More Time to Love Baseball

From the open friendliness of strangers to the common but slightly unnerving expanses of open space, certain aspects of the Midwest clearly distinguish it from the Left Coast. But probably the biggest difference I’ve noticed is Illinoisans’ exuberant devotion to a sport that many here call outdated and boring: baseball.

There are definitely baseball fans in California; they just seem to be fewer in number and less ardent than those out by the Great Lakes. It’s relatively rare that I meet another Californian, especially in the college age group, who has more than a passing interest in the sport or doesn’t dismiss it entirely as too slow-paced and stodgy. But man, do Midwesterners love it.

Baseball is everywhere out there. Sure, some of our Targets and Walmarts have an aisle or two devoted to the local team. But in Illinois, virtually every shop boasts some sort of alliance to the Cubs and/or the White Sox. Even a trip to the ice cream shop becomes a display of loyalty: Many creameries serve ice cream in little plastic baseball hats emblazoned with the insignia of various teams and allow (or force, depending on your perspective) customers to choose their teams when they make a purchase. And God forbid the customer is a Mets fan while the cashier supports the Cubs; at that point, the customer may not receive any ice cream at all. Baseball team loyalty is first priority, and shop owners know that.

The sport has even worked its way into the landscape. Many community fields do their best to mirror great baseball fields across the country. Perhaps the most famous in the state is Little Wrigley Field, near Freeport. It’s a near-exact replica of the historic Chicago stadium and is home to many baseball-centric community events. Its fame extends past the sleepy town; a few years ago, I went there with some relatives to meet Hall of Famer and ex-Cubs player Ferguson Jenkins, who was leading a baseball clinic and signing autographs. Almost the entire community, of all age groups, attended excitedly.

There are a few possible reasons for such commitment to a sport that young Californians tend to snub. For one, the Midwest is in the heartland of America. Many towns are bastions of traditional American values; bumper stickers declaring “Stand Up for Religious Liberty,” “Stop the Attack on Righteousness” and “Mitt Romney 2012” are common and unabashedly displayed. In a region permeated by tradition, it comes as no surprise that a sport lauded as America’s pastime is so well received. Since baseball has been considered the first truly American sport to gain widespread popularity, its roots in American history and tradition may make it more appealing to a region in which tradition is so valued. Also, the sport has been around such a long time that it has united generations, keeping interest alive among Midwesterners of all ages.

Also, much of the lifestyle out there — outside of obvious metropolitan areas like Chicago — moves at a slower, and arguably more relaxed, pace than in California. Neighbors easily spend hours on their front porches chatting, while kids meander down sidewalks with their friends and pay little attention to time. When my parents first moved into their new neighborhood, they were immediately greeted by a neighbor who had spent the day baking them an apple pie from scratch.

“It wasn’t any trouble,” she assured them. “We don’t run short on time here.” This could explain baseball’s appeal to the Midwesterner: The pacing of the sport reflects the pace of the everyday.

It seems that every region of the U.S. has its own collective athletic interests. Where here in California, faster paced sports like football and basketball tend to attract us, Midwesterners seem to be happy with a sport that boasts periods of quiet to counterbalance peaks of excitement.