Home field advantage plays a key role in almost all the major sports. However, unlike most sports, baseball has the home team with a distinct built in advantage. The home field edge that is gained is baseball is called “last licks”. This does not actually give a statistical advantage, but instead means that the home team will always have the final opportunity to try and win the game. Since this factor is such a major part of strategy at the professional level, the other facet of home field is often overlooked.
Hollering fans, trembling stadiums, and the entire atmosphere that is created by roaring crowds in a pennant race play such a significant role within the sport. This aspect of baseball will be more apparent than ever this season with the absence of fans, especially come playoff time. As much as players try to zone out outside distractions, there is no denying that forty thousand fans screaming at the top of their lungs takes its toll on an opposing team.
Postseason baseball is a completely different animal than regular season baseball and the 2013 NL Wild Card Game truly showed the power of home field intensity. It was a beautiful October night in Pittsburgh as the Pirates were hosting the Cincinnati Reds in a winner-take-all game. PNC Park was packed to the brim with fans in anticipation, as they were seeing their Pirates in the playoffs for the first time in over two decades.
Starting for Cincinnati was their ace Johnny Cueto and as soon as he stepped onto the mound that night, he felt the wrath of the Pittsburgh crowd. Entering the game, Cueto had a career 1.90 earned run average at PNC park, which was best ever for a visiting pitcher, but as soon as the game started, he looked like a different player. Cueto was lacking command, struggling to get a feel for the baseball, and it appeared that the amplified playoff crowd was really starting to affect his pitching.
One of the most infamous moments of Cueto’s career happened in the bottom of the second inning when he dropped the ball while preparing to pitch to Pirates catcher Russell Martin. The playoff crowd raddled the star pitcher so much that he literally lost control of the ball in his hand. What immediately followed the fan-caused blunder was a Martin home run, which discombobulated the pitcher even more.
Cueto’s stat line was not atrocious by the end of the night, but just basing his performance off his body language, it was clear that he had an abysmal game. Pittsburgh would go on to win the Wild Card game, but the headline to come out of this night would be how impactful the Pirates faithful was on the Reds’ ace.
In the past, dynamic crowds have affected games, but literal fan interference has had its fair share in altering important events too. Most notably is the Steve Bartman play that potentially cost the Chicago Cubs a chance at the World Series in 2003. This was a momentous moment for fan interference as Bartman’s life would change forever after this day.
Bartman had tried to catch a foul ball off the bat of Florida Marlins Luis Castillo, but ultimately prevented Cubs left fielder Moisés Alou from making the catch and ending the inning. The Marlins would go on to put up an eight spot in that same inning; causing the Cubs to lose the pivotal NLCS game.
Chicago would eventually lose the series and players and fans alike would blame the loss on Bartman’s interference. Whether the loss was solely because of him is up to debate, but the momentum swing that it caused is undeniable. Sports are all about momentum and fans play such a critical role in swaying the direction of it.
This was one of the rare occasions where a fan was to the detriment of the home team, however, the opposite also happens. During Game 1 of 1996 ALCS, Derek Jeter hit a fly ball to right field that was snagged by a fan in the first row. Baltimore Orioles outfielder Tony Tarasco claimed that he would have caught the ball and judging from the video, he seems to have been right. This play was crucial for not only the game, but the series as the home run would tie the game in the eighth inning.
New York would then win in extras and take control of the series. Despite the fact that the Yankees ended up winning in just five games, the series was actually very close. No game ended with a team leading by more than four runs and with the Yankees eventually going on to win the World Series that season, it begs the question of how the playoffs could have changed had there been no fan interference.
New York stole game one, Baltimore won game two, and had the Orioles led the series 2-0 entering their home stadium, their mindset and game plan would have differed greatly. The fan who caught Jeter’s Game 1 home run was 12-year-old Jeffrey Maier, and had he not touched it that night, then the whole 1996 playoffs may have transpired differently.
From the playoff intensity created to the actual interactions with game play, fans have always been more a part of baseball than what we are led to believe. Never underestimate the value of home field, as history has shown that it can play a much larger role than expected. Major League teams may not realize it yet, but the atmosphere of the postseason will not be the same this year. When the entire wavelength of the field is barren come October, true fan appreciation will become apparent. It is difficult to fully recognize something until it is gone. Fans help make the game of baseball complete.