What to Watch For

In early August, I drove to Kingston, Rhode Island to report on a story about a 15-year-old boy with spina bifida, a spinal cord defect, for The Daily Orange. It’ll be released Thursday, Sept. 3. Be on the lookout. 

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Is Baseball Dying? Observations from Harlem, and the Internet.

It’s Wednesday night and the sun is setting in Harlem.

I’m on my way to Rucker Park to watch some basketball. Walking with sunglasses on and ear buds in, trying to interact with people as little as possible, a basketball hits my leg. I look up. I’m standing at the intersection of 155th Street and Bradhurst Avenue, just inside Washington Heights territory. A small kid in a white ribbed tank top sprints toward me, scoops up the ball without looking up and runs back to the mob of kids on the playground.

There are, by rough guesstimate, 60 kids on the playground. There are basketballs being chucked from all over, maybe eight or nine balls being shot. It seems like a strange cross-section of the childhood games “500” and “Tackle the Ballcarrier” as the kids try to snag a rebound and shoot the ball before being hit by other kids.

Directly adjacent to the basketball court is two baseball fields.

There isn’t a single person on either of them.

***

That image became imprinted on my mind.

A basketball court—its lines barely containing the teeming, writhing mass of children fighting for just a few basketballs—sitting directly beside an empty baseball field. It seemed to me a split-pane visual representation of how baseball, “America’s national pastime,” is dying and basketball, the sport with the gargantuan new TV deal, is taking over.

But I kept thinking, “Did I catch the park on a bad day? Is that a fair representation of how things are?”

So I went back.

***

It’s Saturday afternoon and the sun is burning hot high in the sky in Harlem.

There’s a tournament on the basketball court now. Two dozen kids who appear to be too young to play dribble balls on the sidelines. On one of the baseball fields, a man in a white ribbed tank top and Dominican Republic World Baseball Classic cap is hitting grounders down the third base line to a small boy.

Por favor, inténtalo. Sólo tartar,” the older man spits. “Please try. Just try.”

Later, repeatedly, he says, “Sé serio. Be serious.”

My rudimentary Spanish catches half that, but “Papi,” the man leaning against the fence and watching this defensive drill, translates the rest. Papi won’t tell me his real name—he’s involved in a “legal process” which would make “the use of his name undesirable”—but says he lived on Floor 11 of the apartment building across the street for nearly 20 years before he recently moved down a few dozen blocks into the Sugar Hill neighborhood.

“Hardly never,” he says about people coming out to the baseball fields in the summertime. “Maybe six or eight times a year people play ballgames there, but [sic] not hardly. Not even catch.”

Papi isn’t the only one who sees children abandoning the game. The Wall Street Journal wrote about how “the casual young player is vanishing.” The New York Times columnist asked if the game was over. The New Yorker wrote baseball’s obituary, too. Deadspin, in true Deadspin fashion, wrote “What’s Wrong With Baseball?” It’s so common to hear the “baseball-is-dying” narrative is dying, and that it’s due to the old white men fans, that Chris Rock wrote an on-color joke about it.

A 2014 Harris Poll found that baseball is the favorite sport of 14 percent of its responders. Granted it was second behind the NFL (35 percent), but it finished just above college football (11 percent). The Week went as far as to say that baseball’s decline in popularity correlates with the crumbling of American Character.

NBC baseball guy Craig Calcaterra points out that defining Who We Are in this day and age by one pursuit, especially sports, is foolish. He also points out that worrying about baseball’s health is productive if you want to be nostalgic, or if you’re a writer with a Very Important Social Commentary Point.

For every obit baseball gets, there’s a clever thinkpiece refuting that claim (oftentimes from Calcaterra himself). There’s talk of baseball team’s valuations rising and the Forbes article which, on its own line in the story, in bold, read: Don’t Be Stupid, Fan Interest Isn’t Measured By Participation.

But it’s true. Participation is down nine percent. I can read it online from The Washington Post and I can see it in front of me. But I can’t get anyone to confirm to me that the ballfield is empty most of the time, more than just the two days that I’ve been there. Papi’s testimony is the best I can get. Seventeen other people declined to be interviewed for this story.

