Play ball!

>> Monday, March 31, 2008

Baseball officially got underway last week when the Boston Red Sox played the Oakland Athletics opened the season in Japan, but last night was the first regular season game played on American soil (and at an hour when most Americans would watch it). The Washington Nationals welcomed fans to their brand new ballpark in dramatic fashion as they beat the Braves with two outs in the bottom of the ninth on a Ryan Zimmerman walk-off home run.

Today and tomorrow there will be a full slate of games all day and all night long, and just like the first couple of days of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament, these really are among the highlights of the yearly sports calendar for me. It's tempting not to take the entire day off, pop some popcorn, and laze in front of the TV all day. Alas, I actually have work to do. (Although I do think I'll make time for the Los Angeles/San Francisco game this afternoon at 4 p.m. ET.)

Beyond my perennial interest in baseball and my excitement over the beginning of another fantasy baseball season managing a team with my dad, this year holds a new distinction for me: This may be the first year since I was in middle school that I have changed my allegiance to a team. I've been a Cincinnati Reds fan for many years now, and I even lived in Cincinnati for two years, during which time I got to the ballpark as often as I could. But frankly it's becoming very hard to be a Cincinnati fan--so hard, in fact, that I am feeling the pressure to root for a new team.

But please understand--this has nothing to do with how good (or bad) the Reds are. I've been a Reds fan through thick (Always a bridesmaid in the 80s, then 1990 World Series champs! And how about those comeback kids of 1999?) and thin (pretty much every other year but those) and never once thought about ditching them due to their record or batting averages or ERA. No, the reason I'm about to leave the Reds behind is because I can no longer watch them.


Major League Baseball has a cable package called "MLB Extra Innings," which purports to bring you hundreds if not thousands of games each season. And it does, but only out of market games. That means if you live in Cincinnati, you don't get to see Cincy games. If you live in Atlanta, you don't get to see Atlanta games. But those areas are serviced by the regional Fox Sports affiliates--in those cases, Fox Sports Ohio and Fox Sports South, respectively. So while I'm blocked from watching Atlanta Braves games because I live in the south, I still get a number of those blocked games on the regional Fox affiliate.

The trouble is, the Braves and the Reds claim where I live as "home territory." That means I'm blocked from both teams' games. That's fine for the Braves--I get enough of them everywhere else--but it means I never see Reds games anymore. Not even on ESPN! When national cable features the Reds, I get a black screen, or some back-up game from somewhere else in the country. (And often from the American League, which I don't really follow.)

The idea behind blackouts is two-fold. First, it gives MLB and the teams a property they can sell to Fox Sports with the guarantee that no one else will be competing with their broadcast. I get that. But there's also the crazy idea that if I can't watch the game on TV that I will get myself down to the ballpark to see it. The trouble is, Cincinnati is a seven hour drive from where I live. Um, guys? I'm not going to make it down to the ballpark too many times this season.

A call to DirectTV to complain is useless; they blame MLB on the blackout restrictions. E-mails to MLB tell me it's not their fault, it's the teams who claim zip codes as their "territory," and thus the teams who mandate who gets blacked out and who doesn't. But the territory thing is a silly land grab by the owners. When an expansion team or a team looking to move sets its sights on a new city, any existing team with a claim to that territory must be compensated. Thus the Baltimore Orioles exacted a monetary payoff from MLB and the Washington Nationals when that team moved there from Montreal, because the Orioles "owned" the territory rights to D.C. Thus any serviceable territory for baseball gets sucked up by the teams, no matter how ridiculous it is that you're seven hours away and still considered part of a team's territory.

And the Braves and Reds both claim us, but while we justifiably get Fox Sports South we do not, understandably, get Fox Sports Ohio. Not unless I buy the extra package DirectTV offers with all the regional sports stations, which seems a bit redundant when I've already got the MLB Extra Innings package for a lot less. Just without Reds games.

So after three years of this nonsense--both my old home in Knoxville, Tennessee and my new home in Penland, North Carolina are in "Reds Territory"--I've had it. It's impossible to root for a team you can never see play! What fun is that? I read the box score the next morning and cheer or wail? Huh-uh.

Because I play fantasy baseball, I end up watching a lot of different games and a lot of different teams, and last season I found myself really enjoying the late West Coast Los Angeles Dodgers feeds. I like the uniforms, the stadium, the players, and I love the Dodgers' home announcer Vin Scully. Then I started researching the Brooklyn Dodgers for my forthcoming middle grade novel The Brooklyn Nine, and the deal was pretty much done. When my dad bought me a Los Angeles cap for Christmas my transformation was complete.

I've still got my Reds caps and my Reds jerseys, and I'll still wear them, but I fear my baseball heart has left the Queen City for the City of Angels.


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