Thursday, July 15, 2010

Big Day for the Shanoff Boys

Can you remember the first game you went to? I certainly can't. When you become a parent, it becomes this opportunity for you to experience that through your kid.

My older son, now 4, has been to a local (low-level D1) college basketball game and a Knicks game. He has been to a minor-league baseball game. He even went to the Swamp for a game (when he was 2... he lasted all of 5 minutes. Atrocious parenting choice.)

But he has never been to a Major League Baseball game, arguably the quintessential first real sports event for a parent and child.

I could have taken him to the Mets or -- ugh -- Yankees. But a year ago, my dad set up a trip for he, my wife and kids and my siblings (and sibs-in-law) to meet in Chicago this weekend. The big reason is to celebrate the centennial of my late grandfather, my dad's dad -- a Chicago lifer.

As it happens, when the MLB schedule came out last winter, we checked and the Cubs were going to be in town, playing the Phillies. That seemed like the ideal moment to bring the kid to his first game. Tickets were secured.

And so this afternoon, I will be giving my kid his first experience with Major League Baseball in what I can only consider the ideal way: The classic Friday afternoon game at Wrigley.

There is no better first impression about baseball that can be made to a young fan.

What makes it all the more special is that my dad -- who grew up in Chicago a Cubs fan -- will be there, in the same stadium where his own father took him to games a half-century ago.

And I will be there, too. Even living in D.C., I grew up a HUGE Cubs fan. I'm not sure my dad pressed that on me, as much as I chose to embrace the Cubs. Maybe I wanted that as a special relationship with him. I certainly enjoyed being unique -- a Cubs fan in an Orioles town.

In that magical Cubs year of 1984, I was 11 -- precisely the age where I argue that fandom begins to really take shape. One of my first sports-fan memories that I can remember? Watching on TV, as the ball skirted through Leon Durham's glove.

I vividly remember calling my local cable company, begging them to carry WGN so I could watch the Cubs, just like I did when I would visit my grandparents in Chicago.

Ryne Sandberg was my favorite player -- he remains my favorite baseball player of all time.

When I was filling out my facebook -- no, not Facebook -- profile for college, I listed among my hobbies "Chicago Cubs." I had this worn-in Cubs hat I wore EVERYWHERE.

I ostensibly went to Northwestern for the journalism school, but a massive bonus was that I would finally be living in the same town as the Cubs. I could join my brethren.

I definitely took advantage of the experience, attending plenty of those Friday afternoon home games before hitting the cheesy Division Street bars for happy hour specials, then trucking home on the Evanston Express El line.

(Ironically, through my four years of college, my Cubs fandom actually eroded. Too much armchair psychology packed in there to get into it here.)

After college, I got an apartment with two buddies on Addison, a couple long tosses from Wrigley itself. On game days and nights, we would sit on our porch, sometimes sharing beers with passing fans, sometimes getting a stray ticket and wandering over for a few innings. This was (almost entirely) pre-internet, pre-cellphone. Looking back, it was like living in the 1950s.

I'm not sure where I stand with the Cubs right now -- I'm certainly sympathetic, although I wouldn't insult true die-hard Cubs fans by calling myself a "fan." When it looked like the Cubs were going to make the World Series, I was conflicted, because I felt like I didn't deserve to celebrate, having not hung on to my childhood fervor for the team.

I think it's enough that I was a die-hard Cubs fan when I was a kid, at the formation of my sports fandom. They were my first team. Even if, quite atypically, they don't remain your team, there is a very special place for your first team. That said, I can only imagine what 14-year-old me would think of me now. He'd probably say, "Florida? Well, at least you married a hottie.")

Being a Cubs fan is in my DNA, metaphorically (as the first team I chose to die-hard root for) and literally (they are my father's team, and his father's team). That makes it in my kids' DNA, too.

There are a couple traditional roots to fandom: Geography (growing up in the region of the team), Serendipity (getting into a certain college) and Biology (who your parents root for).

The fact is that if your parents root for a certain team and "encourage" their children to root for that team -- and that is either sentimentally awesome or the worst kind of overbearing -- chances are the kid is going to turn out to be a fan of that team.

I think teams and sports leagues don't recognize and promote this nearly enough: They could spend their marketing dollars trying to get adults in town with a casual or passive interest in the sport or team to attend their games... or they could try to lock in to the kids through the parents, creating a spectacular lifetime customer value for themselves.

I went to the Cubs' website to try to find something specifically for parents taking their kids to a game. I found a cheesy "Kids' Club" section -- made for kids, not parents -- but nothing for this particular situation.

I did like the fact that the team had a section on the site about Cubs fandom being a "Way of Life" -- not far off from what I'm talking about -- but little in the way of promoting the parent-kid-Cubs connection. If you know of a team that does a good job of this, let me know. (I'm certain that there are certain minor-league baseball franchises that must excel at this.)

The fact is that the experience of me taking my kid to their first baseball game stands up on its own. The Cubs could do nothing but open the gates to Wrigley and we will be fine.

I couldn't ask for a better introduction for my kid to Major League Baseball. (His little brother, not yet 2, will spend the game exploring Wrigleyville with his aunt and uncle. Bros pacifying bros?) Even if my kid doesn't end up rooting for the Cubs for his lifetime, starting off his baseball fandom with a day game at Wrigley will plant the seed that baseball is a wonderful game worth his energy -- and particularly worth attending in person.

He already knows the lyrics to "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." He already has a Cubs hat. Our seats are in the 500-level, literally the worst seats in the house.

But just being inside Wrigley with him makes this one of my favorite days yet as a parent and a fan.

-- D.S.

(I'll try to tweet and TweetPic and video-tweet as we go. Follow along at @danshanoff.)


Unknown said...

I took my two year old son to his first game at Wrigley with 3 of my friends this year. The best part was his unfiltered reaction to barrage of new smells, sights, and sounds. I grew up a tigers fan, but it wouldn't bother me in the least if little man ended up loving the Cubs. Have fun today, and make sure you set a good example by belting it out during the stretch.

Rich said...

Dan, talk to an usher and find your way to Fan Relations. Your son will get a certificate and sticker commemorating his first game at Wrigley. Which just took my 3-year-old daughter to her first game a few weeks back. (The Cub victory between 2 crushings by the Reds)

Skipper said...

This may be one of the weirder articles I have read in quite sometime. It is quite possible that your experience at the game will be much different than what you wrote and I am shocked at the fact that you published such a glowing forward looking review. Do you also review movies the same way, "My son and I will enjoy the third act and it will bond us to movies forever." How strange.

Hoping all of the things you said came true.