remember Andino for getting the hit that knocked the Boston Red Sox out of postseason contention on the final day of the 2011 season, one of the greatest days of baseball ever played. If you haven’t seen ‘Game 162,’ the documentary telling the story of that day, I highly recommend it. These kids were barely born on that day, if they were born at all. To them, Andino was a man in a uniform, and that was good enough. They’ll never forget him now, just like I’ll never forget David Segui, who signed my hat before a game against the Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays at Oriole Park at Camden Yards when I was a tyke. I was there with my dad and my childhood best friend. I can’t be 100 percent sure, of course, but I believe I had the same enraptured look on my face that those kids had on Sunday. I remember nothing from that day except the details I just told you, and the fact that on that day, I fell in love with the game. I’ve re-fallen in love with it several times since, and I liked it before, but that day was certainly a catalyst. That hat is still sitting on a shelf in the sports room of my childhood home.
Baseball is not a game that readily appeals to young fans. It is slow, strategic and confusing if you don’t know all the minute rules. In fact, Major League Baseball is actively taking steps to speed up the game and engage the generations of now. (I don’t think creating an automatic intentional-walk sign is going to accomplish that, but that’s another issue, entirely.) The game needs those fans. The average age of a baseball fan was 53 in 2015, according to an ESPN study, while the average age of an NFL fan was 47, and 37 for NBA fans. Some say that the discrepancy comes from baseball’s current lack of star power. Pick an American at random, do they know who Mike Trout is? What about Clayton Kershaw, or the O’s own Manny Machado? I doubt it, but I bet they have heard of Joe DiMaggio. They’ve certainly heard of Tom Brady and LeBron James. Those sports are “cool” now in the way baseball used to be.
I can’t disagree with any of that, but baseball does have one thing going for it: the beauty of the game. The sound of a no-doubt home run leaving a bat, the sight of a perfectly placed 12-6 curveball, the smell of popcorn and hot dogs wafting through the air. It put a spell on me, and for at least one day, it put a spell on some youth baseball players as well. I can only hope, for the game’s sake, that 15 years from now, those kids will still have their Robert Andino-signed memorabilia hanging in their homes.
If baseball truly wants saving, it should take a note from Sunday’s O’s experience. It doesn’t need to change the rules to be cool, or pander to certain audiences. It needs to do more with youth in local communities. Once they get inside the stadium, the magic of the game will take care of the rest.