“Big Al” Williams, whose older son plays for a Bronx team in basketball the tournament and who came down to watch, says he doesn’t often venture into Harlem, but that his son’s friends  mostly play baseball in Harlem at Riverside Park, a few blocks away.

So maybe I’m at the wrong park. But the point still holds: Kids aren’t coming out to play baseball.

I thank Papi for his time, for regaling me with stories about the neighborhood which are all hilarious, but highly questionable in accuracy and unprintable in decency.

It’s been three hours. I’m leaving with a narrative in mind. I see what’s happening here. Baseball is dying. People don’t care about it anymore.

I stash my notebook in the front pocket of my backpack and zip it up. I start to walk away when I see some blue-and-maroon shirts walking down the block. I check the time; it’s a quarter to 3 p.m.

It’s a baseball team. They’re going to practice.

A Welcome Home

If I hadn’t seen it, I wouldn’t have believed it.

Jackie Bradley Jr., he of the .198 batting average in 423 plate appearances just a season ago, blasted a shot to deep right-center field for a home run. It was his second of the day.

I turned to my dad to high-five him. “What?” I shouted, incredulous and wide-eyed.

The offensive outburst for the Red Sox–the team went on to win the game 22-10 and Bradley Jr. collected two home runs and three doubles–was the best welcome home present I could’ve asked for. Boston (51-64) had played horrendous baseball all summer while I watched from my apartment in New Jersey. I watched every other game, inevitably catching a Rick Porcello shellacking or a Wade Miley walk-fest. (But hey, Miley works quickly, so the poor play was over quickly.)

Miley was on the hill again that day, against “King” Felix Hernandez of the Seattle Mariners. My dad had won a raffle for seats in the New England Sports Network box so I told him that while the seats would be great, the game wouldn’t.

King Felix (14-6, 3.11 ERA) is one of the best pitchers in the American League, albeit all of baseball. Miley (6-7, 4.68) wasn’t one of the worst, but he was close.

And 2.1 innings later, King Felix–the great King Felix–had been chased from the game after allowing 10 runs across 12 hits, including three home runs.

Sitting at a restaurant-style bar seat outside the box enjoying non-baseball foods like sushi and diced fruits and veggies we cheered as the parade of Red Sox hitters came to the plate and, inexplicably, got hits. In a very non-Red Sox fashion, the team played well. Well, for seven innings. Then, Miley departed and relievers combined to give up eight runs over the last two innings. That made me smile–if only because the Sox had a comfortable, still double-digit lead. It made me see the same team I watched all summer was still there.

But that afternoon, as my father and I cheered on a potent Red Sox offense–the team hadn’t scored that many runs in one game since 1912–it was a wonderful welcome home.

 

Mariano Rivera and Sealing the Deal With Girls

At that indeterminate point between “late” and “early,” the door to my dorm room was flung open.

My friend Joey walked in and sat on the end of my bed and put head in hands. He was thrilled. The night had gone well with a girl he’d had an interest in for a while. Sitting in the dimming glow of liquid happiness and the harsh glare of hallway lights, he wanted to know how he could get it done. This wasn’t the first time my door had opened late with Joey seeking a conversation.

He had been trying to bridge the gap between Friend-dom and Relationship-landia for a while. He’d been putting in the time–helping with homework, texting consistently, making time to see her.

I remember putting on a shirt and getting out of bed and know that, at some point, Joey somehow ended up on the floor of the hallway. Other than that, not much else. But that night I gave the most inspirational speech I could muster. I drew on what I knew.

I told him he was a big game starting pitcher who’d just pitched eight innings with a slim lead. Joey had been taking care of business and setting himself up to succeed all game long. He’d navigated tough spots, but he’d answered the bell when called upon.

Now, the only thing left to do was close the deal.

I repeated myself quite a bit in my attempt at Knute Rockne, but eventually arrived at the best advice I could give my friend.

Twenty minutes later, Joey’s roommate texted me, “Just walked into the room and Joey’s watching Mariano Rivera highlights?”

I had jokingly told Joey that if he wanted to close the deal, then he should watch the career highlights of the man who’s saved the most games in Major League Baseball’s history.

