I am having a hard time watching sports. I don’t have much free time for the frivolous watching of things like South Korean baseball at 2 AM, but I do like to catch pro games here and there. I definitely want to watch highlights (not of Korean baseball). I follow a lot of sports casually, but at least right now, I seem to follow baseball the most closely. This is a departure from the past, but I have found I really enjoy watching my favorite team, the Indians, because of how fun they are (note their ranking here). Since the restart though, I have lost some interest. When I published my watchability rankings I didn’t realize how difficult I was going to find watching a game. I really don’t enjoy it. The absence of real fans is a huge reason why.
A lot of major league games didn’t have fans to begin with. Hopeless teams or teams in bad markets like Tampa or Miami, often find themselves in similar situations to this, without a total absence. I never enjoyed watching games in these places, and the total loss of fans has helped me to see why. The triumphant rise and roar of the fans when a home run is hit, when the winning run steps on the plate or when the final K is thrown, is gone. In its place are mild celebrations among the players. Its the reason so many sitcoms have laugh tracks or live audiences. It gives us a perspective of feeling and a sense of belonging. Without it, I feel disassociated to what is happening. It’s like I am watching an intramural game or a scrimmage. As unimportant as a single regular season baseball game can feel, this has magnified that feeling and made the games feel… empty.
I found a solution to this though. First, I will give some backstory. When I was twelve years old, I started listening to Indians games on the radio. They had just opened a new ballpark, and local pride for the Tribe was swelling. I listened to a young Tom Hamilton spit fire into the mic, passion oozing out of the crackling AM static. After a year or two, my family moved to another state, and I stopped listening. I kept track of the Indians, watching here and there when I could, but my family wasn't wealthy enough to pay off medical bills let alone a baseball package. Baseball’s economics and a congruous drop off in the Indians’ ability to compete at a high level lead me to lose my formerly high level of interest, and I settled into being a box score guy for a decade plus.
A few years ago, a talented group of young players hit the big leagues. Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez and more popped up and injected new life into the franchise. I bought the MLB radio package and started listening here and there. To my surprise it was still Tom Hamilton in the box with the mic. He still had all the passion and fire that he had back a few decades prior. I found I liked listening to games on the radio. I didn’t do it a lot, but as a young parent, I found I could never sit down and watch a full game. Radio was a nice compromise. A couple years ago, I got T mobile and the baseball package. I started watching more on TV and I loved that too, watching condensed games. I started listening less to the radio again.
So here we are with bubble ball (or maybe it should have been bubble ball). Watching Francisco Lindor’s first home run of the season drop into an empty section, and watching Lindor quietly round the bases was startling. He is the heart of the team, its joy. Seeing him not feel the emotion of the moment matched what I was feeling. Fake fans, digital fans and piped in crowd noise don’t help either. Not only do I know it’s fake, but the players don’t even see it. They get no energy from that. I am sure their minds aren’t on baseball fully to begin with. Players are wearing masks, mindful of the Marlins, their families, their friends and themselves. The excitement is very muted.
So, I turned on the radio. Or, specifically, I turned on the MLB app radio on my phone. I was astonished. It was almost like I remember… before Covid. The radio banter, the sound of the ball being hit, or the glove smacking. The crowd noise isn’t there obviously, which would be nice, but I can’t see the missing crowd. I don’t feel any loss of energy from the broadcasters. They seem excited to be back. Tom Hamilton still hasn’t lost his fastball. It feels good to experience a sporting event “normally” again. I don’t think it would work for NBA, NFL or NHL. All of the quick action in those sports is hard to call on the radio. In the MLB, the lethargic pace opens the door for quips, wit and general banter between hosts so you feel more like you are with friends. Best of all, it takes me back to those games as a kid, sitting on my bed, feet up on the wall, listening to Charlie Nagy throw that one pitch he shouldn’t have every time he was out there. So try it! Even if you don’t get your team on the radio, the plan to get just MLB radio for every team is super cheap. For the year, it will be less than a single ticket. If you didn’t grow up with it, open your mind. Let your imagination go, seeing what your eyes can’t see. My mind’s eye keeps filling the stands, it keeps creating popcorn and beer vendors and it keeps popping with excitement for every homer, critical K and stolen base. I wouldn’t do it any other way right now.