As I was riding the T yesterday to Fenway to watch the Sox take on the Rangers, I witnessed a mother say proudly to her neighbor, "This is my daughter's first time to Fenway."
The mother was beaming. The excitement on her daughter's face was palpable.
At each stop, the little girl would look up at her mom and anxiously inquire, "Is this our stop?"
Kenmore Square just couldn't get here fast enough.
As I watched this scene, I was reminded of why baseball is so special. So often we, even the most dedicated fans, take for granted what this game means to us. Then you see a kid on the way to his or her first game.
And you remember.
Now, it's impossible to simplify, and it cannot be codified, quantified, or analyzed with numbers, as we like to do with so much of our baseball these days. But we can at least try to explain it, and I think it's important that we do so every once in a while.
There's something about your first trip to the ballpark that's unique. Sure, among the four major professional sports, there are hallowed venues in each—Lambeau Field, Madison Square Garden, wherever it is that the Canadiens play (I have a hard time still considering hockey as one of the major four anymore—it's just fallen too far).
But think about it.
Your first time to a massive football stadium or an indoor basketball or hockey arena simply pales in comparison to your first time to a Fenway, Wrigley, Yankee Stadium, or Camden Yards.
Now I know, many of the hallowed venues in baseball are no longer with us, but the new stadiums in Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, New York—these are the places where history is being created as we speak, and where our kids will look back and say they remember their first time.
There's simply no comparison between walking up the ramp and seeing the green of the outfield versus seeing the artificial turf on a football field or the ice of a hockey rink (seeing the Parquet at the old Boston Garden may have been the only exception).
The taste of your first ballpark dog or cracking your first ballpark peanut. Learning to do the wave. Razzing the other team. Cheering your own. Learning the pacing, the nuances of the game.
Now don't get me wrong, I'm a lover of all sports. Baseball, football, basketball, tennis, golf—if it's on TV, I'll watch it, and I'll enjoy it.
But baseball is different.
Beyond that first-time experience, there's an intimacy to baseball that is just absent from the other major sports. In football and hockey, the players' faces are hidden by their helmets. In basketball, the game simply moves too quickly, and if you're not in the arena, the players just feel distant.
But in baseball, over the course of a 162-game season, the players feel like a part of your extended family. The ups and downs of the season, the nail-biting wins and losses, the injuries, the joy, sorrow, and tragedy—it all adds up to make you feel like you've truly come to know these guys. You live and die with their every start or at-bat.
So if you ran into Albert Pujols, you'd slap him five and share a laugh. So if you saw Big Papi, you'd know what to say to break him out of his slump. So when the Angels tragically lose a wonderful young talent, it breaks your heart as much as it does theirs.
Now, truth be told, we don't know the first thing about these men. We see them on TV and at the park, watch them play the game, and think it reveals everything there is to know about them.
Sadly, this is not the case.
But the beauty of this game is that it allows us to feel connected to the players in a different way than the other sports. So call it a farce if you will, but to me, it's a beautiful, unique phenomenon that doesn't exist in any other sport.
There's been a lot of talk over the last several years about how the NFL has overtaken baseball as America's game. The NFL makes more money, has better viewership, more bloggers, more market share, etc., etc.
But if you ask me, it's a bunch of baloney.
True story: On the way home from yesterday's game, I rode the T with the same mother and daughter I had seen on the way there. The Red Sox had lost to the Rangers, 6-3, and the crowd was as you would expect after a loss: fairly quiet, grumbling about Dice-K throwing too many pitches and the lack of offensive production.
But this little girl didn't care. She only had one question for her mom, only one thing that concerned her. She looked up expectantly at her mom from under her oversized Sox cap and asked:
"Mommy, when are we coming back?"