On baseball fandom in 2019

Photo: Stacie Wheeler

The trajectory of my baseball fandom this season can be described with two peaks and some very long valleys.

One of those peaks came in early August, when I attended my first game at Dodger Stadium since 2015. Kenta Maeda, one of my favorite pitchers, turned in his best outing of the season. The Dodgers won handily, part of their regular season dominance on their home field this year.

It wasn’t just the experience of seeing the Dodgers win that was important, or even the experience of seeing them in person. I was fortunate enough to see them at Fenway once last season and twice this year, including the game where Cody Bellinger hit a Steven Wright knuckleball into low Earth orbit. Instead, this peak was because I was able to watch the game together with my family. It was the first time that I was able to go to a game with my mom, dad, and sister all together in at least a decade. We ate too many Dodger Dogs and peanuts. My sister was annoyed by defensive shifting. It was great. 

That game was a reminder of where my baseball fandom came from. It was a way to remember watching Eric Gagne finish games from the top deck when I was in high school. It was a reminder of seeing Ramon Martinez’s no-hitter with my grandfather a year before he passed away. It was a nostalgic moment, one that made me extremely happy.

The other peak this year came at the end of May. This game was at the end of a road trip with a friend of mine, on a day in which we needed to drive from central Saskatchewan to Idaho. It was a long, grueling day on the road, at the end of a trip which could be described with similar adjectives. It was the first chance I had to pay attention to baseball in two weeks. We streamed the Dodgers’ TV call over the car’s speakers, a return of Joe Davis and Orel Hershiser’s familiar voices to my life after an extended, exhausting absence.

That was a good game to come back to. As we drove across the plains of Montana in pouring rain, Clayton Kershaw dueled with Jacob deGrom. As the rainstorm parted into rainbows, the Dodgers rallied against the Mets’ bullpen and turned a 3-2 deficit into an 8-3 lead. As we switched from I-90 to I-15 and climbed the hills towards the Continental Divide, our signal cut out as Kenley Jansen entered the game with the bases loaded in the eighth for a five out save. The Cody Bellinger throw (yes, that throw) happened while we were without signal, but we were able to hear the final outs of the game as we descended the mountains towards Idaho Falls.

After we stopped for the night, I watched the highlights of Bellinger’s throw about 20 times. That game was one of the definitive moments his potential MVP season, but more importantly, it was a reminder of why I love baseball. Baseball works so well for me because it is in the background of life. For half of the year, it is your constant companion, something to watch and listen to, a way to distract or to supplement. That has been a huge part of my life to date, and to have that experience again after an extended layoff felt like the embrace of an old friend.

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So why, then, does my baseball fandom feel more precarious than it has ever been?

From an objective standpoint, this is probably the best time to be a Dodger fan of any point in my life. The Dodgers didn’t win a playoff game between when I was six months old and when I was 16, and didn’t win a playoff series until I was 20. The sustained excellence they’ve enjoyed in the decade-plus since is nothing like what Dodger fandom was in my formative years. Yes, the championship drought is growing increasingly excruciating (especially with the new ways the Dodgers are finding to break fans’ hearts every year), but from that objective standpoint I’d much rather have the recent Dodgers than the Dodgers from my childhood.

However, fandom is much more subjective than objective, and that’s where things have started to fall apart for me lately. Subjectively, this was one of the least fun to watch Dodger teams that I can remember. The number of players who have brought me joy whenever I’ve watched them have dwindled. Cody Bellinger was definitely in that category this year, as was Walker Buehler, as was Hyun-Jin Ryu. However, Kenley Jansen and Clayton Kershaw have aged out of this category. Rich Hill spent most of the year hurt. Yasiel Puig was traded away and replaced with a boring player who had a disappointing season. This year’s team felt very sterile and clinical, which would have been justified if they finally won the World Series. But they didn’t.

The two players who probably should have ended up on that joyful list were hard to root for given external circumstances. Earlier this year, it was reported that Alex Verdugo was present for the assault of a minor during spring training several years ago (sources have confirmed the accuracy of this report). That young woman was later sexually assaulted by another Dodger minor leaguer. This incident was one in a string of troubling reports of misconduct by Dodgers and the front office over the past several years. It also made it much harder to enjoy Verdugo’s success.

Julio Urias would have also entered that joyful watching category, if not for the events that unfurled earlier this season. While the extent of the incident which led to his domestic violence suspension is not known to the public, MLB saw fit to suspend him with whatever information they uncovered in their investigation. That made it harder to enjoy Urias’ growth and success. 

It’s tough to watch the World Series headlines unfold and not think about what it means to be a baseball fan. The Astros’ completely callous disregard for domestic violence led to them trading for Roberto Osuna, who could very well be on the mound when that series ends. Even if the current uproar over extremely insensitive comments about the acquisition leads to the suspension or firing of Astros assistant GM Brandon Taubman, it wouldn’t solve the core problem, the problem which led to them trading for Osuna in the first place.

