Friday, March 19, 2010

Will Leitch on dads, baseball, and Lost

When I set out to write LEGO: A Love Story, I thought it was going to be solely about building with LEGO bricks in an attempt to become a master builder. But just as life found a way in Jurassic Park -- elements of my own life leaked into the picture.

And in the process of building again with my dad for the first time in nearly 20 years and considering what it would be like to build with a son or daughter of my own -- I've spent the last two years thinking more about fatherhood than I might have imagined.

I'm not the only one thinking about how fathers and sons connect, Will Leitch -- contributing editor at New York Magazine and founding editor of -- has a new book coming out May 4 on that very subject -- Are We Winning? Fathers, Sons, and the Great Game in a New Century.

He set out to write a book about how baseball is arguably the most innovative major sport and perhaps in the middle of a true golden age -- and yet his story wound up being grounded in how Leitch has bonded with his father through a love of the St. Louis Cardinals. The best laid plans somehow always end up being about our dads...

I caught up with Leitch by telephone to discuss his latest book and attempt (as a third generation Cubs fan) to understand the mind of a rabid Cardinals fan.

So how did the book come about?

I wanted to do a book about baseball -- it's my sport. This sprang from a piece I wrote for Fast Company two years ago. Every one has this notion that baseball is an old sport; but it's the one organization that seemed to figure out how to make money off the web. Baseball was about to pass the NFL in total revenue, there are more people watching baseball right now than any time in human history. I wanted to write about that idea.

I was going to find one game and let each half inning be representative of this new golden age. I chose three games at Wrigley [Field] and asked my dad to come with me (the first one was when the Cubs clinched the division over the Cardinals in 2008).

"Why would I want to go there, there's a bunch of Cubs fans there," was my dad's response.

But he came, as did my friend Mike, who had a new son that he was trying to make sure turned into a Cubs fan.

And talking to Mike about his son got me thinking about dads and baseball, because so many of my memories of baseball are tied up in my relationship with my dad. So this became a defense of baseball in the new era and my experiences as a fan.

Being friends with a Cubs fan and not trying to co-opt his son? You have more empathy for the Cubs than I might have expected for a Cardinals fan.

Well, you could make the argument this is the perfect book for Cubs fans. This book doesn't cover the postseason -- the Cubs have still clinched the division. Anything is still possible.

Were you ever going to be something other than a Cardinals' fan?

To some degree, it's just pure luck. My dad could have been a Brewers fan or an Orioles fan. But today, I get excited just looking at the Cardinals logo. It makes me the ideal person to be merchandized.

My dad used to joke that when I went off to collge, he didn’t care what I did as long as I didn’t bring a Cubs fan home. Then I did and I realized he was all talk. I lived in Los Angeles after graduating from college and have been in New York for a decade, but the Cardinals are central to my being.

I grew up an hour and 45 minutes from St. Louis. We'd line up and hour and half early to get bleacher tickets for $6. My dad would wake me up and say get this done and we’ll go to the ballgame. Those were the days when you could just do that.

When I was five or six, I was a bookworm and I didn't like sports very much. I was the kid that played on the t-ball team and held his bat upside down and ran to the wrong base. I'm sure my dad was a bit worried.

But then one day it just clicked. My dad said I was also into math and baseball has tons of numbers. It probably doesn't hurt that the Cardinals won the World Series in 1982. I thought that happened all the time. I didn't realize that it would take another 24 years for the Cardinals to win again. While that's not over 100 years, still...

Forget what I said about having empathy. I've always felt like men need an activity to connect. Do you think there's some truth to that idea?

The notion that the Cardinals are my relationship with my dad is not right. This is not Lost and Jack Shephard. We've never had a whole long conversation about why we can't communicate.

Baseball exists to avoid conversations like that. It's not touchy feely. It's just that at the end of the game, my dad knows I'm going to call to talk about it. The game and the Cardinals are a language all their own. It doesn't seem like bonding at all. If we started calling it bonding, we wouldn't do it.

With escalating ticket prices and so much competing for our attention, is it more difficult to find time to connect over baseball?

Baseball is tied into my notion of family. My dad and I watch three games, one weekend a year, although actually going to the games is a minor part of following the team.

I find it so easy. I can interact with beat writers online, watch the games on, all right from Brooklyn. So instead of asking him questions about what's happening, we can just talk because I'm watching the games just as he is.

What do you think it is about baseball that continues to draw you in?

The great thing about baseball is the idea that if my team wins, I’m happy and if my team loses, I’m sad. Life is hard and there are so many complications – all these weird moral choices you have to make throughout the day – baseball is not like that at all. And that’s a relief.

I have no idea if my love for baseball came from my dad loving it so much or if I just love baseball. But I know I love watching games with him.

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