As Opening Day arrived so did the comments. People in my orbit know I'm a "baseball guy" and, being the thoughtful people they are, use this as the basis for small talk.
"Hey Eric, are the Tigers going to be good this year?"
"Did you go to Opening Day?"
And the triumph of vaguery "So, how about those Tigers?"
Of course, most of these people don't really want to know about the Tigers. If were to chime in with some rant about Evan Reed's fastball they would think I am a social misfit. They would be right, but that's beside the point. The point is you have to gauge the other person and their level of interest in the game. You have to be on the same wavelength. Social psychology has shown, and salespeople know first hand, effective communicators mirror their audience. In order to mirror, in order to have good conversation, you need to figure out at what level these people are engaging the sport of baseball.
I've identified six basic levels of baseball enjoyment. Of course, it is possible for people to enjoy it at all six levels, in fact, usually people who enjoy baseball at a higher level will enjoy all the layers under it. None of these levels are right or wrong, they are just different. People at the higher levels need to resist the urge to be elitist, as enjoying at a lower level is probably much more healthy.
Layer one - Those who love the people
The most basic level of baseball enjoyment happens vicariously. People simply know other people who love the game. A prime example of this is my mother-in-law. She doesn't watch baseball. She watches British costume dramas on Netflix. But she does enjoy going to baseball games because she loves to watch her kids and her grandkids enjoy it. These people love to go to games because the know someone who plays or know someone who gets excited about it. That's it. When you chat with them about baseball you actually need to talk to them about their relationships and the people they love, not baseball.
Layer two - Those love the scene
These people love their team, or, to be more specific, they love their team colors, logo, and uniform. They love the idea of their team. They love the surroundings. The poetry of the dawning springtime associated with opening day and the vibrancy of the green grass. They love the parties around the stadium. They love singing Take Me Out to the Ball Game and doing The Wave. They love the experience of taking their kid to a game more than they like watching the game. They love hot dogs and have an opinion on what you should put on it. When you start conversation with these people it's more about their calendar or the weather or their family than it is about baseball, so don't over do it.
Layer three - Those who know the game
Now we are starting to get into real baseball fans as we typically know them. These are people who know how the game works. They know what a good batting average is and probably have an opinion on when the manager should bunt. Often these folks played baseball or softball in school or recreationally. This is a timeless love of the game. A romance with pace and rhythms and artistry of the game. But don't ask them about who should play left field or which pitcher is starting today. That is better left to the folks in the next layer.
Layer four - Those who know the players
Now we have reached our favorite sports talk radio caller. They probably are more into football but can name most of the regular players for their favorite team. They know just enough to be dangerous. They have opinions on everything, usually painted with a wide brush: "That guy sucks" "That pitcher is amazing". These are passionate fans of the team, but just don't have the time or desire to learn more. When you talk with these folks forget about nuance, just go with it: "Yes, the first baseman is too fat. Yes, our rookie third baseman will hit 35 home runs. Yes, the manager cost the team 15 wins."
Layer five - Those who love the team and the game
These people are much like the layer four people, but they dig a little deeper. Last year they knew that Justin Verlander should not be the closer. They know the season is 162 games long and performances start to normalize. They know what a player can do (roughly) and what he can't do. They like to talk about the intricacies of the team more. They like to watch not only an occasional game, but most games. They like to read about their team in the paper and discuss the team on the internet. They can't get enough. If you are this type of fan and you find another fan at this level to talk to, it can be magical.
Layer six - Those who study the game
A crude way to describe these people would be Nerds, but they are more noble than that title implies. They are less interested in the grass and the beer and the personalities of players and are way more interested in the numbers and the mechanics of the game. Baseball is an infinitely deep puzzle that they yearn to figure out. Measurements, matchups, and predictions are their stock and trade. If you cite a player's ERA or batting average when talking to a layer six person you might get a sneer in return. Analysis can always be more complete, our understanding can always be better. The joy of talking with these types of people is that they are beyond surface conversations. You can talk about ideas and innovations. People who try to figure out baseball are more likely to try to figure out other things in other areas of life and try to solve difficult problems. They stink at gossip, but it's a lot fun to brainstorm with these people.
To be sure, enjoying baseball can be done on a spectrum of levels, but here six recognizable strata that I think are helpful. Just keep in mind that baseball, and baseball writing, can be for people at all of these levels. If you are a level six person, perhaps you can skip that opening day article about the pageantry of the pregame festivities. And if you are a level two person, don't get angry with the level six person who is enjoying the game with a host of sabermetric acronyms that look like a different language. There is plenty of room for everyone, and many different, and good, baseball conversations to be had.