Opening Day is this Thursday. Unlike most years in recent history, all 30 teams will be in action on the same Opening Day, with no staggering of the schedule, no weird Opening Day in Australia or someplace and no standalone game on ESPN the night before things really get going. I like that. Opening Day is special and this year it’ll feel like more of a holiday than it has in some time.
It may feel more like a holiday in some places than others. I’m only familiar with the Opening Day festivities in a handful of cities, but I will venture to say that Opening Day in Cincinnati, for example — which basically shuts the place down — takes things to a level you don’t see anyplace else. It’s truly a baseball town, and I’m happy that, even if it doesn’t get the honor of the first pitch that it used to always get — game time is 4PM — they will be playing ball in Great American Ballpark on the first afternoon of regular season action.
All of which has me thinking about what major league cities are, in fact, “baseball towns.” Yes, all major league teams have their own fervid followers, but which towns can claim baseball as its true passion? In which cities does baseball, all things being equal, stand a bit taller than other pursuits? Let’s look, shall we?
First some disclaimers:
- I looked at this once five years ago, but a lot has changed since then, both in my own thinking and in the sports landscape, so I think it’s worth doing again. If I made a good joke or a smart insight then, I’m totally ripping myself off and repeating it;
- Almost all cities ebb and flow depending on how their various sports teams are doing in a given year or era. I know that you see more Giants hats in San Francisco when they’re in the World Series and I know you may see more Warriors shirts when the basketball team is doing well. I’m not trying to gauge enthusiasm based on a championship year or apathy when things suck. I’m trying to figure out, if all things were equal, which sport would take up more of the city’s attention;
- As you’ll see in the individual city comments there may be more than one answer or, at the very least, there may be some sort of contingent answer. See New York, for example;
- Saying a town is not “a baseball town” is not a slam on the fans of the team in that town. EVERY team has passionate fans. I am not comparing fan bases or hating on fans for not supporting their team or anything else. This is comparison of entire cities and metro areas and their macro-level engagement, not fans’ support or non-support of a team. I shouldn’t have to say this, but I’ve learned that whenever you bring up anything close to this topic, people get insecure and defensive and think you’re fan-shaming them. I’m not, OK? Take your outrage elsewhere;
- Though I’m pretty educated about this stuff — I’ve been to most ballparks and know people deeply embedded in the sports culture of every city — I’m obviously an outsider and could have these very wrong in some respects. I’m super curious to hear your own comments about it. So I ask that rather than saying “you’re wrong, dude, Cleveland is TOTALLY a baseball town!” tell me why. The topic fascinates me! I want to learn!
- New York: Baseball was born in the New York area, but community-wide, basketball has a far richer history in the last, like, century. With the caveat about ebbs and flows above in mind, people in New York I talk to tell me that if the Knicks had been anything but a tire fire for the past 20 years, it’d be clear that New York was still as basketball town and that if they won a championship it’d dominate the city’s sports scene more than anything. I can see that. Still, just because basketball may, one day, take things to a higher level, I think New York is a baseball town. It, and maybe Boston, are the two cities where this may not be a zero-sum question. Their sports scenes, in the form of fan bases and media coverage and everything else, are large enough to multiply that attention, not divide it. So I’ll say New York is a “Baseball Town Plus.”
- Boston: Boston — and I think Philly too — may be the most “all sports” towns on the list. There is Celtics/Bruins/Pats/Sox fever always present on one level or another in ways other mutli-sport cities don’t have, and then you add that non-zero-sum factor I mentioned for New York. Boston is a baseball town, without question — I suspect that when the Sox roll things are a half-tick above the others — but it’s mostly just a sports town.
- Toronto: Leafs, Leafs, Leafs, Leafs. Even when the Jays were in the playoffs I suspect they were getting bumped to page 2 of the sports section to talk about the Leafs second line or whatever.
- Baltimore: People tell me the Colts were the city’s greatest love. When I was a kid the Colts left and the Orioles were coming off of 20 years of amazing play. Between that and being the only game in town for a long time, I had thought of it as a baseball town, but I think the Ravens get more people excited and would continue to do so even if both teams were great.
- Tampa Bay: Can’t really see it. They do well in the TV ratings, but I feel like you can’t really be a baseball town if there has been a decades-long debate about where your team should play. Either way, the Bucs and Bolts have been there longer and each have championships, college football probably sucks up a lot of the oxygen there too and there are enough transplants there that loyalties are divided.
- Detroit: Detroit is a great baseball town, but they seem to live and die with the Wings more. My relatives, almost all of whom either live in or hail from Detroit, do anyway. I could be persuaded that Detroit is primarily a baseball town. This new era of the Wings sucking might shed more light on it.
- Cleveland: Browns. By far. Even when they didn’t exist for a few years. The Indians went to Game 7 of the World Series in 2016 and people seemed to be talking about the Browns more. It’s totally a football town.
- Chicago: This is an interesting one. I feel like it’s a Bears city, even with the Cubs Renaissance. When you walk around Chicago in the summer the city just reeks of baseball, so it’s probably close, but if the Bears were to trade for some franchise quarterback on Opening Day, the quarterback gets more play on the news I bet.
