In America, baseball is, sadly, often seen as the brussels sprouts of sports: something that must be consumed because it’s good for you. Many people view the sport as obligation rather than entertainment, something you are required to take your kids to during the summer because, well, that’s what you’re supposed to do, right? Those who wax poetic about the game’s virtues can sound a bit like enthusiasts of quaint hobbies, like scrimshaw or silhouetting. The game is so fraught history and tradition and baggage that it seems impossible to say anything new about it.
Or maybe it just someone with a fresh perspective to say them. Enter Craig Robinson, an English illustrator whose love affair with the game was kindled by a trip to Yankee Stadium while in New York on business back in 2005. Not long after that, as his baseball fandom grew, he began to ponder questions that may not have occurred to someone who grew up with the game. Like, what is the actual monetary value of all the bases “stolen” during a major league season? Or how would A-Rod’s salary look if dispensed in pennies and stacked on top of one another? Or how long did it take to assemble, then disassemble, the 1986 Mets? Or what would the box score look like in a playoff game between the Wu Tang Clan and the E Street Band?
Robinson decided to answer these questions and many more at his site, Flip Flop Fly Ball, in gorgeously streamlined infographics. They are elegantly simple, packing enormous amounts of information into their space while not appearing remotely cluttered. They are works of art that beg to be seen write large, and that’s just what’s happened with the release of Flip Flop Fly Ball, a fantastic book that collects some of Robinson’s best work from the site, along with new items and essays on his evolution as an unlikely baseball fan. It is the kind of book that justifies the invention of the coffee table.
The author was kind enough to answer a few of my queries about his path to baseball fandom, the Mexican League, and what he would do with his favorite team. Answers to those questions and more after the jump.
When my dad moved here from Ireland as a kid, one of the first “American” things he did was go to a Dodgers game at Ebbetts Field, a weird experience that actually soured him on baseball. (Long story short, the ballpark was not quite as idyllic in the 1950s as it looks in sepia-tone photos.) But I think, more than anything else, he wasn’t equipped to deal with all the trappings of something that most Americans grow up with but which was foreign to him. In your first trip to a major league game, what struck you as the most “foreign” aspect of the experience
It was definitely the anthem and “God Bless America.” The only time we hear the national anthem at a sports event in the UK is if it’s a Cup Final or an international match, like in the World Cup or at the Olympics. To find out that you do that stuff every day… well, it just seemed, and still seems, odd.
And something I’ve not experienced at European soccer games is having people roaming the stadiums who will bring beer and hot dogs to you in your seat.
How is your rabid baseball fandom received by friends and family back home? Based on some of the details in your book, I’d imagine it’s unusual for a guy who grew up in Lincoln, England to suddenly take up The Great American Pastime.
I guess now that ESPN shows some games on TV over there there may be more people showing an interest, but I never saw any baseball on television when I was growing up. I do know one other person in Lincoln who is a fan, though.
I have a theory, based on my own experiences and interactions, that baseball is the American sport that most non-Americans end up adopting (if any). I’ve met many people who were born elsewhere but became big baseball fans after moving to the States as adults, while also expressing little to no interest in other American sports like football. Thoughts?
I would imagine the season has something to do with it. People go on vacation in the summer and baseball is waiting there with moderately priced tickets and the promise of hot dogs, beer, and a glimpse of something we are aware of, but know little about that is very, very American. You might not notice the amount of baseball references that are in US movies and TV exports because it’s normal for you, but for Europeans, a reference to Joe DiMaggio dunking his donuts really means nothing. He was the weird looking baseball guy who married Marilyn Monroe, but that’s kind of all we know about him.
Each of the other main sports has its fans, though. Particularly the NFL. I went to three of the games they’ve had at Wembley, and it’s kinda like going to Comic Con, in the sense that all of these people come out of the woodwork, and you see fans of every team traveling from all over the country to see something they watch late at night on winter Sundays.
Flip Flop Fly Ball contains a lengthy account of a cross-country trip to different ballparks, which really kindled your love and appreciation of the sport, along with your frequent Google Map-ing of stadiums you hadn’t yet seen. Have you been able to visit any more since the book came out?
I’ve not been to any U.S. ballparks since 2009. Long story, but I fell into a gray area of US immigration law the last time I was there, and was thus denied a visa to visit in 2010. So pretty much all the baseball I’ve seen live has been at either the SkyDome or here in Mexico. Hopefully, my terrorist activities will be forgotten about soon, cos I’d quite like to see that new Marlins park when it opens. (I’m not really a terrorist.)
