"I was the kid who, when my family traveled, was always interested in how we got there."
That's how Steven Ericson, a geography professor at the University of Alabama, describes the origins of his vocational journey. I met Ericson during Aug. 2's Mississippi Braves game at Trustmark Park, as he had agreed to be that afternoon's designated eater (the individual who consumes the ballpark foods that my gluten-free diet prohibits).
Given the context of our time together, I didn't expect to have an in-depth conversation about geography and how it applies to sports in general, and Minor League Baseball in particular.
But that's just what happened, though I'm not entirely sure how we got there.
"There are a lot of things that come into play when you're talking about sports and geography, because geography as a basic concept is looking at space," said Ericson, who chronicles his baseball journeys on his "My Geography Lessons" blog. "Where things are, why they exist in that location, and why we should care about it existing in that certain location. And at the same time, we're also looking at a lot of other sides, too."
He continued, "We can look at an economic side. We're building a new stadium. Why are we going to build it within this metropolitan area? Then there's the human demographic to that. Where are the people coming from, what are their socio-economic backgrounds and how's that going to influence the stadium location? There's also a cultural side, like the unique foods that different stadiums will prepare. Like, 'Hey, we're in the South, and we want to accentuate this part of our food and our culture and our style.'"
• Read more about Ben's visit to Mississippi on the Biz Blog »
An interest in questions such as the above is what prompted Ericson to pursue his doctorate at Oklahoma State, a school with a strong track record of sports-related geography research. He's now teaching sports geography at the University of Alabama, marking the first time that such a class has been offered there. He said that Minor League Baseball, with its persistent "accentuation on the uniqueness of place," is a common topic of discussion and study within this course.
"I've been able to have people from different teams come in and talk to my class," he said. "I was fortunate to have [Birmingham Barons general manager] Jonathan Nelson talk about when they built their stadium in downtown Birmingham, the things that went into place with that as far as the economic side, the demographics and the policy aspect. … But a lot of [the sports geography class] is physical geography. There's been research done on the interaction of altitude and thinner air in Denver, Colorado, with the Rockies, so I've been able to bring in that research article to talk about different Minor League teams and how they cope with playing at higher elevation.
"Something I'd like to bring in the future [as a class topic] is players," he continued. "Because when you look at a Minor League roster … you've got that melting pot of cultures and, to an extent, you're looking at the cultural phenomenon of assimilation."
Clearly, geography can be used as a lens with which to view the business and culture of sports in America. But, more importantly for those seeking a degree within the field, can it lead to a job after graduating? Ericson thinks so.
"You can approach it from a very qualitative sense -- the cultural side of it -- but you can also approach it from a geographic information systems side and an applied geography side," he said. "Working with GIS (geographic information systems) is really one of the quickest ways for somebody who studies geography to get a job right out of the chute after finishing their bachelor's degree.
"When you look at a map, there's multiple things going into it, because there are lines showing roadways and points showing cities and all sorts of things. In GIS you're working with computer software, and you can basically build a giant sandwich that stacks everything up. And you can then run all sorts of queries to figure things out. … The only stumbling block is your imagination. If you can imagine it and visualize a question you want to answer, you can answer that and apply that through geography by looking at sports examples."
Couldn't this sort of information, as culled and analyzed by geographers, have value to a Minor League organization?
"Pretty much every Minor League Baseball team knows the demographics of the area that they're serving, as far as looking at how many people there are, race, ethnicity, income levels, etc.," said Ericson. "But they're buying that information, typically, from a marketing company versus consulting with a geographer who might be able to provide a little finer analysis to it than just, 'Here's the data about the people who live in your geographic footprint.'"
This speaks to a larger issue with geographers, in that the average person might not have a full sense of what the job can entail.
"When I tell people I'm a geography professor, the first thing they say is 'Do you draw maps?'" said Ericson. "Well, yes... but there's always more to it. Geography is often called the mother of all sciences because it really touches everything."
It's funny, the conversations you can have -- and the things that you can learn -- by talking to people at a Minor League Baseball game.
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.