Last week, I took my first trip to PNC Field since the over $40 million renovation of the Moosic stadium. It made me rethink, albeit briefly, my self-imposed exile from sports.
Much in the same way I now obsess about comic books, I used to avidly collect baseball cards. At first, I think I was just a kid who liked to amass cool-looking pictures and neatly place them in albums, but with my grandfather being a spirited sports fan and my father regularly taking me to local games and conventions (including a trip to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum), I learned to appreciate baseball as more than a hobby and its players as more than just pin-striped celebrities.
That changed starting in 1993 with Texas Rangers pitcher Nolan Ryan's retirement, one of the last great heroes in baseball for me. I wasn't aware of, nor did I care about, his political beliefs at the time – I just enjoyed following his record-breaking seven no-hitters and complete lack of personal controversy; he seemed like a decent, talented guy worth looking up to. When a strike cancelled the 1994 World Series, my loyalty to the sport began to actively fade.
It seemed like everyone was in it for the money now, to the point where they would break this great American tradition over pure greed, and no rising star seemed to compare to those honored in Cooperstown. The 1998 home run battle between Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa to break Roger Maris' record briefly caught my attention, but the resulting steroid scandal solidified why my interests veered elsewhere.
Locally, I fondly remember the Red Barons' games when the Triple-A team was still tied to the Philadelphia Phillies, a team I also traveled to see a few times. The fun faded once again when the team became the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees in late 2006. The New York Yankees, with their exorbitant wealth and reputation as the Evil Empire, certainly weren't going to change my views on baseball at this point, and the owners' subsequent behavior towards fans and Lackawanna County taxpayers, playing hardball over franchise ownership and millions in stadium restoration, didn't do them any favors.
Admittedly, the makeover was sorely needed, and the rebranding of the team as the RailRiders made the Yankee overlords a bit easier to tolerate, though I wasn't about to run out and buy tickets. I hadn't set foot in that building since the Barons played there, and it had been many years since I had even caught a few minutes of a game on television. Ever since the “X-Men” animated series debuted on Fox in 1992, I became a comic book geek through and through, and the only kids I knew who enjoyed sports were the same jocks who picked on me, leaving little to love or identify with beyond those collectible cards.
Accepting an offer of free tickets to a RailRiders game last week, I was finally able to appreciate the renovation of Lackawanna County Stadium, now PNC Field, firsthand, and many of the sights I took in reminded me of my previous fandom. I looked around in awe at the new seating and open layout that allows fans to sit right in the “home run zone.” I watched mascots and uniformed employees excitedly dance, sing, and hold contests for free prizes. I noticed ushers cheering fans on as they leapt to catch foul balls and t-shirts shot from a cannon as kids played in their own area filled with inflatable bounce houses.
Grabbing a hot dog and an ice cream served in a souvenir helmet made me forget the off-and-on rain and casually enjoy the game, which was much less eventful than its surroundings. At this point in my life, however, I wasn't there to make amends and renew my appreciation for the “Great American Pastime” – I was just there to take in the good and ignore the bad.
Funny enough, I'm doing the same with comics now. As an adult, one sees the other side of the industry, which is famous for screwing its creators out of credit and money while raking in billions from movie adaptations, cartoons, and boatloads of overpriced merchandise. It's an unsteady balance between artistry and big business, and the latter tends to win out, particularly since comics went completely mainstream once Hollywood got heavily involved. I can't ignore the corruption behind the panels, but I can appreciate the genuine writing and innovative artwork in them, free of scandal and full of timeless imagination.
Every day, another headline emerges about nasty contract negotiations or shocking storylines simply crafted to sell more books, but I still find that more comic creators are in it for the love of the art than baseball players are for the love of the sport, so I don't plan on switching teams any time soon. I will, on the other hand, understand when some of my friends choose a game over a midnight movie release, as it's really about finding the fun amongst the uncomfortable details.
-Rich Howells is a lifelong Marvel Comics collector, wannabe Jedi master, and cult film fan. E-mail him at [email protected]