Hands-free laws should apply to sports fans too

Mike KnaakColumn, Print Sartell - St. Stephen, Print St. JosephLeave a Comment

Baseball fans streamed into the stadium, eager to watch the first home game of the season on a 72-degree afternoon. Many of them clutched their personal electronic devices, about the size of a deck of cards, the better to enjoy the game.

This spring day wasn’t in 2019, but 61 years ago, in 1958. And the venue wasn’t Target Field but the Los Angeles Coliseum where more than 78,000 fans jammed the stands to watch the newly relocated Brooklyn – now the Los Angeles – Dodgers.

There was only one problem. In their haste to escape Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field, the Dodgers arrived on the West Coast without a proper ball field.

So starting in 1958, the Dodgers played in the Los Angeles Coliseum until Dodger Stadium was ready four years later.

But the Coliseum, built for the Olympics and football, was Ill-suited for baseball because of the fundamentally different sizes and shapes of football and baseball fields.

It was a ballpark that wasn’t a ballpark.

The left-field line was only 252 feet away from home plate. Right-center stretched to a cavernous 440 feet. Some fans were as far as 710 feet from home plate.

The players were not only dots on the field but outside of the superstars, the fans were not particularly aware of the players. That personal electronic device, the newly invented transistor radio, was a necessity for helping new, faraway fans enjoy the game.

The Dodgers didn’t disappoint on that opening day, winning 6-5 over the San Francisco Giants, another team newly relocated from New York City.

Along with players, broadcaster Vin Scully moved west with the Dodgers. Scully began calling Dodgers games in 1950 and remained in the booth until 2016 when he retired at the age of 88.

Fans brought radios not just to identify players but to learn what they were doing. Scully was talking to an audience who was not familiar with watching baseball. Los Angeles teams in the Pacific Coast League seldom drew more than a few hundred thousand spectators in their best years. Now more than two million fans a season filled the park. Through Scully, fans learned the finer points, the subtleties, the language of the game.

Fast-forward 61 years and fans still rely on personal electronic devices – smartphones – to enhance the game experience.

Today, those devices are not nearly as necessary as the transistor radios of the 1950s. Today’s ballparks are built for baseball and proudly promote how close even the cheap seats are to the action. Meanwhile, high-technology scoreboards flash a digital encyclopedia of facts but without Scully’s personal style and depth of player knowledge.

I routinely attend Minnesota sports including Twins, Gophers and Loons and see “fans” more focused on their screens than on the field.

This summer offers uniquely rich and wonderful sports experiences. The Twins, after years of disappointing seasons, have spent most of the summer in first place. Minnesota’s new Major League Soccer team, the Loons, play in St. Paul’s new Allianz Field. Sold-out crowds are enjoying the team’s first winning season since entering the league.

Watching sports is great entertainment and a chance to escape from daily pressures and stresses.

But when I look around, especially at Twins games, I see people punching their smartphones and staring into their palms instead of watching the game.

Teams actually encourage the electronic distraction by promoting app-based games such as Twingo, offering free wi-fi and asking fans to hashtag and post photos to Instagram and Twitter.

Last week, I watched a Yankees/Twins game with a couple of friends. The American League’s two best teams met in one of baseball’s best stadiums on a clear summer night. But that wasn’t enough for some fans who couldn’t keep their hands off the screen and their eyes on the field.

Along with guns and liquor, maybe stadiums should ban electronics. It’s not 1958 anymore and we don’t need any electronic help to understand and enjoy the game.

Unplug and relax.

Author: Mike Knaak

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