Everyone was on their feet, cheering and celebrating, on a baseball ‘high’ when Jacob Stallings hit a walk-off grand slam, with 2 outs, in the bottom of the 9th inning! The hooting and hollering of excited fans was drowned out only by the sound of fireworks, to continue the celebration into the night!
Why do we show up for baseball? Is it the sport, the companionship, the people watching, or the 10-cent hotdogs? Is it the opportunity to catch a wild foul ball? Perhaps it’s the sense of team spirit, with row after row of sports fanatics dressed in team colors. Maybe the peanuts and Cracker Jack bring back fond childhood memories of long days in the stands, under the relentless summer sun!
I suspect it’s some combination of all of these. The day could have ended very differently for the Pittsburgh Pirates, with a no hitter or rain delays, game-day injuries or bad calls by the umpire, obnoxious fans on their cell phone or blocking your view in the middle of a critical play. These, too, are the reality of baseball!
Fans show up for all of it, because the players are all in!
Pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training in late February. There are pre-season games, and by April 1st the season is in full swing. In July and August fans are seeking seats in the shade, while the players get no relief outside the dugout. By mid-September Midwesterners are outside on a beautiful, early fall day, with a hint of crisp chill in the air. It’s just over seven months of Major League and Minor League, Collegiate summer games, and the regular College season.
Some fans are dutifully documenting every play, studiously recording the statistics that define the sport. Between innings one mother was left holding the scorebook for her husband and her daughter, doing her best to switch colored pens, to make notes for both. She saw us watching the struggle, then she shrugged, chuckled, and gave up. They could pick up the task when they returned to their seats, with their beer and peanuts.
COVID-19 changed the structure of the baseball season, with teams playing fewer opposing teams, facing off for longer stretches. Masks were (sometimes) seen in the stadium and on the field. It’s nice to enjoy the relative safety of being entertained outside. The COVID restrictions, and their enforcement, ebbed and flowed as cases surged then receded. Fans were just happy to be back in the ballpark.
If you don’t know a lot about the game, it’s still a fun night out, or an entertaining Sunday afternoon excursion downtown. You’ll learn a little bit more about the game with each inning that passes. This season I traveled out of state 3 times (Burlington, NC; Milwaukee, WI; Pittsburgh, PA), and regularly left Columbus city limits, headed to games in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Circleville, and Chillicothe, OH.
Peanuts in the shell and cheap beer put in an appearance – every game! This is true whether it’s a small town gathering, where everyone seems to know everyone. . . . . or the summer Collegiate League, with players spending the summer with host families, who attend every game.
. . . . or a collection of strangers with a view of the downtown skyline, cheering under bright city lights. They become friends by the end of the night, an eclectic group of fans that has traveled hours to cheer on the visiting team, wearing their home town colors!
I’ve lost track of how many teams I cheered for this season . . . . . but it’s more fun if you’re invested! I saw the Milwaukee Brewers play twice. . . . but the truth is that I wasn’t rooting for them both times. First I watched Milwaukee play the St. Louis Cardinals, at American Family Field, in Milwaukee. As a Marquette graduate, of course I cheered for the home team, but the Brewers were soundly beat, 4-15.
Nine days later I was cheering against the Brewers, when they played the Cleveland Indians, back home (for me) in Ohio. The Brewers made an impressive turnaround, beating the Indians 11-1. It was all in good fun! I had to remind myself when to cheer and when to sulk and scowl.
Did I mention the fun? I had the pleasure of watching the Cincinnati Reds play on ‘Pennant Night,’ which was also 90’s concert night with Tone Loc, Naughty by Nature, and Vanilla Ice! If fans were only there for the baseball, there was plenty of fanfare, and a game to be played. Fans weren’t disappointed. Many stayed for the concert, dancing in their seats and down on the field, with special ticket purchase.
The entertainment suits the atmosphere of the ballpark – colorful, vibrant, spirited, and accessible. There’s a healthy baseball season, and the pre- and post-game fun is an attempt to extend spirit of the season, to stretch it out just a bit further.
Sugarskull bobbleheads were the giveaway in Columbus, for Copa de la Diversion, the “fun cup” – back with a bang in 2021. The Columbus Clippers change their identity to become the Veleros de Columbus, as part of the Minors’ Hispanic-outreach initiative, in its fifth year.
“Copa de la Diversión, MiLB’s season-long “Fun Cup” celebration of Hispanic communities across the baseball landscape, returns in 2021 with its most packed itinerary yet. Nearly two-thirds of Minor League teams will participate in the initiative this year — the largest percentage of clubs in the five-year history of the program — and the logos, uniforms and identities are as vibrant than ever.“(MiLB website)
A rowdy fan sitting one row behind us — more a fan of the beer than a fan of the sport — commented that he couldn’t keep track of the teams, with the two groups dressed in their Copa de la Diversion uniforms. So, he just cheered along, applauding every solid play.
