Ping, said the ball as it left the aluminum bat, and sailed over the head of the second baseman. I made it to first base before the outfielder could collect it, and so in three years of Little League, I can claim that one hit to my name.
I was ten, and my playing experience permanently colored my opinion of baseball. Playing outfield bored me; batting terrified me. Why would I spend any more time on a pastime that I didn’t enjoy?
The damage to my relationship with baseball endured long into my adulthood. I went to the occasional baseball game as a social event – Wrigley Field to get drunk watching the Cubs lose; Camden Yards to hobnob with my wife’s law firm in the skyboxes; even a couple of games here in Tampa because it seemed like a “cool dad” thing to do with my boys. Otherwise, baseball was not in my life and I didn’t miss it a bit.
Then, in late August, it looked like the Rays were going to make a run to win the division. I caught the beginning of one game by accident while having dinner with the boys; we went home and watched the rest. It was the first time I can remember intentionally watching baseball on TV. It wasn’t as bad as I had feared.
I started finding myself in water-cooler discussions about the Rays’ prospects, learning about magic numbers and checking team schedules. The Internet made it ever-easier to follow the game, and it seemed like the sport and the network were tailor-made for each other: a data-intensive national pastime, and a data-carrying international computer network.
When the Rays made it into the American League Championship Series, I was officially hooked. Exchanging glowers with randomly-encountered Boston fans, developing irrational dislikes for bat-waggling, kossack-bearded SOB’s like Kevin Youkilis, frantically checking scores on my phone when I couldn’t get to a TV – I became That Guy.
I’m not the only one in Tampa who’s recently acquired a taste for the Rays. After ten years of ambivalence, the whole town is wearing blue and, um, blue. And we’re the target of seething contempt from the long-suffering, hardcore fans of the Red Sox, the Cubs, the Yankees… even Blue Jay fans feel morally superior to us, and they’re Canadian.
And to be fair, they have a point. Those fans stuck by their teams through years, sometimes decades, of suck. And when success came, they had earned the right to celebrate. (Or throw rocks at police, which in Boston is the same thing.) Rays fans, they argue, don’t deserve a World Series appearance, because we weren’t around for the tough years.
But the first two games in the Dome sold out, even with the tarps off the cheap-n-sleazy seats. Rays fans may not have shown up during the lean years, but we’re definitely showing up now. As for me, I’ve jumped on the bandwagon. I’m cheering for a team I only cared about once it started winning. So I expect the contempt from Philadelphia fans, who seem to have contempt for everything. I expect loathing from Red Sox fans who patiently waited out The Curse for Rays fans who completely ignored the Devil decade.
All that, though, is past. Every fan has a first game. Whether that game comes during a winning streak or a deep slump matters less than how soon after that come the second, third, and successive games. For me, this winning season has opened my eyes about the beauty in baseball – the poetry of the numbers, the drama of defending a one-run lead with a monster hitter at the plate, the thrill of a ground-rule double driving in the go-ahead run. That means, whether the Rays win or lose the World Series, I’ll be checking out spring training next year. Headed for .600 or .400, I’ll be watching games. Ripping homers or watching as the third strike rolls in, I’ll be in the stands.
You see, it’s not so much a bandwagon as a baptism.