Tim Anderson Wants to Leave a Mark

The White Sox shortstop thinks the game he reluctantly grew to love is boring. But he knows how to fix that, and that's with a heavy dose of swag, no matter who it angers.
photo of Jonathan AbramsJonathan Abrams@jpdabramsSenior Writer, B/R MagSeptember 23, 2019

The man with the generic name and soft-spoken voice is anything but coy. You can see it in the way Tim Anderson obliterates a baseball and allows his emotion to infiltrate baseball's generational stodginess. You can hear it when he talks about the game he loves to play, and when his voice picks up in excitement as he describes the dilemma he feels his chosen profession faces.    

"You got to be a really big baseball fan to really watch it," Anderson says. "You can't just be like, 'All right, I'm going to go watch baseball today,' because I don't even watch it. I don't watch baseball. I just love to play it, though, but it's boring watching it. I guarantee if you go grab anybody else on this street out there and be like, 'Man, you watch baseball?' I guarantee you, they say, 'No, man, that game's boring.' And I play it, I can't watch."

Numbers don't lie. America's pastime is struggling to capture new observers by nearly every metric. Attendance is down. Games last too long. Millennials aren't fans.

"I think that's going to be the best way to get that crowdby just being realistic with it and just saying, 'Shit, we know the game is boring,'" Anderson says. "'We know the game's boring, man, it's a long game, we know it's boring.' So, you got to do dope stuff that's going to draw the crowd."

Dope stuff is Anderson's growing specialty.

Few probably watched Anderson's White Sox play the Kansas City Royals in mid-April—less than 15,000 did so in person—when he electrified the early MLB season by blasting a 418-foot home run off of Brad Keller.

"I see it like I didn't really hit home runs," Anderson says. "I mean, I hit home runs, but I don't really hit them like that. So when I hit it, I knew I got it. I knew I really got it. So, I think it was only right to do it. It was only right to flip the bat. So I did it. It was a cool moment."

He admired the ball's path into orbit for a few seconds, took a few steps in his home run stroll and launched his bat back toward his dugout.

"I'm definitely going to pimp it or do something dope when I know that I got it," Anderson says. "That's only right. You don't hit them like that every day. And when I hit it, you can just say that I blacked out from there and just emotions took over."

Around Da Diamond @AroundDaDiamond

This was Tim Anderson’s epic bat flip that later lead to his getting hit and the benches to clear. https://t.co/IzXTSTUX4k

Retaliation didn't cross his mind. "Because I was just kind of in the moment," Anderson says. "But they did, and it is what it is."

Keller plunked Anderson during his next at-bat, resulting in both benches clearing. Keller got a five-game suspension, while Anderson got a one-game suspension not for the bat flip, but for calling Keller a "weak-ass fucking n---a."

Beyond the theatrics and mental gymnastics MLB utilized in suspending a black player for using that word, Anderson accomplished something that few other baseball players could. 

The sequence cut into highlight shows that would've otherwise been devoted to the NBA playoffs. Social media commentators suddenly had a new favorite baseball player. He brought excitement to baseball months before the MLB playoffs.

"You got to really celebrate those successful moments, because it is a failing game," Anderson says. "I think that's my reason how I play my game, because we failing most of the time. So when you do hit them home runs and make those dope plays, it's only right that you do what you feel at that moment and play with that emotion."

Anderson speaks from a place fewer and fewer players do. He's one of only 68 black players among the 882 names on MLB's Opening Day rosters, according to USA Today, and has seen how the sport increasingly loses touch with black fans.

"Black people don't really watch baseball, and I know that for a fact," he says. "So, I just try to go out and play hard. I think the cool stuff really draws the black crowd, and that's the bat flip and all the crazy stuff like that ... At that moment, I knew that the bat flip woke up the black crowd because I got a lot of feedback from the black culture. It was nothing but positive things."

Entering the final weeks of his fourth season in the majors, Anderson insists that he is only now beginning not just his career, but also his effort to expand the game's popularity.

"I want to leave a mark as far as when you think of baseball and someone say, 'Name a black player,' I want them to be able to name me," Anderson says. "I want to get more blacks into baseball and make more black people watch baseball, because all of my friends didn't play baseball. They was more so basketball and football guys. I was the only one that took the baseball route. So I think it's just more so getting our culture into baseball, because it is a dope sport and it's a safe sport and it's fun to play. I know it's boring to watch, though. So, that's kind of why I try to do different things that draw fans' eyes into the game."

Anderson's baseball path is one of the modern African American player. The sport found him more than he chased after it.

He grew up in the football epicenter of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where his aunt, Lucille Brown, and her husband, Roger, raised him as his father completed a lengthy prison sentence. Most of his family members played baseball. He often joined, but he found himself drawn to other sports.

"You're in a world wrapped around football, and baseball is behind," Anderson said. "And then I went to a school that was a basketball school. That kind of led me into basketball, and I kind of forgot about baseball."

Tim Anderson hopes that by celebrating his accomplishments on the field, he can attract an audience that he feels is tuning out baseball.
Tim Anderson hopes that by celebrating his accomplishments on the field, he can attract an audience that he feels is tuning out baseball.Seth Wenig/Associated Press/Associated Press

The closest MLB franchise was in Atlanta, so Anderson would catch glimpses of the Braves highlights on SportsCenter of players like Andruw Jones, Chipper Jones and David Justice, but not much more.

"I never went to a big league game," Anderson said. "The first big league game I went to was the one I played in."

Following a stint in Little League, he played basketball at Hillcrest High School, but he broke each of his legs in separate incidents.

"I really wanted to give up on sports just because it was back-to-back injuries with legs," Anderson said.

But he decided to give baseball another shot during his junior year.

