With my favorite baseball team, the St. Louis Cardinals, in town this weekend to play the Giants, it seems as good a time as any to talk about how sports games can enhance fans’ love, appreciation and knowledge of sports.
I can trace my Cardinals fandom back to the early 1980s. I first became aware of the team growing up in Wisconsin in 1982, when they beat the Milwaukee Brewers in the World Series. But I was only 6 at the time, and neither of my parents was much of a baseball fan. My most vivid memory of a trip to County Stadium in 1980 or so was the enormity of the parking lot. So once we moved to the western side of the state, where the closest team was the Brewers’ archrivals, the Minnesota Twins, two hours away, I grew up relatively allegianceless. I remember rooting for the Cards in the ’87 Series, mainly because they were playing the Twins, but I wasn’t yet a fan.
All this changed when my friends and I got “R.B.I. Baseball” for the Nintendo Entertainment System. I couldn’t exaggerate the number of weekends I spent over at my friend Noel’s house, rapping out cheap infield singles with the Cards’ punchless lineup. The blazing speed of Vince Coleman, the fastest player in the game, plus teammates Willie McGee and Ozzie Smith made this team play like a squad with three Juan Pierres. The fun I had playing with the Cards, plus the front-running nature of any little kid, gave me a love for the Redbirds that’s lasted until this day. (I should note that my interest waned temporarily once the Cardinals acquired Mark McGwire, who simply wouldn’t have fit in on that “R.B.I. Baseball” squad.)
Since that time, playing baseball video games, along with fantasy baseball and the wide availability of stat-heavy articles on the Web, has hugely enhanced my understanding of the game. I remember the epiphany I had the first time I saw a right-handed pitcher strike out the left-handed Jim Thome by throwing him nothing but low breaking balls just off the outside corner of the plate, the same pitch I’d used to get Thome out countless times in “MVP Baseball 2005” on the Xbox. The New York Mets’ Johan Santana, baseball’s best pitcher over the past five seasons, has said he prepares for his starts by using a video game to scout the opposing team’s hitters.
This enhanced appreciation isn’t by any means unique to baseball. A fairly unscientific earlier this year showed the more time “Madden NFL” players spent on the game, the better they were able to answer a variety of questions related to football. I’ve heard anecodotally, though I’m having difficulty finding documentation on the Web, that college and NFL coaches say that recruits with a history of playing “Madden” are often the quickest to pick up a new playbook and schemes. Looking back on it, I probably wouldn’t have made so many boneheaded defensive plays in Little League if I’d been playing “MLB 09: The Show” every day.