I walk in many worlds as a writer, publisher, IT professional, and now sportswriter. I have a lot of friends who embrace various types of fandom, role playing games, strategy games, cosplay, alongside those with collections of jerseys, hats, T-shirts and paraphernalia associated with the teams they follow. On the nerdier, geekier side of my social circle, I see far too many posts dismissing sports, as if disdain was the proper way to react to something one doesn’t share a passion for – a particularly odd stance for people wearing funny ear-hats and playing games involving elves.
Here’s the thing. Baseball is the sport that should be unifying all of us, my science-fiction loving, fantasy-reading friends. Do you want to know the first role-playing game with character stat sheets? It’s called Stratomatic, and it’s been around since 1961, a long time before Gary Gygax and Dave Arenson (in 1974) introduced the world to Dungeons and Dragons. The similarities, though, are pretty obvious, and almost make one wonder if Gygax was a baseball fan when he was a kid.
In high school, and maybe college, I get the distinction. Jocks, nerds, and geeks were pretty well segregated by walls of social stigma and even hatred. Those who played sports tended to do pretty well right up until high school ended, and then, only those who were either smart and athletic, or just super-humanly good, continued to be athletes, while the nerds and geeks tended to thrive in higher education and come into their own.
The point is, though, baseball fans are no more likely to be athletic, in any larger sense, than Magic the Gathering players, or Cosplay enthusiasts. It’s fandom. You find your passion, and you follow it – and it’s a world where people of many backgrounds and many interests can merge. The people watching and loving baseball are not just the residual jocks from high school, they are from all walks of life, just like the lovers of Settlers of Catan, or people who enjoy watching Japanese animation.
The merger I suggest has been happening behind the scenes for a long time. More and more baseball experts are drawn from the worlds of statistics and mathematics. More advanced programming takes place that directly impacts baseball as a sport, helping to provide better training, safer practices, and a better experience for fans of all types through social media, better broadcasting, and the ability to enter more and more closely into the game itself through electronics and a variety of specialized equipment. The game has always been complex, but mathematics has allowed us to map that complexity, explore and experiment with it. Think how similar it is for a fantasy baseball player to try and “roll up” a winning team to the process of a group of role players creating character sheets and stats that will affect the strategies and moves they will make as their game progresses.
On the surface, baseball can look like a game where things happen too slowly. Beneath that surface, it’s alive with strategy, one-on-one match-ups, unbelievable skill sets and heroes. Every single play has vectors and angles associated, nuances that don’t take that long to get a basic understanding of, and myriad personalities that can draw you in and keep you there.
In high school, a friend of mine named Mark Maharg (shout out to Mark) invented a game called “Basement Ball.” You played it with two ping pong paddles, and a ping pong ball wrapped in scotch tape to keep it from splitting too easily. You had a pitcher, and a batter, and sort of like in Cricket, where the ball was “hit” to determined the outcome of a play. We had curve balls and sinkers – it was fun. Mark had entire leagues mapped out, players, schedules… he was a baseball player, and a baseball fan, but even back then I was able to witness a very good example of how the love of baseball can expand and become something more.
When I was much younger, I played Dungeons and Dragons. I can tell you that anyone watching such a game – or a tournament of Magic the Gathering – is going to fall asleep, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing going on. It’s just a more insular world, also with strategy, vectors, analytics, and heroes. Imagine a group of folks dressed up to cosplay the Avengers, staring across a room at a bunch of face-painted, wig-wearing, foam-fingered baseball fans in jerseys, and then… imagine that moment of epiphany when they recognize one another as what they are… very similar.
So this is my call-out to my geek friends, computer programming buddies, super-hero loving pals. Find the world that I have found. Embrace the sport that would embrace you in return. Go down to the local ballpark and watch for the pitcher with the +10 Fastball, or the Bat of Destiny, because they are out there. Change the colors on your armor to match the team and add a logo, and no one will bat an eye when you walk into the park – you’ll probably end up on the Jumbo Tron. Bring your love of statistics and numbers and abilities to the sport and make it better.
And all you baseball fans out there… Take a walk through your local Sci-fi convention, or Comic Convention one day, grab one of those sets of cards, or share a mug of Romulan Ale with a Trekkie. You never know when one of those guys (many of whom are rocket scientists) will be the one to invent a piece of equipment that gives your team the edge, or a new way of filming players that makes it even more fun – and intense – to watch the game you love.
It’s no coincidence that no matter what word you use to modify it, there is only one word for fandom. It brings us together. And all of you, baseball fans and the rest- find a copy of Stratomatic… they still make it, and it’s more amazing than ever.