As a shy eleven-year-old, I spent much of the summer between my sixth- and seventh-grade years alone. I was in between not only school years, but also actual schools, and the friends I had made in the previous year would not be joining me in seventh grade.
So, I passed a great deal of time fostering my burgeoning interest in sports.
As a Michigan native, it had all started with the Detroit Pistons. A couple years earlier, the Pistons won the NBA Finals, and my family—and seemingly all the other families in our neighborhood—had gathered around a TV to watch that scrappy Pistons team beat the Lakers in five games.
But as I came to learn, in the world of sports entertainment, attention spans are short. And by the summer of 2006, there was a new show in town—the upstart Detroit Tigers.
In the entire preceding decade, the Tigers had failed to post a winning season. But with a new manager and some key free agents and draft picks (including rookie Justin Verlander) beginning to contribute, the Tigers were on a tear. Their unexpected success was giving the fans a kind of bewildered excitement that I found hard to resist. By the time July came around, I was swept up in the unmistakable feeling of destiny surrounding the team, and I began to follow every single game. Some of my favorite memories will always be listening to the Tigers radio broadcasts that summer as I went to bed with my windows open to the cool night outside.
Since that season, in which the Tigers went on to win the American League before falling in the World Series, my Tigers fandom has waxed and waned, depending on the quality of the team and the goings-on in my life at the time. In college, I lived in dorms with other Tigers fans and had a lot of fun watching the bloated 2012–2014 teams make valiant but ultimately unsuccessful attempts at a World Series.
The Tigers have been pretty bad for a few years now. But as a sometimes-fan, I haven’t paid too much attention. Their self-destruction in 2017 coincided with my first year of graduate school and my move to the east coast. Since then, I would periodically check in on them without paying their abysmal record too much mind. After all, I didn’t have anyone to watch them with and had other more pressing interests anyway.
But this summer I’ve had more time to myself and have started following some Tigers games again. It started more or less by chance, when a free evening coincided with a free online stream of a game against the Angels in June. The team now is certainly different from that 2006 team. Their talented young pitching core is promising, but still raw and unreliable. Their offense is streaky, and their aging star Miguel Cabrera eats more than a third of the entire payroll while putting up mediocre stats. With a losing record and sitting at third place in the division, they are wildly outperforming the season’s very low expectations.
Coming back to baseball after all these years, I also notice more changes than just those to my favorite team. Chief among these is the explosion of sports betting. This trend is driven by a 2018 Supreme Court decision and has some worrying consequences—like the new glut of advertisements to younger-than-ever potential gambling addicts. But perhaps more broadly, it could also fundamentally change the way sports entertainment is consumed (read: “getting deeper into your pockets!”). For instance, in 2020, Bally’s Corporation (a casino operator) acquired naming rights to the network of regional TV stations that broadcast Major League Baseball in a deal that included the integration of its own content into the broadcast. Now, most regular season baseball games can only be watched on your local “Bally Sports,” complete with in-game odds and advertisements for mobile betting apps. Bally openly touts its “investment in the gamification of sports.”
Of course, sports entertainment has always had an unmistakable greedy streak in it. But something does feel weird about having beloved baseball announcers, the best of whom have a warm, fatherly kind of aura, tell you how to make a parlay on your smartphone.
Still, there’s a lot to recognize and to love about this game that has long ceased being “America’s pastime.” The pace of the game, a deterrent to some, feels to me like the perfect match for a slow summer night. And the sounds of ball and bat remain unchanged by the incessant advertisement.
This week I went to Camden Yards to watch the Tigers face off against the Baltimore Orioles. Not a single player or coach remains from that 2006 team that I loved back when I was eleven. But there are promising young pitchers and hitters alike, and we saw a team that looks like it has some good years ahead of it. And yes, there were beers, fries, and home runs.
It’s good to check back into baseball fandom and discover that, even for its changes, it’s still moving steadily along. I’m here for the ride. Go Tigers.
Klaas Walhout graduated from Calvin in 2016 with majors in philosophy and religion. He has lived on the East Coast since then. He currently lives in Philadelphia, PA, where he spends his days (and sometimes nights) working as a hospital chaplain.