This evening while watching the Rockies vs. Giants game I was asked if I remembered the first Little League baseball game I ever played in. The question was directed towards me by a friend I've known a long while, and who knows me fairly well - though not well enough to know that I never played Little League baseball, which I duly told him.
That took him by surprise, as the two of us have gone to a number of MLB games together, and have watched countless more in bars and restaurants, and even at each other's homes. He had always assumed that, since I am a big baseball fan and know the game inside and out, I must have played Little League and probably high school ball.
In answer to his question as to how baseball was my spectator sport of choice when I had never actually played the game, I had to tell him the story of my USAF career.
See, after I joined the USAF and was given a DDA to Holloman AFB in the wonderful though somewhat empty state that is New Mexico, I discovered that being in the middle of nowhere with nothing to do and nobody to do anything with leads to a lot of television watching.
The three-story AF dorms all of us unmarried enlisted personnel lived in all had dayrooms on each floor that had televisions with cable, and after work there was always a small contingent of either Cubs or Braves fans watching a baseball game (this was in the day when there were only two superstations that broadcast nationwide via cable, WGN and WTBS, out of Chicago and Atlanta respectively).
As I had the aforementioned nothing else to do, I started to watch whatever game everyone else was watching when I settled into the dayroom most evenings after work.
Now, not having ever played the game did not mean I didn't know how the game was played, so I was able to follow along readily enough. There were a few things I didn't know of course, but I've always been a quick learn and soon enough I knew not only how the game was played, but also that the game was not only a contest between highly skilled athletes, but also a chess match between the managers of each team.
Early on I took a liking to how Whitey Herzog managed a game. He was at the helm of the St Louis Cardinals the entire time I was in the USAF, and as the Cubs and the Cardinals were both in the National League East at the time, I got to watch a lot of Cubs/Cardinals games on WGN, and while the Braves were inexplicably in the National League West back then (along with my hometown team, the SD Padres, of which I became a loyal fan via Braves games broadcast on WTBS), they still played the Cardinals at least twelve times a year.
Herzog made the best of what he had, winning games with good pitching, great base running, and exceptional defense.
His knack for creating runs with bases on balls and bloop singles - a tactic every single team the Cards played against knew they were going to use but couldn't seem to stop, was a pleasure to watch. His teams were stocked with players who may not have been the best at hitting the ball for extra bases, but they knew how to get on base.
However, watching a field General like Herzog was not what initially hooked me - it was the one-two punch of seeing the Padres play, as it provided a tenuous link to my hometown, and the nearly endless amount of trivia inherent to baseball.
Baseball is full of statistics, and statistics are the fodder of the best trivia games. I not only got hooked on watching baseball on television, I got hooked on reading everything I could get my hands on about the history of the sport and it's players. I subscribed to The Sporting News and purchased the annual Baseball Register. In short, I became obsessed.
The cherry on the sundae was the length of the baseball season. At 162 games stretching from the first week of April until the end of September, plus the October post season, baseball provided a seven month-plus distraction from the daily drudgery of a four-year enlistment being served in the middle of nowhere, New Mexico.
And that was how I became a big baseball fan.