“Sports have a unique and powerful ability to bring diverse communities together,” said Kurt Hunzeker, vice president of Minor League business operations for MLB. “You’re at a ballgame, and you can sit next to people, front, behind, left, right, they can be wildly different from you in every way, politically, socioeconomic, demographic. And yet in San Antonio when I was there, Fernando Tatis Jr. hits a home run, you’re high-fiving everyone around you.” (MiLB website)
When there were fans in every seat (e.g. Dime-a-Dog Night!) it felt like baseball had returned — it’s a lot of people, so COVID precautions were important. But with baseball, the gimmicks and giveaways do draw a crowd! The Columbus Clippers, the local Minor League team in Columbus, is known for its Hotdog races. In Pittsburgh it’s Perogies, and Sausages in Milwaukee. Quite a sight to see!
Having grown up in Chicago, I’d be remiss, in this recap of the 2021 baseball season, if I didn’t mention the Chicago Cubs. I happened to be in Chicago for Labor Day Weekend, 2021, and took the ‘L’ to Wrigley Field. We didn’t have tickets, but wanted to enjoy the festivities, on an absolutely beautiful early fall day. We joined throngs of Cubs fans, as door busters at one of the bars within sight of the stadium, to sit on the patio and have lunch.
The street vendors, selling everything from T-shirts to pennants and peanuts to soda pop, were loud (in true Chicago fashion) and entertaining (as Chicagoans are known to be). Some really knew how to hustle – others, not so much. The hustlers’ take for the day would certainly represent their efforts.
It was fun; we had a lot of fun, circling the stadium to take in the sight – “Nuts on Clark,” word famous for gourmet popcorn, and Wrigleysville Dogs, serving gyros, ice cream, and 1/2 lb. hamburgers, along with Chicago-style hot dogs. It was Pirates vs. Cubs, at 1:20 pm, and we were there for the show – scroll through the photos, below. The whole atmosphere reminded me of a football tailgate at The Ohio State University! (Go Bucks!)
In baseball there’s also the battle of the mascots, which is a battle of teams, and a battle of cities! Are all the good names taken. . . . ? There certainly are a lot of teams, with long histories and deep-rooted traditions. Just this week the Cleveland, OH home team played its last game as the Cleveland Indians. They will transition, to become the Cleveland Guardians next season, showing respect to all cultures, while still honoring the history of Cleveland.
Marketing teams have gotten pretty creative, in envisioning what a mascot can be, as proven by the Burlington Sock Puppets. Not only has the team partnered with a local sock manufacturer, but they have created a fun take-away craft project to entertain the kids, before and during the game. It’s the Sock Puppet Station, where they create their own sequined, buttoned, and bedazzled sock puppet, complete with colorful pipe cleaners.
To understand the future of baseball it’s interesting to take note of its long history. The Baseball Heritage Museum, with its adjourning historic ballfield, offers every opportunity to learn about the traditions of the game, its importance to the community, and its the ways it has evolved over time. The museum is small, but filled wall-to-wall with artifacts. . . . and popcorn! The museum is infused with the wonderful smell of popcorn.
If you do visit, plan to stay a while. I encourage you to bring a small stack of books with you – just inside the front door you’ll discover a Little Free Library, in need of a novel or two.
On the walls of the museum, in its displays, tokens, and trinkets, is the story of a beloved game. It’s a game I may not fully understand; it’s a game that brings a great deal of joy to a great number of people. I find myself caught up in it!
If you have the opportunity, enjoy a game. The regular season is winding down, but you can still catch a playoff game. If the opportunity slips away, it’s just five months until it’s Spring Training once again, and the game of baseball will welcome you back, with any luck.
This wasn’t the case in 2020, due to COVID. The Major League played just 60 games in 2020, to empty stadiums, while the Minor League didn’t play at all. I remember when I heard that the season was being canceled, and that Disney World was closing down. . . . . wow – that somehow made COVID real. These may seem like trivial impacts of the pandemic, but the mindset they represent didn’t go unnoticed. These staples of American life were. . . . on hold.
With their return, in 2021, the spirit. . . . the heart. . . . the celebration and unity of the game was renewed. Let’s hope the same is true in 2020 – let’s count on it and work toward it. Go see a game! Wear a mask when you are indoors, wash your hands often, and maintain a 6′ distance, when possible. We can work together to keep baseball in our lives, and to keep one another safe.
Baseball is a distraction from our troubles, and a chance to cheer on the home team. Baseball brings communities together. Baseball reminds us of something bigger – being part of a team – something outside ourselves. Baseball has even partnered with the American Red Cross, which might say it best — “Score a home run by saving lives. Give blood!”
Oh, and occasionally a game is rained out.
It’s okay – make the most of the day, especially if you’re spending it with friends! Have a slice of pizza, raise a glass, and enjoy the company.
There will be another baseball game, on another day – I’ll see you there!
Join me on my next adventure,
Major League Baseball: MLB.com | The Official Site of Major League Baseball
Minor League Baseball: The Official Site of Minor League Baseball | MiLB.com Homepage
Copa de la Diversion: Copa de la Diversión back with a bang in 2021 (milb.com)
About Copa de la Diversion: About Copa | MiLB.com