I’m intrigued by your mentions of playing for a team in the Berlin Mixed Softball League (the Prenzlauer Berg Piranhas). Are the teams there mostly ex-pats or do locals get involved? How difficult is it to find a ballfield in the middle of Berlin?
There are several ballfields in Berlin. Part of the legacy of the presence of US military from when the city was divided. It’s a small league, about seven or eight teams, but it’s a lot of fun, and it does help that once a week during the summer, there are people to chat about this home run, that pitching display, from the week. It’s a pretty mixed affair. Mostly Germans, some Americans, some Japanese, and very few British people.
Both on your site and Twitter, I’ve seen you talk about the Mexican League quite often. For those who’ve never seen it, can you give us a snapshot of what those games are like? I’ve never seen it myself, but in my head, I’m imagining it being similar to the Dominican Winter League, which uses cheerleaders and is in general a lot more animated than its American counterpart, both on the field and in the stands.
The atmosphere is a lot more animated, yes. People bring drums and there’s lots of chanting and singing. And because it’s the capital city, there tends to be at least a handful of fans of other teams at most games. That visiting support is bigger when, say, Monterrey’s team or Tigres de Quintana Roo are in town. (Tigres played in Mexico City until about ten years ago, so they still have a ton of fans here.) It’s very cheap. The most expensive tickets are just over $5, and you can sit in the concrete bleachers for as little as 75 cents. I think the thing I enjoy about it the most is that it’s very much a pastime. I sit in the same area for most games I go to (tickets don’t have assigned seats, so you sit where you want in that section), so I always see the same old fellas, the same beer vendors, at every game I go to. If the Diablos Rojos win: great. If not, see you tomorrow.
The first time I came across your site, I believe it was due to the “fantasy” playoff game between Wu-Tang Clan and the E Street Band. I feel like praise for the site really blew up around then, although that may have been just because I finally noticed it. What was the first baseball infographic you did that really seemed to go viral, as the kids say?
Yeh, the Wu-Tang/Springsteen thing was the first one that really seemed to catch people’s eye. I’d been doing the graphics for a while, and just putting them up on my other, more arty, site, flipflopflyin.com where nobody really cared, mainly, I think, because the audience for that site is far more Europe-based. And once I did the flipflopflyball.com offshoot, it started to get noticed quickly, and the joy of Twitter and blogs kicked in, and suddenly, the site is getting a ton of attention.
I think your type of infographic design works best for baseball, since it’s always been a numbers-obsessed sport (though not all of your work is strictly numbers oriented). Have you given any thought to doing something similar for other sports?
I’ve done a few bits and bobs related to other sports, but baseball seems perfectly suited to this kind of thing. Not just the numbers, but the pace when watching games allows the mind to drift a little, start whirring, and asking questions.
Have you had any ideas for an infographic that, for one reason or another, you simply couldn’t execute?
I’ve been wanting to do something about Mr Met, actually, but I’ve been unable to find out the exact dimensions of his head. Sometimes ideas for charts come fully formed, but others like this one just float around and the idea kinda presents itself, which hasn’t really happened yet, but I’d still like to know.
The book also contains artwork in more traditional media, like drawings and paintings. Do you find one form easier to do than another, or is it really just two sides of the same coin?
I love doing both, but it’s nice to mix them up, just for my own enjoyment. Sometimes I get really into one of the other, but it’s good to be able to switch to the other when I need a break. I’m not particularly good at relaxing, and tend to be drawing something every day. And there are other times when a couple of beers and an evening with Baseball-Reference.com seems like the best possible way I could be spending my time.
The site has a section of “Flopps”, baseball players rendered in 8-bit form. Which of these was the most enjoyable to do? Have any players defied your attempts to be portrayed in this medium?
There are plenty of aborted Flopps. Some players are difficult to get right. Handsome players, particularly. Jeter, David Wright, players like that are tough. Whereas anyone with a beard or good hair or a weird face is fun to do.
Brian Cashman abdicates his GM-ship to you. What would you do with/for the Yankees this winter?
Spend the money on Yu Darvish instead of C.J. Wilson who I’m not overly impressed with in general, and I just dislike his face. And rightly or wrongly, I’m always a little suspicious of people who choose not to drink. And you just know he spends way too long pouting at himself in the mirror.
Flip Flop Fly Ball is available wherever fine books are sold. You can also keep tabs on Craig Robinson’s ongoing baseball-related work at Flipflopflyball.com and his work in all media at Flipflopflyin.com. And if anyone has any definitive data on the size of Mr. Met’s head, drop him a line.