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Image credit: Ambe J. Williams

It’s not uncommon to see stars of stage and screen out at the ballpark rooting for their hometown teams or showing support for their favorite sluggers on social media. While Hollywood and hardball have always intertwined, it’s not every day you find a SAG member that wields a scorebook and possesses an intricate knowledge of sabermetrics.

Ellen Adair is that rare breed, an accomplished actor who’s appeared in some of TV’s biggest shows like Billions, Homeland, and The Sinner, yet can cite advanced analytics on-the-fly and name the last player on a club’s bench or the mop-up man in the back of a bullpen. Baseball snagged a large piece of the Philadelphia native’s heart at a very early age, a budding affection that morphed into an obsession for the national pastime.

“My parents took me to baseball games from the time that I was a babe in arms, which I know because my mom loves to tell a story of how they showed me on the Jumbotron at the Vet, sleeping in her arms, and the whole crowd went ‘Aww’,” Adair recalled in a recent interview with Baseball Prospectus. “This is, of course, according to my mom, and all moms have an inflated sense of the cuteness of their own children, and we’re talking about Philadelphia sports fans, god love ’em, so who knows what they actually said.”

Adair believes that this early exposure sparked her lifelong love of the game, even if she can’t actually remember those moments.

“This could be part of the reason why the sound of a baseball game is like the sound of my mother’s heartbeat,” she said. “That said, I think it’s a truth universally acknowledged that a baseball game on the radio is the most simultaneously soothing and entertaining sound known to man.”

The first player that caught Adair’s attention was a speedster who played nine years in the City of Brotherly Love.

“I know that Von Hayes was the first man I ever loved. But I don’t even remember why it was Hayes, I was so young. I’d love to imagine that it was the famous game in which the Pirates had such a large lead over the Phillies that Jim Rooker said he’d walk to Pittsburgh if they lost, and then Von hit a couple of homers on the way to a Phillies victory, but that would be constructing a narrative after the fact,” Adair said, recalling one of the most improbable comebacks to ever take place at Veterans Stadium, one in which the Fightins overcame a 10-0 first inning deficit to eventually beat Pittsburgh 15-11 in June of ’89. “But it probably was something like he hit a home run or two at a game I attended, and I was like three or four years old and that was enough for me.”

Rooker, a radio broadcaster at the time, famously said on-air that if the Pirates blew the lead he’d walk the 320 miles back to Pittsburgh. The former big league hurler didn’t make good right away, but early that October he hiked between the two cities while raising money for charity.

Adair isn’t beholden to the Phillies, though. Far from it, in fact, a result of moving to her father’s home state as a kid, one devoid of an MLB club.

“I think our parents teach us how to be sports fans, and the idea that any baseball game or any basketball game was fun, even if the home team wasn’t playing, was definitely part of my upbringing,” Adair said. “My father is from Virginia and my mother is from Oregon, and so I don’t know if that’s part of the reason why the game itself was (and is) revered beyond, just, regional affiliation.”

She even wrote an article detailing her “Complex Flow Chart of Baseball Allegiances,” one that resulted in two letters from her dad outlining where his own hardball loyalties lie.

“I never doubted for a second that I am the way that I am because my parents raised me that way,” Adair quipped. “But now I have the proof for it that I could show in a court of law, should I be pulled into court by the large number of single-team truthers that exist.”

Now living in New York City, Adair still follows her main team from (somewhat) afar and can be spotted among the crowds at Citi Field when the NL East rivals clash, usually donning a Phillies jersey and often seated next to her husband, who just so happens to be one of the Flushing Faithful.

“My husband is a Mets fan. Our agreement is that he roots for the Phillies with me when they’re not playing the Mets, and I root for the Mets with him when they’re not playing the Phillies,” Adair said. “This wouldn’t work for every couple, but it works for us because of the way that I was raised, to appreciate the game as a whole and players on (almost) any team.”

The spousal rivalry hasn’t really been an issue yet, although Adair admits that it could reach a fever pitch if both clubs are suddenly in contention.

“It’s a little more tense this year, particularly when the Phillies are playing the Mets, and I can’t just watch the game under the expectation that the Phillies are going to get steamrollered like they would in, say, 2015, nor have the tables exactly turned. If the Mets and the Phillies continue to be in a pennant race, I’ll have to root for the Mets to lose against anybody,” she said. “That will be tough for the home life. Although when the Phillies beat the Mets, my husband is still a little happy for me, and when the Mets beat the Phillies, I am grumpy and disconsolate, and that’s because my husband is a better person than me.”

Adair also frequents Yankee Stadium because, after all, baseball is baseball.

“I loved it early enough that I just always knew I loved it, and loved it because I did. Of course, I can come up with plenty of reasons now why I think it appealed to me. The drama of baseball has such clarity: the pitcher versus the batter, supported by his defense,” Adair said. “Every batter has his moment, you can learn who he is and put the man to his stats, unlike the roil of a changing line in hockey, for example. (Nothing against hockey, of course, or any other sport.) But then when the script is flipped, those individuals have to work together in the field to support their pitcher, and that can be their only role.”

While Rob Manfred and the rest of MLB tries to figure out ways to speed up the game, its leisurely pace, intricate strategy and overall structure are what helped attract Adair to baseball in the first place.

“I think there’s so much discussion about pace of play these days and how young fans get bored with the long games, but I think the very pace of baseball is what I loved about it then, and now — although let’s be clear that I was a young child who also went to Shakespeare plays and was like, This is my jam! So, I’m…maybe outlier is the polite word, I was going to say weirdo,” she said. “But the clarity of the dynamism of baseball — your team’s turn to do something, my team’s turn to do something — the demarcated different roles… I think all of this made it more easy to understand and enjoy for me as a child. That, and the way the game feels completely different if the bases are empty or there’s a runner on third. The alternation of relaxation and tension makes the game so much more compelling to me.”

