As a lad in school my concern for what my teachers wished me to learn, and their fusty behavioral restrictions, were considerably less than central to me. I had other fish to fry. Mostly having to do with baseball, girls, and turning a few bob delivering Tampa’s afternoon newspaper.
One of my few distinctions, but not one I include on my résumé, is that I remain the only student in the history of Woodrow Wilson Junior High School in Tampa to get an F-squared in Algebra One. It’s not that I’m quantitatively feeble-minded. I can calculate earned-run-averages in my head. But the fact was that my girlfriend — perhaps more accurately the girl I hoped would become my girlfriend — sat in the desk right in front of me, leaving little of my attention span available for the Xs and Ys on the blackboard. Besides, how often in the course of nine innings does X minus Y come up? Never, that’s how often.
But in Tuesday’s New York Times there was a geography lesson even I would have paid attention to in junior high.
When I first became interested in the Grand Old Game, Major League Baseball was a clubby, by-invitation-only, fraternity of sixteen teams, all in the Northeast and Midwest. Four cities had two teams; yet another, New Yawk of course, had three. Southerners had no local team to plight their troth with. At least not one nearby. The closest options were the Washington Senators—no help there—or, somewhat better, the St. Louis Cardinals. But the Cardinals, except for Stan Musial, took the fifties off.
Now MLB is a 30-team, bicoastal business with so many locations that few Americans reside in so remote an area code that they can’t be on geographical speaking terms with at least one team. Even beat up old desert sourdoughs can decide whether to pull for the San Diego Padres, the Los Angeles Dodgers, or the Arizona Diamondbacks. I would not be surprised to learn of sightings of Minnesota Twins caps as far west as Billings, Montana.
A Times team of four reporters put together a piece with fourteen maps under the title of “Up Close on Baseball’s Borders.” The maps, which take things down to the neighborhood, even zip code level, purport to show where the fans of the various Major League teams reside. I say purport because there is a caveat (caveats being always in season). The assigned locations of fans are based on based on preferences expressed by Facebook users, presumably when they are not “friending” strangers and otherwise acting like teenage girls.
The idea that Facebook regulars reflect the universe of baseball fandom is more than a bit of a stretch. But the maps may still have some utility, or at least a bit of entertainment value. Let’s cruise some of the borders.
The most famous border in Baseball-Land is that which separates fans of the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. It’s a hair more than 200 miles from Yankee Stadium to Fenway Park, but these are some of the longest miles in sport geography. The Times writers borrow the term “the Munson-Nixon line,” used by Sports Illustrated writer Steve Rushin in a 2003 article to refer to an imaginary line running across Connecticut just north of Hartford separating Yankee territory to the south from Red Sox territory north to moose country. Of course Yankee fans can be found most anywhere, and Red Sox Nation probably extends to the closer planets.
This famous border’s name comes from the late great Yankee catcher Thurman Munson and popular right-fielder Trot Nixon, who played for the Sawks from ’96 through ’06. Red Sox nation has expanded a bit of late, but winning a national championship will do that.
The Yankees are clearly New York’s team, while the National League Mets could be the late Rodney Dangerfield’s team. They just don’t get no respect, even in Queens where they play but where the Yankees are still the favorite team, at least by a smaller margin there than in the other four boroughs and upstate.
Other historically sharp divides in fan loyalties include those between the Dodgers and Giants on the Left Coast, and between the White Sox and Cubs in Chicago. Somewhere north of San Luis Obispo is the southern border of Giants territory. The Los Angeles Dodgers are clearly the favorites of Southern California, though the Angels of Anaheim have carved out a sizable niche audience. The Padres of San Diego are the area’s step-children, hemmed in as they are by Mexico to the south, a desert to the east, and Dodger-Land to the north. The fact that they’ve never won the World Series in their 54-year history is both a cause and an effect of their status.
Northern California’s also-ran team is the Oakland Athletics, less popular than San Francisco’s Giants even in Oakland. This probably has a bit to do with the Giants having won the World Series two of the last four years. The last time the A’s won was 1989.
Chicago is a place of sharply divided baseball loyalties, sometime held with feeling. It’s neighborhood over city in Chicago, with the yuppie north-side preferring the Cubs and the more down-market south-side fans of the White Sox. It’s rare in Chicago for someone to be fans of both Chicago teams. The Times writers suggest it would be a good idea when in Chicago to know whether one is north or south of I-290, aka the Eisenhower Expressway, before deciding whether to put on a Cubs or a White Sox cap.
Probably not as much feeling north of Chicago where Midwest nice kicks in. Milwaukee Brewers and Minnesota Twins fans pretty much adhere to state lines and don’t get up each others’ noses. In Sothern Illinois there is an interesting divide and a venerable rivalry between the Cubs and the Cardinals. The Red Birds have won more World Series, eleven, than any team save the Yankees, twenty-seven. No surprise that their fans claims way more of Missouri than their in-state competitors, the Kansas City Royals.
Much of Dixie pulls for the Atlanta Braves, and South and Central Florida make easy geographical lines between the Marlins of Miami and the Rays of the Tampa Bay area. The Rangers mostly rule Texas, and will until the Houston Astros start winning some ball games.
Much of this rendering of the contours of baseball sentiment was already known to the average alert fan, and we likely didn’t need Facebook and a brace of New York Times reporters to lay it out for us with color-coded maps. But it’s nice to have it confirmed with something called “aggregated data” and with an “applied algorithm to smooth the data and fill in gaps where data was missing” (isn’t that what Obama does when lying about Obamacare?) that the Grand Old Game is truly national now.
Very few of the almost 320 million Americans now live more than 20 minutes from the nearest French fry. It’s comforting to know that most of us are also close enough to a Major League Baseball team to have some identification with it, even those who can’t afford the outrageous ticket prices, or almost as much to park as my first car cost me.