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April 19, 2014

It isn't spring until baseball season starts

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The Daily Star

---- — Let me start by saying that I was not raised to be a sports fan. 

My family has nothing against sports, but we were not a people who spectated. 

I grew up in Oregon, a state that boasts only one major league sports franchise: the Portland Trail Blazers. Sure, some Oregonians support the Seattle Mariners, but for the most part, baseball just wasn’t a big deal. 

But when my then-boyfriend (now my husband) and I moved to Oneonta, we joined his family of die-hard Yankees fans, and my education began. 

We moved out here at the end of the summer of 2001, traveling in separate cars to lug all our stuff. I was a few days behind him, so it was on a television set in the lobby of a Missoula, Mont., motel that I watched the second plane hit the World Trade Center. I arrived in upstate New York five days later, shortly before the Yankees returned to the field after the suspension of play.

As we began recovering from the shock of the 9/11 attacks, as we looked for apartments and jobs and furniture and tried to start building our new life, the constant throughout it all was the Yankees. And in the post-9/11 context, the games — with Mayor Rudy Giuliani in the front row every night, with the players wearing “FDNY” caps — seemed to take on a deep significance. Without realizing it, I found myself becoming a baseball fan. 

During the 2000 World Series, the boyfriend had suffered mightily in Portland, a city inexplicably full of Yankee-haters, as so many are. We missed watching the Yankees beat the Mets to close out the Subway Series because I insisted on going to a pre-season Blazers game. (I still feel guilty about that one.)

But in 2001, back in New York, we weren’t going to miss a trick. Lacking cable at our new apartment, we reported to his parents’ house each night, ready to weather the storm. And what a storm it was. 

Everything about that series seemed amplified, extreme. The games were either nail-biters or blowouts. The comeback wins the Yankees pulled off in Games 2 and 3 — both in extra innings, both against Diamondbacks closer Byung-hyun Kim — felt unreal. The tension when George W. Bush stepped out to throw out the first pitch in Game 3, wearing a bulletproof vest with sharpshooters poised in the stands, was palpable. Pitching a combined 39 1/3 innings between then, Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson seemed like titans who could neither be fazed nor fatigued. 

As game after game stretched late into the night, we stuck it out, lying on the wall-to-wall carpeting of his parents’ basement inches away from the TV screen. And through the long innings, he filled in the blanks of baseball for me, pointing out the importance of each pitch, the significance of every play, of the pitch count, of the position of the baserunners and the outfielders.

It was a gut-wrenching, devastating series that left me exhausted and almost relieved when it was over. But I was hooked.

I have tried to explain fandom to the non-sports-inclined. And I have run into an interesting problem: Although you can use sports metaphors for everything in life (seriously), it’s tough to use any other kind of metaphor to explain sports. Everything else seems to fall flat.

There is plenty to criticize about professional sports in this country, and baseball in particular. The players receive staggering salaries, and still manage to complain about not being paid enough. Major League Baseball has been complicit in allowing performance-enhancing drugs to become commonplace. And the problem of the games being too long — already exacerbated by the annoying routine of batters fidgeting around in the batter’s box — has now been itself enhanced by instant replay.

But there is something about having a rooting interest in a team that just can’t compare to anything else. Sure, baseball is entertainment, but even the most exciting television show or movie can’t compare to the agony and ecstasy of following your team through all 162 games of the season. 

I’ve been away from baseball for the past couple of years, but with my daughter growing older, I’m excited to see if she, too, will grow to see the allure of what John Irving described as a “game with increasingly heightened anticipation of increasingly limited action.” Because once you become a fan, it’s awfully hard to stop.

Emily F. Popek is assistant editor of The Daily Star. Contact her at epopek@thedailystar.com.