Unfortunately, things didn’t end up working out between Joey and the girl. Hey, for the 652 games Rivera did save in the Bigs, he also blew 73 of them. After all, the game at which Rockne gave his legendary speech, Notre Dame went on to lose 45-10. Maybe that was my fault. Maybe I should’ve showed him this instead.

Either way, like Rivera and like the rest of us, Joey will get another chance to go out the mound and pitch.

Sundays and the Summer at Citi Field

I put my arms out and tensed up. The ball sailed high and then arched down, down, down. The home run struck a metal support beam between the first and second decks and caromed back into the field. The right fielder, Bryce Harper, walked away and ignored the ball.

Absolute bedlam in Citi Field.

Lucas Duda had just hit his ninth home run in 8 games–his ninth home run in his last 10 hits–to put the New York Mets in front of division rival Washington Nationals on Sunday night. Duda’s home run was also the third home run of the third inning for the Mets and sent an already-frenzied Citi Field into pandemonium as the eventual 5-2 win put the Mets in a tie for first place atop the National League East–the latest in the season the Mets have been in that position since 2008.

My friend Sam Blum, an avid Mets fan, hyped up the evening as “the biggest game in Citi Field history.” Of course, Citi Field was only opened in 2009, but for the recently-suffering fan base, you could tell by the first pitch that Sunday night was different. From the first pitch, an unusually-full Citi was boisterous, clapping hard and cheering their Mets–willing them–into first place as New York swept Washington, which is impressive for a team that was 9-33 against the Nats entering the series.

The weird part about the game was that I found myself cheering along and hanging on every pitch. I found myself rooting for the Mets, which is an absolutely strange concept considering one of my team’s worst memories is played in a Mets Greatest History montage before each game. (Plus, Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy’s walkup music is The Dropkick Murphy’s “Shipping Up To Boston,” which seems unethical, if not worse.)

But in the six times I’ve been to Citi Field this summer, it’s been impossible not to love the atmosphere. Make no mistake, I’m a Red Sox fan and always will be, but instead of watching horrendous baseball for an hard-to-love team as I’ve done throughout the summer on MLB.tv (thanks, Justin), it’s been fun to get caught up in a pennant race for an underdog team that was scoffed at in the preseason and that’s often considered second-rate in its own city. Everyone projected the Nationals prolific pitching rotation to will them to the World Series, but the best stable of pitching has actually been in Queens, not the capital.

The dominant, young Mets arms are incredibly fun to watch. With nicknames like Thor and the Dark Knight, and hair like this, they’re just enjoyable to watch. The Mets now have three of baseball’s most likable players in Yoenis Cespedes, Wilmer Flores and Juan Uribe. And not only that, they win. In the six times I’ve been to Citi, the Mets have won five times. (The Mets are 5-0 in games I’ve attended with Blum.)

I wasn’t joking about how likable Uribe is. According to Molly Knight’s great new book, Uribe is the only one could handle the young, reckless Yasiel Puig with the 2013 Dodgers. Uribe is known to walk around the clubhouse smoking a cigar and laughing. His at bat picture just looks like a guy to content to be playing baseball for a living. Plus, I love his walkup music. (Skip to 1:00.)

The thing about Flores is how much Mets fans love him. Flores is the guy who cried when he thought he was being traded, then got to stay because the Mets nixed the deal because of Carlos Gomez’s hip. (That’s the most Mets move ever.) (Skip to 1:00.)

But now Mets fans LOVE Wilmer Flores. He pinch hit Sunday night and got a standing ovation. “Everyone loves someone who wants to be a Met,” Blum said. Flores promptly doubled.

Those sort of stories are what make me actually enjoy going to Citi Field and enjoy cheering for the Mets. For now. It’s a summer thing, I’m sure.

Sam Fortier is a displaced New Englander living in New York. He likes baseball, crunchy peanut butter and the sound Kanye makes in his songs, which he thinks is spelled “HAAH.” He’s not a fan of grammatical error’s. You can read him here every Monday, follow him on Twitter @Sam4TR, or email him at sam.fortier@yahoo.com.