Ultimately, if lack of sensitivity to domestic violence continues to be a problem for the sport as a whole, then it will become harder to be a part of it. This season has made it clear that the Dodgers don’t have much moral high ground in this area. They’re better about it than the Astros (see the nixed trade for Aroldis Chapman), but Urias and Verdugo will likely continue to be important parts of the team in the coming years. I don’t want to go back to blissful ignorance of this kind of problem, either. The fans are not the real victims and we need to remember that. Domestic violence is a societal problem, and changing these societal problems cannot be separated from sports.

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The issues I have had with my Dodger fandom lately also extend to the way the team has been run economically, which follows the trends of the sport as a whole. Over the past five seasons, the Dodgers’ payroll has been cut significantly, and at the same time it has never been more expensive to be a Dodger fan. This is a pattern across all of MLB, but the Dodgers are one of the teams which symbolize this trend the most.

The Dodger front office has made many savvy decisions over the years, but also many decisions made directly in the service of taking money out of the players’ pockets (largely at the directive of ownership). For example, the Maeda contract still bothers me immensely. He is beginning to decline as a starter (though he is still good enough to be at least a No. 4 starter for most teams), but he proved this fall that he can still be an excellent reliever, one of the best that this team currently has. Maeda’s bonuses have been used as a luxury tax insurance policy for a few years now, which has not been particularly fair for him. As he enters the back years of his contract, this will continue to be an issue, one which could unjustly punish his earnings for being a better reliever than he is a starter.

It’s not just Maeda, though. The Dodgers blatantly manipulated Buehler’s service time last season, conveniently leaving him four days short of the amount required to earn him free agency after 2023. He’ll have to wait an extra year due to a minor league demotion that was not merit-based during the 2018 all-star break. This type of decision-making makes me wonder if the Dodgers will conspire to do the same to Gavin Lux or Dustin May next year. These are two players who will probably be a part of the Dodgers’ next great core, the ones who could bring me joy to watch every day, a part of what I felt was missing this year. And yet they might be left in the minors longer than they should for the sake of the owners’ profits.

Ultimately, the “baseball is a business” ethos to excuse anti-player behavior is harmful for my enjoyment of the sport. This obviously isn’t the case for all fans, because whenever I write about such issues I get a lot of negative feedback. But, at the same time, the money the Dodgers are saving through player salaries, and through things like service time manipulation, is not getting passed back to the fans. It’s a reflection of the decaying power of labor in other areas, and team ownership groups are making “profit over all” more transparent than ever.

My priority as a fan isn’t ownership’s profits, it’s seeing the Dodgers win the World Series. They’ve been on the cusp of it for a few years, so it’s hard to argue that another smart investment or two could have helped them cross the finish line at least once. Knowing who those players could be is obviously the hard part, but the luxury tax should not stand in their way.

The other issues I’m having as a baseball fan are tied to the definition of the sport itself. Over the past five seasons, we’ve seen extremely wild swings in what a baseball actually is, largely due to frequent changes in how it behaves aerodynamically. The ball has been juiced, un-juiced, juiced even harder, and now dejuiced again for this year’s playoffs. Each of these changes in the ball have dramatically changed the run environment, what kind of players excel, and how to project the future.

No explanation for these wild swings is good. MLB intentionally meddling with the ball’s properties is a possibility, one which tracks with how sudden the changes in the ball have been (a rapid increase in home runs after the 2015 all-star break, a rapid increase in drag this postseason). Even if the changes in the ball have not been intentional, MLB’s stated explanation – a troubling lack of control over the manufacturing process – is not better.

As a fan, I want to know which sport I will watch next year. As a writer, this is also incredibly annoying. Should the Dodgers sign Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, a player who I think would flourish with a more lively baseball? Will Gavin Lux still be as good if the home runs he hit in AAA with a juiced baseball turn into doubles and outs with the more dead ball they’re playing with in the postseason? Will these questions lead to teams paying even less for players (probably)?

This level of uncertainty is really difficult for me to deal with. Baseball has naturally evolved and changed over the course of time, and slow iteration is fine. But future uncertainty related to the fundamental question “what is a baseball?” does not seem acceptable.

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Overall, I don’t know where this leads me as a baseball fan and as a Dodger fan in the future. The issues that are giving me trouble are present across the entire sport, and the overall trajectory doesn’t seem positive. I’ll still be back watching the Dodgers on opening day next season, but I’m starting to wonder where things will be in 5-10 years.

Baseball has been a gigantic part of my life since I was about 4 years old, and so far in my life it has been unthinkable to imagine it not being a constant presence from April to October. However, an increasingly loud part of my brain is wondering if I will still be a fan if things continue going the way they are going. Watching baseball can still make me happy, like it did in the two moments mentioned earlier. However, lately it has more frequently made me ambivalent (most of the regular season) or sad (this World Series). I don’t know where all of this leads, but I hope it won’t be in the same direction in the future.

About Daniel Brim

Daniel Brim
Daniel Brim grew up in the Los Angeles area but doesn't live there anymore. He still watches the Dodgers and writes about them sometimes.