I got an email the other day from a fellow I used to work with. He grew up in Pennsylvania and is one of just two Pittsburgh Pirates fans I have ever met. The email was succinct: “Did you see that former number seven hitter Jose Bautista hit his 50th homer? My gawd.”
Bautista, who will win the AL home run title this season, will officially clinch his title this weekend at Target Field. After four quiet seasons in Pittsburgh, he was traded to the Blue Jays two years ago. He labored in anonymity there as well until this year when he suddenly caught fire and is putting up numbers far ahead of any previous totals, including two homers here Thursday night.
I am sure my Pirate pal is shaking his head and wondering just what the hell happened. Why couldn’t he have done that there?
The four-hour addendum was properly heavy on the home run chase between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in the late 1990s. There was a segment that detailed just why Barry Bonds was admired and then abhorred while he conquered Henry Aaron to become the sport’s all-time home run king. Mr. Burns even broke away from the usual mold for a nifty feature on Seattle’s hitting machine, the indefatigable Ichiro Suzuki.
But, unlike his previous effort, Burns missed the boat by spending way too much time detailing tales of the Red Sox, Yankees and Cubs. Yes, there were interesting stories to tell. But the main reason baseball is surviving today is the diehard fans all over the country. The game has been revived in cities that qualify as the heartland of the country — cities that don’t have anywhere near the population of Boston, Chicago or New York.
Unlike other sports, baseball fans admire success in other ports. They like seeing good players perform great feats. While it is maddening to see a player like David Ortiz go to Boston and become a terror at the plate, baseball fans generally hang with their team through thick and thin. If Mike Barnicle thinks he and his son are the only ones who shed a tear when their team loses a heartbreaker in the playoffs, he is sadly mistaken.
I know a few folks in Detroit who took a long time to recover from last year’s epic playoff game at the Metrodome.
By the next spring, however, all is somewhat forgiven, and we are all off to a new adventure. Fenway Park, Yankee Stadium and Wrigley Field are not the only places where hope springs eternal.
Although overall MLB attendance is down slightly, the list of cities that had increases is fascinating. Thanks to a good club and a nifty new stadium, the Twins are far and away the leaders. (They will finish nearly a million ahead of last year’s numbers.)
The National League team that made the biggest leap — the Cincinnati Reds — is one of the best stories in baseball. If Mr. Burns came to the Midwest, he would have discovered many longtime Twins’ fans in tiny towns in Iowa, North and South Dakota and just as many Cincy fans in Kentucky, West Virginia and Indiana. The local MLB team has long held the fascination of those states. In seasons like this — when the team plays very well — their interest levels intensifies greatly.
The other thing Mr. Burns missed on was this simple point: Baseball fans love to watch good players and good baseball … no matter who the team is. Next week, the country’s eyes won’t just be on Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez. Fans want to see Joe Mauer catch and hit. Tampa Bay’s David Price is terrific to watch on the mound. Texas’ Josh Hamilton is the ultimate tale of redemption. If his team plays well in the postseason, Cincinnati’s Joey Votto has a chance to become an instant sensation.
These guys — as well as the next Gene Larkin (an unexpected hero) — are the fellows who spur our interest in the game.
The beauty of baseball, however, is the game isn’t run on a clock. When extra innings are necessary, it can go on for some time. So, perhaps Mr. Burns can come back in a couple of years with an 11th inning episode that takes on these matters.
While he is at it, he could explain perhaps this season’s most amazing statistic: The Pirates, who have the most losses in the majors, actually registered an increase in attendance this season.
I know a fellow he can call. While most people around here worry about whom the Twins will play in the playoffs next week and if the starting pitching can come together, my Pirate pal is likely thinking about next year.
As frustrating and agonizing as the game is, hope really does spring eternal.
Dave Wright, a Detroit native, is a freelance writer/editor in St. Paul. His first book, “162-0: Imagine a Twins’ Undefeated Season” is available in bookstores and online.