Knitted Together: Baseball at Stitch ‘n Pitch Night

The Mariners have hosted Stitch ‘n Pitch Night at Safeco Field for the last 14 years. (via Will Hale)

The ball shall be a sphere formed by yarn wound around a small core of cork, rubber or similar material, covered with two strips of white horsehide or cowhide, tightly stitched together.

— Rule 3.01, Official Baseball Rules

At the center of every play in baseball is a ball of yarn. Around the rubber core is a first, thick layer of blue-gray, four-ply woolen yarn, wound tightly until the ball measures 7 ¾ inches in circumference. Then comes another layer of woolen yarn, white instead of grey, and thinner, with only three plies; then another layer of grey, and then, finally, a layer of thin white poly-cotton, binding it all together. Eighty-eight inches of waxed red thread stitch the ball together.

The baseball has been constructed in essentially this exact same way since the 1930s. Before that, the baseballs were less uniform, often specifically hand-constructed for each team, leading to some dubious variations in ball quality. If wound particularly tightly, a ball becomes livelier, giving the team at the plate an advantage. If wound loosely, making the ball softer, the ball deadens. A coarser wool, like one from an American Rambouillet sheep, also would deaden the ball. A fine, springy wool, like an Australian Merino, would liven it. The construction of the baseball, essential to game play, was a choice of fiber craftsmanship.

Even now, a century later, with the advancements in technology that have allowed us to measure the physics of baseball to shocking degrees of precision, every single major league ball is hand-stitched. With all the innovations that have changed the way the game is played, someone has yet to develop a satisfactory method of mechanizing the process of ball creation. Any tiny mistake or discrepancy — a difference in tension, a slight change in the thickness of the fiber — could make the game fundamentally different. The integrity of every game of baseball relies on the winding of yarn and the stitching of thread.

Promotions at major league baseball parks are often a rotating door. There are the stalwarts, like bobblehead giveaways and fireworks nights, but part of the appeal is in keeping things fresh, making sure giveaway items have both a broad appeal and novelty value.

For the last 14 seasons, though, the Seattle Mariners have been running the same promotion each year, and each year it keeps drawing people. It’s a promotion that is constantly growing, not only across the major leagues, where it has been hosted at almost every single ballpark, but into the minor leagues and even to games on other continents. That promotion is the annual Stitch ‘n Pitch Night, an evening that encourages practitioners of the needle and fiber arts to combine that practice with the viewing of a baseball game. There are knitting bags, and yarn and needles to be had, and a group ticket discount.

I didn’t know Stitch ‘n Pitch night existed until recently, but once I did, I knew I had to go. It seemed so directly targeted toward me that it was almost frightening: Before this summer, I worked at a local yarn store, selling materials for knitting, crocheting and needlework, helping people with their projects, teaching classes for beginners. I have designed knitting patterns and distributed them on the internet. I am rarely seen in any situation without some kind of yarny project in my hands. Until people started asking that I write about baseball for their websites, I figured I had my life’s avenue pretty much laid out: I was a yarn store employee.

The summer I learned how to knit was the same summer I started watching baseball again, and the process of learning that skill is inextricably entangled in my memory with the process of remembering how much I love the game. There was a mutual benefit to my ability to focus on baseball games and my ability to focus on knitting when I combined the two. My first project, an incredibly pathetic scarf made with horrible, $1 bargain-bin yarn, was made in the week following the Troy Tulowitzki trade. My first real project, a purple jacket that has held up to three years of near-daily winter wear, was begun the day the Jays were eliminated from the 2015 postseason.

Over the winters of 2015 and 2016, as I sat watching archived games, reading baseball books, absorbing all the information I could, I sat almost always with a ball of yarn beside me and some winter item producing itself between my fingers. When I began to learn how to design my own knitting patterns, one of the first charts I made was of the Blue Jays logo.

This intersection of interests, though, has always been something of a lonely pursuit for me. I have often knitted at baseball games, but I’d never seen anyone else doing so. The idea of not only being around others who shared both of my primary interests, but a lot of people who did, was irresistible.

I was prepared for there to be a lot of people at Safeco for the Stitch n’ Pitch event. I was not prepared for the volume of people who were actually participating. The yarn market on the third deck was almost impossible to move through. Everywhere were vendors of fabric and notions, rolls of unspun silk and wool roving in bright colors, Mariners-themed yarns. (My favorite Mariners-themed item on sale: a kit to crochet a tiny, adorable “baseball bat” in M’s signature navy blue and teal.) Everyone was talking to someone; everyone was in a group.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

There were also many people adorned in the giveaway items from Stitch ‘n Pitches past, wearing the t-shirts and holding the project bags on their arms. A group from Bellingham had taken a bus down for the event. There were knitting circles with shirts printed seemingly especially for this occasion. For many — including the extremely busy vendors, some of whom had been attending the event for over a decade — this was clearly a highlight of their year, an event to which they dedicated a significant amount of planning and expectation.

Even more jarring than the sheer number of people at the event, though, was the simple strangeness of seeing that many women all together at a baseball game. The crush gathered, the vendors selling their teal-and-blue yarns, the volunteers ushering people toward giveaways and collecting donations of hats and scarves for charity — almost all were women. Older women, mostly, though with a fair number of younger women mixed into the crowd. In the context of fiber arts, it was a familiar scene; in the context of a baseball game, it was almost shocking.

My seat, purchased last minute, was somewhat on the outskirts of the densely populated sections of Stitch ‘n Pitch participants. I was more adjacent to the crafters than among them. I could still see the projects, in rows below me and rows above: stuffed animals, the beginnings of sweaters, socks, shawls — a lot of shawls. I saw people logging into Ravelry, the online nexus of the fiber arts community, on their phones; I saw the printed-out charts, with their numbers and symbols, being annotated by people with needles in one hand and pens in the other. There were a few people doing cross-stitch and embroidery, and a lot of people wearing Edgar Martinez jerseys.