- Kansas City: Another one which may be closer now than it was five years ago when I first did this, but I feel like the Chiefs are a greater municipal passion. Good baseball town, but maybe a stronger football town.
- Minneapolis: Again, I feel like if the Vikings made a big signing or a trade on Thursday afternoon, people would not be talking about the Twins’ Opening Day game. Baseball seems secondary there.
- Seattle: Given that they’ve sent away a baseball team and a basketball team to other cities in the past, the Seahawks probably by default. This may be the highest showing soccer would get anywhere on this list too.
- Oakland: I would read a 5,000 word essay about how San Francisco appropriated the Golden State Warriors’ glory from Oakland even before building them an area to take them physically out of the city, but I suppose that’s neither here nor there. The A’s can’t rate here for the same reason the Rays can’t in Tampa Bay. The Raiders are getting ready to abandon the city for the second time in a couple of years. The fans came back the first time and will probably still root for the team even after they leave. Sports Stockholm Syndrome. Either way, it won’t be a baseball town unless and until the A’s get a new ballpark and stop shipping out recognizable players ten minutes after they become recognizable.
- Houston: Texas = football, now and forever.
- Los Angeles: Baseball fandom is wide in Los Angeles — you can’t go anywhere without seeing a Dodgers cap — but I don’t think it’s terribly deep, and so many of those Dodgers caps are fashion pieces more than expressions of passion. Since it’s such a large city, yes, there are a lot of hardcore Dodgers fans, but there’s so many other ways that the attention of Los Angeles goes that it’s never felt like a “baseball town” to me. The Lakers have a lot to say about that too.
- Dallas: Cowboys could go 1-15 and the Rangers could win the series and it’s still a Cowboys city. Indeed, the very notion that anyone would get upset at saying anything otherwise is what prompted me to think of this topic five years back.
- Atlanta: College football more than anything, but the Falcons pretty obviously trump the Braves. It’s probably more of a front-running town than anything.
- Philadelphia: An “all sports” town as I mentioned above in the Boston comment. There is passion for all four of the major sports there that, if taken in isolation could lead the way almost anywhere else. That said, nothing the Phillies, Sixers or Flyers have ever done can come close to the attention the Eagles command in that town, and that was before they won the Super Bowl.
- Washington: It begins and ends with the Redskins and anyone who tells you differently is an insane person.
- Miami: I don’t think it’s controversial to say it’s not the Marlins. Whether it’s a football or basketball town is beyond my ken, but a baseball town it ain’t. At least not yet and, barring a change in organizational philosophy, any time soon.
- St. Louis: Maybe the most “baseball town” of them all. Seems silly to argue otherwise.
- Cincinnati: Another baseball town. I know people talk a lot about the Bengals and that Ohio State football may bleed down that way to some degree, but it’s a Reds town. I don’t know too many people here in Ohio who would disagree.
- Milwaukee: It’s over 100 miles to Green Bay, but I bet it’s still more Packers than Brewers. Still a great baseball town, though. For the purposes of this list, the Packers are kind of a different level than the competition presented by most football teams. Their hold on Wisconsin feels more like college football than it does pro football, and if you know how college football can hold a place, you know that’s impressive.
- Pittsburgh: A good baseball town to be sure, but it’s the Steelers’ city by far. They’ve become a regional thing. Steelers nation or whatever the hell they call it stretches well into Ohio and many points north, south and east as well.
- San Francisco: This has likely changed in a major way in the past 20 years, almost all because of where the teams play. The Giants moving in to AT&T Park and the the 49ers moving down to Santa Clara has totally changed the game. I bet it was a 49ers town without question in the 80s and into the 90s. I’ll be interested to see how strongly the passion for the Warriors holds beyond the Steph Curry era. It might. Not saying San Francisco is a front-running town, as they continue to be strong for the Giants as they come off their mini-dynasty, but it’s also untested with respect to basketball. It’s also the case that San Francisco itself has radically changed too, which may throw all of this off.
- San Diego: My brother has lived in San Diego for over 20 years and he always said the Chargers were it. Them moving out of town does not mean that the Padres are, by default, the city’s passion, of course, but they now have a chance to make it a baseball town. Having spent a lot of time there myself, I’m not sure San Diego is a sports city at all, at least in the broad terms we’re talking about here.
- Denver: Broncos or die, right?
- Phoenix: No idea. Spring training makes the whole city basebally for a while but, like Florida, there are so many transplants that I don’t know that the Dbacks can ever own that town the way other baseball teams own their cities. Do the Cardinals dominate the sports scene there? I had no idea when I last visited this topic in 2013 and I have no better idea now. It’s OK to be a town with sports in it but not a sports town, of course. Maybe that’s what Phoenix is.
So, where does that leave us? Cincinnati, St. Louis, San Francisco and maybe Detroit are baseball towns. New York and Boston are baseball towns, without question, but they’re slightly more complicated cases. I could be persuaded about Chicago. Oakland and San Diego have a shot at it by default, but it’ll take some work. I really don’t know what to make of Los Angeles, which is big enough to be like Boston and New York but just isn’t wired like they are for sports, so I say no.