Baseball stays popular in the U.S. heartland

With the kickoff of the NFL’s season on Sunday, millions of Americans gladly spent hours sunk into their couches. Professional football’s popularity is at an all-time high.

Meanwhile, America’s “pastime,” Major League Baseball, is struggling to deal with the integrity of its records and the rampancy of steroid use among its biggest and most popular players. But the game of baseball is still used to define America, and baseball still flows in the veins of the American people.

In the last 10 years, minor league baseball has boomed, yielding both big business and legitimate excitement among a growing number of fans. Small cities and towns, unable to support the infrastructure of a major league team, have embraced the rebirth of more localized baseball. Two years ago, the minor leagues drew more than 40 million fans, surpassing an attendance record that had been set in 1949. But minor league baseball — defined here as teams affiliated with MLB organizations — is only one part of baseball’s national rebirth. Independent minor leagues and collegiate summer leagues have both taken off with similar leaps in popularity.

This summer, I was working in Massachusetts for the Holyoke Giants, who play in the New England Collegiate Baseball League — a lesser-known version of the Cape Cod Baseball League, which some might remember from the oh-so-hunky Freddy Prinze Jr.’s star vehicle “Summer Catch”. As a rule, NECBL players are unpaid students entering their sophomore, junior or senior years in college, and the Ivy League does not go unrepresented; last year, Yale’s Jake Doyle earned NECBL All-Star honors for his outfield play.

Even among the collegiate summer leagues, the NECBL doesn’t exactly offer the highest level of play. There are better collegiate summer leagues, including the Cape Cod League and the upper midwest’s Northwoods League. And of course, none of these leagues matches the quality of play in a professional minor league, just as those teams would be crushed if they played the MLB squads. Yet in towns throughout New England, I found men, women and children with a burning love for the game and culture of baseball, and that flame had been fanned by these collegiate games.

The NECBL’s very existence offers evidence of baseball’s enduring presence in the darkest hollows of New England, but there is more proof. The Cape League, founded more than a century ago, includes teams that cover some operations costs by passing the hat during home games. New England plays home to the majority of teams in the professional but unaffiliated Can-Am League. And the crux of Red Sox Nation also supports three minor league Boston affiliates — the Pawtucket Sox (AAA), Portland Sea Dogs (AA) and Lowell Spinners (A).

But in the early 1990s, long before Jose Canseco appeared before Congress, the architects of the NECBL gambled that the region held enough love for baseball to support 12 more teams, playing what was at the time the lowest level of baseball around. Luckily, they were right.

The NECBL fields teams in each of the six states that make up New England. Organizations in Newport, R.I.; Montpelier, Vt.; and Holyoke, Mass. all strive to draw similar fans from vastly different backgrounds. In Newport, I found tourists in town on their 70-foot yachts who found a quaint diversion in an old-fashioned stadium where the dugouts are on the same side of the field. In Holyoke, we targeted two different groups: residents of surrounding Pioneer Valley, who were typically members of the upper middle class, and the residents of downtown Holyoke, who typically were not.

Among all three groups, the game of baseball has taken root. It is a leisure activity in Newport and an escape in Holyoke. In both places, though, the fans embrace the game with an astonishing fervor.

The people of Montpelier, the town’s recreation field and its baseball team — the Vermont Mountaineers — provided my most lasting memory of the summer and my strongest faith in the spirit of baseball, when on June 30, the Holyoke Giants played the division-leading Mountaineers on their home turf. Montpelier is a charming, eccentric town, far from any metropolitan center; it is not a place where one would expect to find the roar of a crowd cheering on a baseball game. The people seem more likely to sip lattes and discuss Nietzsche than to sit in uncomfortable wooden bleachers for nine innings.

But Montpelier showed me a delightful version of the baseball experience, with lamb kebab sandwiches instead of hot dogs and techno music replacing the typical organ. Before the ceremonial first pitch — delivered by the governor of Vermont — the fans stomped their feet in rhythm to the beat of “Streamline” by Newton (never heard of it? Neither had I). The dark green wood edifice was shaking while the mascot, an oversized varmint, promiscuously gyrated his hips. It was surreal; this was not the baseball that you’ve read about. Listening to a song made popular by a Pepsi commercial starring Jimmy Fallon and watching an overly horny gopher run around is not quite the same as keeping score with your father and anxiously awaiting a foul ball. Yet the people were all enthused, knowledgeable baseball fans.

Baseball is ingrained into our culture. It is a rite of summer that anyone can enjoy. There has been a significant upsurge of popular interest in the intellectual content of the game in the past decade, uniting the bulky athletes who play the game with wiry nerds who can sit in an office and study the game’s trends. It is a way to get some fresh air. The pace of play is slow enough for anyone to follow but is simultaneously layered and intricate. And while it may not be as profitable or as high-profile as it once was, America’s pastime will not die; it will merely shift and change with the addition of fresh blood — though preferably unjuiced.

Nicholas Thorne is a junior in Pierson College.

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