A look back at the iconic baseball-themed Simpsons episode Homer at the Bat, which turned me and millions of kids into fans of the show through our love for MLB.
With the novel coronavirus pandemic suspending all baseball activities in both MLB and International competitions, and the subsequent recommendations for people to stay home, it is a good time to use classic television as an effective social distancing practice and relive some of our most cherished childhood memories in the process. And what better way to do so by re-watching The Simpsons golden era episodes, arguably the greatest animated series run of all time.
Among those stand-out episodes is “Homer at the Bat,” season 3 episode 17, and a particularly important one for me personally, since it was the fifth Simpsons episode I ever saw, but most crucially, it’s the one that turned me into a fan, the one that kickstarted my religious devotion to the show that’s still alive to this day.
Look, I was an introvert throughout my entire childhood; I was one of those kids that rarely went outside and played, and had no friends, and on top of that I had to face the reality of having my parents’ marriage fall apart before my eyes, and deal with the whole divorce drama at six-years-old. I sought refuge in the only two places I knew: books — I learned to read at age 3 and that sparked an enormous curiosity, so I read basically everything I could find — and television.
Of course, when you’re a working-class kid living in Mexico in the early ’90s, you don’t have many options on TV. Cable wasn’t yet a widespread thing back then since it was unaffordable for most Mexicans, especially outside of Mexico City (I lived in Veracruz, on the East Coast). It was a rich kid’s luxury until about 1996, and it took a big chunk of my mom’s savings to afford the basic plan. But we did have a very interesting panorama in network TV. Back then, the newly-formed TV Azteca was quickly becoming the second-biggest station in the Country, and it did so mostly by bringing a wave of popular American shows, including The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, The Nanny, Full House, and The Simpsons. TV Azteca’s rise made millions of Mexican kids spend their afternoons glued to the living room. It shaped a generation.
My other big passion was baseball; from a very early age, I was seriously interested in both the Mexican League and MLB. My mom’s family was particularly involved in the game, my grandfather having been our local team’s official scorekeeper for 32 years. I scoured his box scores, marveled at photos of past legends he cut from newspapers and devoured his copy of the Baseball League’s Encyclopedia. I watched MLB games on the TV every night and started following stars like Don Mattingly (yes, the Yankees were my first love), and that ultimately drove me to The Simpsons.
“Homer at the Bat,” for those who haven’t seen or don’t remember the episode, centers on family patriarch Homer joining the power plant’s softball team, and coming its star batter thanks in part to a home-made bat he believes has magical powers. They’re about to become local champions, but in the ultimate display of senseless greed, Mr. Burns makes a million-dollar bet that the team wins the championship game, and brings in nine MLB superstars to secure the win, leaving Homer to be benched, losing his position to then-Dodger Daryl Strawberry.
The episode is a superbly written, incredibly funny exploration of professional frustration, local sports dynamics and how families experience the game as fans, but it was the star-studded cast of players they assembled that captured me. To watch Roger Clemens, Wade Boggs, Ken Griffey Jr., Steve Sax, Ozzie Smith, Jose Canseco, Don Mattingly, Darryl Strawberry, and Mike Scioscia in animated form, interacting with the Springfield characters, was like a dream come true.
We then witness the impossible: Through a series of unfortunate — and hilarious — accidents, the big-leaguers are unable to play the championship, which opens the door for all the plant employees to step up, with the exception of Homer, since Daryl Strawberry is still in the lineup. With the game tied in the 9th inning, Mr. Burns makes the inexplicable — and again, hilarious — decision to bench Strawberry and bring in Homer to pinch-hit, a chance for the lovable fat man to be the hero.
“Homer at the Bat” stands as one as the most memorable Simpsons episodes of all-time; there have been countless tribute pieces, critical reevaluations, and essays about it. For the show’s writers and producers, it’s a milestone — the first one to ever conquer primetime ratings, beating the then-omnipresent Cosby Show — and many publications consider it the best episode, period.
But my love for this episode stems from what it meant in my life; it marked the very beginning of my close relationship with the show that not only helped ease my growing pains, it helped shape my entire worldview. This moment turned me into a Simpsons fan, and being a Simpsons fan made me a cinephile, a history buff, an agnostic, and for a number of years, even a vegetarian.
But its most important contribution to my life, and to the lives of millions of kids in Mexico, the U.S. and beyond, was the sense of community, the sense of belonging that came with being a loyal follower of The Simpsons. I was still an introvert who rarely went outside, but for the first time in my life, I finally had something to talk about, something to share with other kids. I made my first friends because of the show, and I have amazing conversations today with people of my generation about the show and how it influenced their lives. We were part of a cultural moment that will simply never be repeated. Because not everyone grew up a bookish dork like me, and as soccer remains the most popular sport in Mexico, there were no baseball devotees my age around me. But there sure were a lot of Simpsons fans.