"The first game, I played defense," Anderson said. "I didn't hit. I played left field, and the pitcher hit for me. I just played defense. Then, after that, I started hitting, and I had one offer coming out of there."

That offer came from Neal Holliman, the baseball coach at East Central Community College. Holliman figured he had something in Anderson. He could run and hit. The rest, Holliman figured, would resolve itself.

"We couldn't hardly get him to say two words when he was here," Holliman said. "It's one of those things where you'll see somebody do something one week that they didn't do the week before, and then the next week, they do something that week that they didn't do the week before, but then they kind of plateau out. He doesn't ever seem to plateau out. It was just like a continual climb up a ladder."

It was also where Anderson demonstrated his flair for showmanship.

Near the beginning of Anderson's sophomore year, East Central was scuffling, losing three consecutive games by at least 10 runs. The Warriors rebounded during the season, and in the playoffs, they met one of the teams that had crushed them earlier that year. The result was going to be different this time as East Central sprinted out to a 12-run lead.

The win was all but official when Anderson decided to steal third base.

"Coach, we ain't done yet," he told Holliman after popping up off the bag. "We ain't forgot about when we went up there and they 10-runned us two games when we weren't playing good. We ain't done yet."

So much for unwritten rules.

"I really didn't pay those no attention," Anderson said. "I just went out and I did me, because I played the game, but I really wasn't into it like that."

The energy he brought was unmistakable and irrepressible.

"He just played with electricity," Holliman said. "But it was more about he just did everything, not that he's running his mouth, but he just did everything action-wise. I think he's letting himself go more [now], becoming whoever Tim's going to become."

This season felt different. After a promising rookie year in 2016 led to a pair of nondescript follow-up seasons, Anderson could sense he was on the verge of figuring things out. It's going to be crazy, he would tell his friends.

He felt his timing had been off. He studied his swing and tweaked it, standing straighter and loading up earlier to stay inside of the ball as long as possible. 

"I just had something to prove as a player," Anderson said. "What can I do to put myself on the map? What can I do to be better? What can I do to motivate kids on the South Side? And just going out and being free and just being comfortable in my surroundings  … I think the organization does a great job at just letting me go on out and being me and playing a game that I know how to play in a way that I want to play it."

Indeed, Anderson has put himself on the baseball map. Through Sunday, he led the majors with a .334 average. He's tried to use the added exposure to expand that baseball-appreciation map in areas where he thinks it's shrinking.

This past spring, he hosted around 75 children for a screening of the film 42 in celebration of Jackie Robinson Day. The event was part of Anderson's League of Leaders foundation, a group he established after the murder of his best friend, Branden Moss, who was killed two years ago while trying to help a victim of a violent beating in Tuscaloosa. The grief of the loss still lingers, but he's trying to channel it into positivity.

After posting a lackluster .240 batting average last season, Anderson has had a breakout season in 2019, hitting .334 with a career-high .866 OPS through mid-September.
After posting a lackluster .240 batting average last season, Anderson has had a breakout season in 2019, hitting .334 with a career-high .866 OPS through mid-September.Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press/Associated Press

"You see kids that come in, they don't really watch baseball," Anderson said of the screening. "They don't really know what goes on in baseball. But for them to look at me and know who I amthey're getting in tune. But man, it was a heck of a show. The kids came out and saw the screen, and then we talked to them a little bit. But for the most part, I just tried to put smiles on kids' faces and let them be kids around me and give them something to remember and try to put a face with it."

A high ankle sprain paused his breakout season for more than a month this summer, but the downtime gave Anderson an opportunity to reflect on how much he had improved and how he could use his burgeoning stardom to attract new fans.

"People started to know who I was, and it just gave me a chance to step back and see the whole picture instead of just being in it," Anderson said. "That made me want to enjoy it a lot more when I got back, as far as doing things that give these fans something to remember me by, whether that's playing at a high level or pimping home runs and stuff. ... That's what these fans come to see. They don't want to come just watch the game and then go home; they want to see something dope. So, I try to go out and ... be a fun player to watch."

The responses to Anderson's celebrations from inside the game have been predictably mixed.

"From some guys, it's just, 'Do you, man. Do you. Do what make you happy,'" said Anderson, who added he received positive feedback from White Sox alumni such as Bo Jackson and Frank Thomas. "But for the most part, I don't really have a lot of friends around baseball, that's in the game of baseball.

"But ... certain guys ... just say, 'Play your game the way you play it. If you hit a home run, pimp it.' But that ain't nothing they got to tell me. I'm going to do that regardless. Because those are huge moments. ... And that could be the spark of something. ... That's the only way I'm going to be able to get the most out of myself, is playing at that high level with that emotion."

In the process, Anderson has become a bit of a social media star, sometimes posting a picture of himself entering a baseball stadium in fashionable threads or attaching music to his highlights.

"I think basketball does a great job in marketing their guys, and obviously those guys are good, but I think they're out there a lot more," Anderson said. "I think the kids see them a lot more than baseball players for us on TV, on social media. I just think that the marketing is kind of bad in MLB."

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Anderson is trying to change that, no matter how it's perceived outside of the White Sox dugout.

"When I step in between the lines, I'm different," he said. "I want to be that guy you don't want to play against. I don't want you to want to play against me, because my goal is to go out and crush you every night.

"So, I don't really care about who on the other side. They strap on their cleats just like I do. So, when I'm going to go out and compete, man, we playing a competing game. This ain't no friendly game. So, I take every game ... and compete at a high level. You know, I think that's what I owe myself, is just to go out and play hard every day and do my best and have fun with it."


Jonathan Abrams is a senior writer for B/R Mag. A former staff writer at Grantland and sports reporter at the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, Abrams is also the best-selling author of All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wireavailable right here, right now. Follow him on Twitter: @jpdabrams.