Living in a radio-only home as a child, Adair also learned to appreciate the game’s role in her everyday life, at least during the warmer months of the year.

“I also think that baseball is such a lovely companion. We didn’t have a TV growing up, so baseball was on the radio, which, just, rivals a dog for being man’s best friend, and I say that as a person who loves my dog,” she said. “During the baseball season, there is always a game, particularly if you’re not just interested in one team. Baseball is always there for you. Except, of course, when it’s not, which is why I feel like some shadow-version of myself during the offseason. I am a human version of that famous Rogers Hornsby quote set next to a wistful picture of a ball in the grass.”

Her first professional acting gig came at the age of fifteen when Adair played Puck in an Indiana production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but Adair’s career didn’t really take off until after college.

“I stayed in Boston after I graduated, which was unintentionally smart of me, and I do encourage early career actors to start out in a smaller regional market that still has a healthy, vibrant theater scene like Boston. There are so many fewer barriers to just being able to audition for something — in New York or LA, 99 percent of the battle is just getting into the room,” Adair recalled. “But Boston is a really lovely, warm community, and that makes incremental steps so much easier. I booked my first TV role, which was on the Showtime series Brotherhood, because an actor I was in a play with had a role on the show, and recommended me to the casting director. And I got that play with that actor, because the director had seen me in a production of Macbeth that was touring to high schools. One on level, luck. But one thing leading to another. In my experience, that’s how anything happens in this business.”

The parallels between Adair’s favorite sport and livelihood were immediately apparent, and much deeper than the average fan might realize.

“What I’m about to say, I say with the proviso that I’m pretty sure that baseball is the mirror up to nature for many, many Americans, and everyone probably sees the parallels from their lives to baseball. This is why people who are not even baseball fans will still say that something’s a home run, or in the ballpark of something else, or ‘right off the bat,’ the list goes on,” Adair said. “I often feel like nothing is more like acting than baseball (besides acting), and I think that’s one of the reasons that my unhealthy love of the sport has grown to the degree that it has. And I think this goes back to, a little bit, what I was saying about why I think I liked baseball at such a young age: the idea of this metaphorical spotlight on the individual, who is also part of a team.”

When the curtains open or the cameras switch on it’s game time, a lot like when the leadoff batter steps in the box.

“There is a moment that you step up, and it’s your moment to succeed or fail. There are runners on base in the bottom of the ninth, or it’s a very emotionally weighty scene that the production is just now getting to after you’ve already been filming for 10 hours today. But it’s not tennis: you’re there with a whole team to support you. But you also have to succeed in that moment, or you’re letting that whole team down,” Adair said.

Just like on the diamond, actors also deal with hot and cold streaks when it comes to their performances.

“There’s this other parallel, the notion of being hot at the plate or slumping, or your pitches locating or not. God, can I relate. I feel this more with auditioning rather than with being on set or on stage, because when you’re working on a job you do really have a team of slick-fielding position players there to back you up in case you give up some hard contact. But when it comes to auditioning, any actor has times that they feel they can do no wrong and they’re in God’s pocket, and times when nothing is landing and it feels like the holy spirit is out to lunch,” Adair said. “And so often, you don’t know why, in either case. Maybe somebody else could tell you why, but when you’re in it, you don’t know. It’s like you’re moving in sync with the grooves of the universe, or you aren’t. Some weeks Rhys Hoskins hits every ball for a home run, some weeks he’s just keeping his OBP respectable by working walks. I feel you, Rhys. The only thing that’s true for sure, and it’s true in both, is that you can rarely solve the problem by thinking more. I think all the time about the Yogi Berra quote, ‘You can’t think and hit at the same time.’ It’s the same for acting: when you’re in the moment, you just have to be in the moment. Especially on camera. If you’re thinking thoughts as an actor and not as the person you’re playing, the camera is so close, it’s going to pick up on them.”

Whether it’s the minor leagues or a movie set, Adair feels that there’s an added level of kinship between actors and ballplayers.

“You just have to keep practicing and practicing, working on your mechanics in practice so that you can let them all go in performance. And there’s this hope that you’ll just keep getting better and better, every day more fluid, less bogged down in thought, until you achieve some levitating level of perfection that of course cannot actually be achieved. But of course, it doesn’t go that way. And opportunity doesn’t go that way, for actors,” Adair said. “They say prospect growth isn’t linear, well, let me tell you, neither is anything else. Your talent as an actor could keep going up and up, but if the opportunity for the right parts aren’t there, or you’re not getting a chance for the next level of roles to grow your career, it looks like you’re slumping. But you’re not! Or are you, because it looks like you are?”

While some fans grow irate when players are scuffling, Adair has a more empathetic approach. “Players getting the yips deeply, deeply unnerves me. And slumping players make me sad, not angry. I’m never like ‘Get this guy out of here!’ I’m like, ‘Aaron Altherr, what happened?! You could hit major-league pitching, and now you can’t!’,” she said. “Also, both actors and baseball players are as superstitious as they come. Probably as a result of all the above. I have my little rituals, even if they aren’t tapping the plate in a particular pattern or refastening my batting gloves.”

Part Two, the conclusion of Baseball Prospectus’ interview with Ellen Adair, will include discussion of her love for sabermetrics and analytics, playing fantasy baseball, and her own venture into sportswriting. 

All photo credits: Ambe J. Williams

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David Yeager
6/27
Great article!
Scott Orgera
6/27
Thanks, David!