I settled into my seat with my own project: a hat in a particularly thin and delicate garnet-colored yarn that I had just begun to make on the bus ride down. The pattern required the use of minuscule 2.25 mm knitting needles, so it was slow going, which is perfect for a baseball game.

I got through maybe two rows — a half-inning’s worth of work — before I started hearing the complaints from the people behind me, who had no idea what they had gotten into. They first whispered about a girl beside them who was weaving something; then, with a dawning horror, they realized that almost everyone around them was making something. This, for some reason, bred hostility. They began picking certain people among the crowd out for mockery, based on what they were making or what colors they were wearing or what their faces or bodies or hair looked like. “At least you know they aren’t just here with their husbands!” someone quipped.

There’s been some discussion lately, prompted by various complaints from various broadcasters, about baseball’s issues with gatekeeping the ways fans have of enjoying the game. As I tried to enjoy the sounds of the game and instead had to listen to people berating strangers for no reason other than that they didn’t look like the kind of people who are supposed to be baseball fans, I thought about another broadcast from around six weeks ago. It was a 1-1 game between the division rival Brewers and Cardinals, and a woman in the front row was crocheting. The broadcast team spent some time suggesting the woman must be missing the action — that the front-row seat must be wasted on someone who wasn’t paying attention.

There’s plenty of funny stuff going on at any given moment in the stands at a ballpark. There are at least 3,000 kids doing the floss dance. There’s probably someone who’s completely asleep, or wearing a goofy hat. What is it about knitting, or crocheting, or any other innocuous activity that baseball fans might do, that makes it worth picking out for shaming? What standards are we trying to hold each other to? The people behind me eventually left, after the Mariners blew the lead. Hundreds of others, needles and hooks and yarn in hands, remained, their creations growing by the minute.

Knitting is very like baseball. Knitting shares a slow, sure fancy with the pastime. It is mathematical, methodical, and pattern-based. It is also whimsical, colorful, and often silly. Knitting is practiced with simple, fixed mechanisms upon which people are constantly trying to build, improve, and innovate. Like baseball or surgery, it hones and relies upon dexterity. The appreciation of the craft is most often passed down in families, one generation sharing its joy with another. Knitting values both efficiency and creativity, and its history is one of determined efforts towards elegant problem-solving. The internet has completely transformed the way knitters interact with each other over the past few decades, providing a meeting point for discussion, idea-sharing, and fastidious archiving that was previously unimaginable.

Knitting is also a very old pursuit, one whose history can take on a romantic overtone that veers into the mythic. And as much as the fiber arts are an artistic practice, a means of community-building, an often-therapeutic personal activity, and a set of genuinely useful skills to have, they are, first and foremost, an industry — an industry often driven by the pursuit of profit to ethically dubious practices, particularly when it comes to economic exploitation in Central and South America.

Fiber art is thought of as an increasingly niche interest, veering towards a demographic cliff. When one pictures the avid knitter or crocheter, after all, one most likely pictures an older white woman, a fragile grandma in a rocking chair. The click and pull of needles, is hardly dying though, despite what popular perceptions might suggest. The Craft Yarn Council of America’s 2014 tracking study of knitters and crocheters found that 28 percent of the crafters surveyed were aged 18-44 — which, to be fair, might not seem like a very high proportion of the population.

But the CYCA has been running these surveys for over a decade and has seen year-over-year increases in the number and proportion of young people who participate. Their 2004 survey, for example, saw a 150 percent increase in the 25-34 age category and a 100 percent increase in the under-18 category. Fiber arts expos, like Vancouver’s Knit City, grow exponentially more popular and more diverse every year.

There are diversity problems within the fiber arts community, which sometimes manifest themselves in ugly, obvious ways: Cascade Yarns, one of North America’s largest yarn distributors — and the source of one of the yarn giveaways at the Mariners’ Stitch n’ Pitch — recently found itself mired in controversy when racist and homophobic tweets from one of its founders were found.

But this is growing to be less and less the norm, largely thanks to the exponential growth of online fiber arts communities, where people who might not otherwise have been considered as the type of people who knit or crochet have been able to form communities and connect with like-minded people, sharing their expertise and innovation, expanding the boundaries of the artform. It feels familiar.

I had to leave the game before it ended to catch my bus back to Vancouver. (This ended up being a blessing, as I missed the Mariners’ ninth-inning meltdown.) There were still a few people perusing the yarns as the sunlight faded, and I stopped to take one last sift through a pile of cotton skeins. Two dudes walked by, did a double-take, and shook their heads, incredulous. “Yarn at a baseball game,” one said. “F—ing ridiculous.”

RJ is the dilettante-in-residence at FanGraphs. Previous work can be found at Baseball Prospectus, VICE Sports, and The Hardball Times.
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John Autin
5 years ago

Lovely account! The rudeness you encountered is quite unfortunate, especially since your affinity group was the honored guests, but try not to take it personally. As the saying goes, everybody [different] must get stoned.

5 years ago

The types of people who would complain about that out loud are ones that I think are insecure about themselves being there, for whatever reason.

5 years ago

I thought this piece was really insightful and it resonated really well with me. I also used to work at a yarn store and now work in baseball. Thanks for covering this event, I wish I could’ve been there.

5 years ago

Sorry the dudebros were being dicks. Hope you had a good time anyway! Have you ever used the yarn from an actual MLB ball to make anything? That would be pretty awesome actually.