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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

12 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

BurrRutledge

I paddled over to the swim-up bar one afternoon at a hotel in Hawaii in early October 2003, where I started watching a nighttime playoff game from the east coast. Required a double-take to conclude that it was a live broadcast.

That's a far different story from the few years of my youth spent in Hong Kong, where the only baseball news I could get was from the US Military newspaper (Stars & Stripes) that my dad would bring home once a week. I'd read every recap and boxscore, and it was my only connection at all.

Jun 24, 2011 05:39 AM
rating: 0
 
kmbart

Jason, I don't know which I liked better - your truly lyrical writing style or the poignant sense of nostalgia you invoked in my heart and mind with your hearkening back to those days of yore when listening to a radio was the ONLY proper way to enjoy a ballgame short of being there. As my way of saying "Thank You!" I will refrain from any comments regarding the recent success of the Phillies, particularly relative to the collapse of the Mets .

Jun 24, 2011 05:59 AM
rating: 1
 
beerchaser42

As a kid in eastern North Carolina in the 70's, your only options for major league baseball were the Saturday game of the week on NBC, or pulling out the AM transistor radio and hoping to catch an inning or two at night coming out of Pittsburgh or Cincinnati or some such. Now I can watch games on my iPhone no matter where I am. Awesome.

Alas, I could also go on a screed about how one of the most populous states in the union and a great baseball following (NC) is being utterly ignored by the MLB powers that be, but I'll save that rant for another day.

Jun 24, 2011 06:04 AM
rating: 0
 
brooksp

I rooted for the Red Sox as a kid in Chicago. Now and again, my boys-- Lynn, Rice and Fisk-- would show up on The Game of the Week. It was always incredible to actually see the guys from the box scores. The suffering induced by the 1978 collapse was made more intense by having to get on the phone every 8 minutes to call the Chicago Tribune's Sportsphone for an update on scores in progress. The guy would just read scores off the ticker, not caring that the Sox had been leading 4-1 in the fourth and were suddenly losing 7-5 in the seventh! No details! O, the humanity!

Thanks for the nice article. pb

Jun 24, 2011 06:22 AM
rating: 1
 
jhardman

I love this because it rings so true. I grew up a Texas Rangers fan and always could listen from college at night because WBAP carried the Rangers over a clear channel AM station. Listening to a Rangers game followed by Bill Mack's Midnight Cowboy show (with the Orange Blossom Special lead in) was classic, and I knew I had it every night until I moved to North Carolina in 1986. The timing of the article coincides with my actions of trying to listen to any baseball broadcast and I became a more overall fan, until Jamey Newberg (God bless Jamey) and his blog got started in the late 90's and brought me back to the Rangers. Now, I can hear anything I want via audio, which is how I like it. Now baseball fandom is a community, and I feel pain for my fellow fans when they lose icons of their franchise (especially announcers) because I had to lose it a while before I got it back.

Now if we can just get rid of those idiotic blackout rules. My fellow Orioles and Nationals fans are getting screwed in North Carolina.

Jun 24, 2011 09:35 AM
rating: 0
 
jhardman

And also, I'll join in on beerchaser's rant. It's stupid not to have a franchise in North Carolina. The support is here.

Jun 24, 2011 09:42 AM
rating: 0
 
misterjohnny
(925)

NC is still only 3% of the US population, and its largest metro area is only 33rd in the country. You'll have to stick to college basketball.

Jun 28, 2011 16:08 PM
rating: 0
 
Dan McKay

Thanks for this great story. I've had a similar experience, as a Giants fan who moved to New Mexico.

It always seemed like the car radio was the best at picking up KNBR here in Albuquerque on a summer night.

Jun 24, 2011 22:03 PM
rating: 0
 
orlandoca7

Jason, Grew up in NY, and I also was apprehensive about moving to California for the same 4pm start time for Mets' you mention. Not so! I love it! MLB.tv has made it easier lately (I moved in the late 90's). But, generally, the 4pm start -- if you can organize your schedule around that sart time, as I do for most of summer -- is great. By 7:30 keith and gary are off and I still have a good chunk of the evening left, perhaps time even to catch a Giants or Angels game. Also, on most days, 4-7pm, the girlfriend is barely around:-) It's great.

Jun 25, 2011 21:34 PM
rating: 1
 
drawbb

Wait...you can listen to MLB audio anywhere you can get a cell phone signal?

Jun 25, 2011 21:57 PM
rating: 0
 
Metswest

Being a Mets fan in California can be a problem. It has been a godsend with the current state of the franchise.

Jun 26, 2011 19:49 PM
rating: 2
 
perge
(642)

Extra bonus-- those of us far from our teams can pass our allegiancea to our kids nearly seamlessly now. My boys and I watch our team (alas, also the Mets) from home in Illinois with the same ease as we could the Cubs and Sox, and they have no idea that that's... well, a big deal. 30 years ago, kids in their shoes would have been thrilled to catch a glimpse of John Stearns' back while Dave Parker scored in a TWIB highlight reel. Thanks, Jason-- great piece (I can say "as usual," as a card-carrying FAFIF reader and t-shirt owner).

Jun 27, 2011 19:42 PM
rating: 0
 
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