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June 24, 2011

Baseball ProGUESTus

Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere I Choose: Baseball Fandom in the 21st Century

by Jason Fry

Believe it or not, most of our writers didn't enter the world sporting an @baseballprospectus.com address; with a few exceptions, they started out somewhere else. In an effort to up your reading pleasure while tipping our caps to some of the most illuminating work being done elsewhere on the internet, we'll be yielding the stage once a week to the best and brightest baseball writers, researchers and thinkers from outside of the BP umbrella. If you'd like to nominate a guest contributor (including yourself), please drop us a line.

Jason Fry co-writes the Mets blog Faith and Fear and Flushing with Greg Prince, and writes a weekly column about sportswriting for Indiana University’s National Sports Journalism Center.

Here’s a small sampling of some of the at least slightly insane things I did years ago so I could listen to the New York Mets on the radio:

  • Created baroque, Christo-like contraptions out of wire hangers and tin foil that I attached to a boombox’s radio antenna in hopes of boosting WFAN’s signal at the southern limits of its nighttime range.
  • Circumnavigated said boombox assuming stork-like postures in hopes of affecting the signal quality.
  • Spent hours twiddling the knob on a stupidly expensive “signal amplifier” purchased from some yuppie gadget factory, with little discernible effect.
  • Wrapped up long drives a couple of hours short of where I was supposed to be because the signal was fading.
  • Extended long drives a couple of hours beyond my ability to safely pay attention because the signal was just starting to be audible.
  • Spent hours on weekend days sitting in my car by the Potomac River because the river amplified the signal enough to be audible in northern Virginia during the day. (Or maybe it wasn’t the river—I can’t tell you why it worked, only that it did.)
  • Went to college in Connecticut instead of Massachusetts because in 1987 Connecticut was in Mets radio range but Massachusetts wasn’t. (Not being a complete fool, I fed my mother some arglebargle about professors vs. TAs and class sizes and philosophy of undergraduate education.)

To younger baseball fans, I know this sounds like making cave paintings of oryx and mastodons to ensure a good hunt, but it was a different era, one in which your fandom was still bound by the tyranny of geography. As a Mets fan in suburban Maryland in the early 1990s, I was just out of range of WFAN, the Mets weren’t on the cable system, and coverage was limited to abbreviated AP gamers in the Washington Post. On a good night, I’d see the Mets for a few seconds on SportsCenter or Headline News. On a bad night (of which the Jeff Torborg/Dallas Green eras had many), they were just a score going by.

I never solved this problem myself—instead, I cut through the entire Metsian knot by moving to Brooklyn. There, the Mets were a topic of daily conversation, even if an annoying number of those conversations involved Yankee fans getting back in touch with their ancestral sense of entitlement. Every game was televised, with the exception of the farce that was the Baseball Network, and WFAN was a constant companion. I could even go to Shea Stadium if I wanted to.

Having moved, I tracked baseball’s slow migration to the web with idle curiosity instead of deep interest. But there were still day games in a reception-challenged office building, and summer trips to visit my folks in Maine. The audio feeds made it online, at first in somewhat jerry-rigged fashion: for a little while in the late 1990s, you could eavesdrop on Gary Cohen and Bob Murphy between innings. If you didn’t have a robust connection, audio feeds would stutter and stall, leading to infuriating messages such as "BUFFERING (9%)." But hey, it worked. (This seems like as good a place as any to apologize to my parents for the time I didn’t realize the AOL dial-up number was long distance, leading to a $260 phone bill.)

In September 2007, with the Mets fighting for their playoff lives, I had to go to Europe for a work trip. I was apprehensive, but thanks to MLB.TV, watching the Mets in the U.K. or Italy or Switzerland was easy. At first it was bizarre glancing up from a Mets game on my laptop to stare at the dark expanse of Lake Geneva in the middle of the night, but soon I barely thought twice about it. (Not fixable: groggy mornings listening to woofing colleagues who were Phillies fans.)

Now MLB At Bat lets me listen to WFAN anywhere I have a cellular-phone connection. If I’m on a road trip, I plug my iPhone into my car's AUX jack and summon up Howie Rose with a couple of taps. (Satellite radio can also skin this particular cat.) My various portable radios have been abandoned somewhere, their reason for being subsumed by my ever-morphing smartphone.

We’ve grown used to wandering the planet with powerful computers in our pockets that we can make do most anything, including occasionally serving as phones. Maybe we’re too used to it. There’s an ad for Citibank in which a guy buys Shea Stadium seats for his parents, who have relocated to Istanbul and miss their beloved Mets. At the end, the parents set up their new seats in their living room and watch the game—an idea that would have been Jetsons stuff not so long ago but now barely attracts notice.

Occasionally I’m forced to remember. A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I drove a rental car up to Boston on a Friday night when MLB At Bat was on the fritz and refusing to connect to audio feeds. We hurtled down the Mass Pike in the dark with WFAN on the car radio, the volume of the game ebbing and flowing, periodically squashed by warbling and humming, with another station on the same frequency slowly growing as an undercurrent.

It was familiar, even oddly welcome: I remembered how many other times the game had been my companion while adventuring far from home, and how holding on to that fraying tether of signal had been part of the adventure. And I was reminded of other things I’d forgotten, such as the fact that a failing analog signal still has value, while a failed digital one has none. Years of baseball broadcasts have trained my ears to be able to follow a game from every third or fourth word, piecing the rest together from knowledge of the game and a sense of how different situations affect announcers’ rhythms and pace and intonations. There’s no information to be extracted from "CONNECTION ERROR."

Like most nostalgia, though, this is primarily foolishness. When I smile at hearing how distance make WFAN wow and flutter, I’m not remembering all the signals that faded to nothing and left me fumbling for cassette tapes, or all the games I never heard because tin foil and signal amplifiers worked about as well as you’d expect. The world—or at least this aspect of it—is much better now, and none of the things that really mattered before have changed. If you’re sitting in a rocking chair on a porch listening to the game with family or friends on a warm summer evening, who cares if you’re using an iPhone instead of a transistor radio?

Distance no longer has much effect on my being a Mets fan. If I moved, I could still submerge myself in Mets news, rumors and opinion, and watch or listen to the games—sure, I’d miss going to Citi Field, but HD broadcasts are what really immerse you in the day-by-day storytelling and drama of being a fan. (Ironically, I now live in the one area where I can’t pay to watch the Mets on my computer, tablet or phone.) If the Mets moved, barring some Expos-style betrayal I could still follow them in their new incarnation as the Indianapolis Conventioneers or the Portland Consciousness or whatever. When the Dodgers left Brooklyn, my father-in-law’s only real choices were the Yankees or nothing—the Dodgers effectively vanished from his world. But that’s no longer true. All teams now have world-wide reach, and potentially international fan bases.

With distance tamed, time is the only real barrier. I can’t watch sports on delay without missing a necessary sense of urgency (read Chuck Klosterman’s take on that here), so it would be hard to be a Mets fan in California, with games starting at 4 p.m., and almost impossible in Europe, with first pitches after midnight. (To go back to that Istanbul ad, it bugs me that the sun is up—it shouldn’t be, unless Mom and Dad are catching the tail end of a West Coast game.) But I could probably learn to live with information blackouts and time-shifting, or adjust to bizarre sleep habits for half the year. I’ve done crazier things for baseball, and so long as I don’t have to mess around with tin foil or the Potomac River, I’ll get by.

Related Content:  Radio,  The Who,  Mets

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