Before the 2014 postseason, Rhea Butcher had barely watched baseball in the 21st century. It was the 1997 World Series that did it: Butcher was 15 when the Cleveland Indians, division champions for the third consecutive year, squandered an early Game 7 lead and lost to the Marlins in extra innings. The Fish became the first Wild Card team ever to win a World Series; Cleveland didn’t make it back to the World Series for another 19 years. Butcher turned away from the game and then left Ohio altogether for Chicago and Los Angeles, building a viable comedy and acting career. Life—an increasingly fun life—got in the way of baseball. And in 2014, after 17 years, death brought it back.
Butcher, who uses they/them pronouns, visited their beloved grandmother in hospice as the regular season ended. It was Gramma, along with Butcher’s mom, who raised them on baseball, particularly Atlanta and Cleveland. (1995 was a particularly rough year for the house.) Every summer of Butcher’s childhood, three generations spent countless humid Akron nights together on the couch, watching the Indians scuffle and collapse. Back at her side in October 2014, with nothing to do but wait and worry, Butcher indulged Gramma’s fandom and watched Cleveland games—replays from the regular season, as that year’s team finished third in the AL Central and missed October altogether—as they had in the old days. It turns out that bonding over Lonnie Chisenhall in your grandmother’s painful final days can lead a person to hold baseball tight and promise never to let go.
Soon it was all Butcher ever talked about. Friends and coworkers, including comedian Cameron Esposito, whom Butcher married in 2015, were treated to a barrage of analysis and speculation. “I pay attention to the basic stats, but that’s not the most important thing,” Butcher recently explained by phone. “I just love the chess game of it. The strategy. That’s what I’ve always loved. Yeah, a hitter might have a .150 average, but he’s hitting over the last three days, put him in!”
One fellow obsessive was Brett Boham*, co-founder of the Forever Dog podcast network. He invited Butcher to try a baseball show, and they produced a limited-run series, Likely Mad as Hell, during the 2017 playoffs. It consisted solely of Butcher’s unscripted monologues and discussions about the duo’s adopted Dodgers’ first World Series in 29 years; the title came from a Jason Isbell line about spiritual exhaustion. For the 2018 MLB season, Butcher and Boham brought forth The Three Swings Podcast, another loosely structured weekly-ish dispatch that has become an essential part of my own engagement with the game.
At the most basic level, there’s nothing radical or groundbreaking about a podcast featuring reflections on big developments around the MLB. “I watch a ton of MLB Network,” Butcher admits. “Especially Quick Pitch.” But in every other way, Three Swings’ wide-ranging and unabashedly personal approach is the antithesis of most baseball coverage, and one of the most unusual and compelling windows on the game I’ve found anywhere. Three Swings is not affiliated with Major League Baseball, not packed with sabermetrics, and doesn’t emphasize salary negotiations or trade rumors. It has little in common with most baseball podcasts beyond how hopelessly in love with the game its hosts are.
“There’s a template for what sports talk is, and I knew I didn’t want to do that,” Butcher explains. “But that’s not a plan. I know there are people who love sports but don’t necessarily see that love reflected back. I wanted a show that talks about girls’ baseball more than one time, for example, that approaches it as part of baseball, because it is.”
Girls and women’s baseball coverage has been one important subplot to this first season of the show. Butcher recorded an episode from the A League of Their Own reunion game in Rockford, Illinois, then highlighted the Women’s Baseball World Cup. Most importantly, they boosted Baseball for All, an inclusivity initiative from Justine Siegal, the first woman to coach and throw batting practice for an MLB team. Siegal agreed to join Butcher’s Sunday rec team, and the two have grown close.
“[Siegal] started promoting this Baseball for All tournament around the same time the podcast started, so I’ve just tried to keep that momentum going,” Butcher says. “I feel like there is a movement, and I’m a part of it. A lot of people trying to grow this movement for gender equality, specifically in baseball.”
I don’t often find myself rethinking baseline assumptions about society while listening to a tangent about Josh Donaldson’s calf injury, but that happened not long ago during an episode of Three Swings. I’ve been an attentive baseball fan my entire life, but I had never given the slightest thought to women’s baseball, a sport that’s distinct from softball but not recognized by either the IOC or NCAA. I had not wondered even once why women don’t play Major League Baseball, or even high school baseball.
There are not many baseball podcasts hosted by a queer nonbinary person, so a difference in perspective is to be expected. But Three Swings is never only about identity; Butcher addresses those experiences when and where it informs their feelings about the game. But they are also a baseball fan, an amateur but dogged baseball historian, a two-league fantasy team owner, and, on Sundays, a baseball player. All of this combines to make Three Swings a weekly reminder that the game is bigger than just MLB, bigger than the action in those 30 fields and executive offices. This is a game that people relate to and that helps people relate to each other; it’s something people, all kinds of people, carry with them through their lives.
On a show in early September, Butcher discussed the Players’ Weekend festivities, praising the league’s engagement with little leaguers before acknowledging that no girls got to participate, no girls got on TV or got to sit in the stands with Giancarlo Stanton. “Imagine,” they continued. “Imagine what that’s like. Girls don’t get that. You can nitpick me and say, ‘Oh, there’s this, there’s that,’ but there’s not that. There’s not Rhys Hoskins sitting with you, and he’s stoked to be sitting with you because you had a viral video about how you hit dingers or whatever. It’s not happening. Because girls don’t get to play baseball, at least not in the Little League World Series… It just infuriates me to watch something that I’m excluded from.”
There was a stretch around the middle of the season when Three Swings became particularly emotional. Butcher cried on mic, renounced the Indians for their wishy-washy policy toward Chief Wahoo, took issue with MLB’s calculated outreach to LGBT fans despite having no out gay players. The game recaps continued, but Three Swings exuded the sort of maxed-out dismay and exhaustion that has defined the last two years. Butcher had their own reasons, too: they announced their separation with Esposito in July, then started work as a writer for a forthcoming period-set TV show, and announced their pronoun preferences. For a minute, the show became a wild mix of stats talk, business analysis, women’s empowerment sermons, and earnest cries for help—the record of a life in a period of tumult and uncertainty.
Another recent episode found Butcher uncharacteristically sympathetic toward Daniel Murphy, who had just been traded to the Cubs. In revisiting Murphy’s rambling and ostensibly Christian remarks against the “gay lifestyle” in 2015, Butcher found something like gratitude: he used no slurs, he expressed love toward God’s gay children, he didn’t call for exclusion or profess hate.
“The problem isn’t just Daniel Murphy’s belief system,” Butcher told me. “The real problem is that there are no out baseball players. You get a comment from Daniel Murphy, then you turn to interview a gay ballplayer and there’s no one there. For a while I was looking at it personally. But think about ‘the personal is political.’ The context of that phrase was a time when women were not able or allowed to participate in public life. To say the personal is political is to bring a life that hasn’t been seen or valued into the political world. Now people interpret it as, ‘My personal life is political.’ It can be, but to live your life that way takes a huge toll. You have to see that people aren’t the problem, the problems are between us.”
For Butcher, as for everyone else that cares about the game, baseball is an escape—a beautifully pointless hobby that nevertheless connects us to our friends, family, city, and youth. But Three Swings is a baseball show for an anxious age, one where everything feels connected and ambiently doomed. As such, it has also become a journey of a host’s self-reflection and self-reinvention. The ragged optimism of that evolution is always visible.
“I’m trying to take it back to what it used to be,” Butcher explained. “Baseball actually used to be the entertainment. We didn’t have TV, it wasn’t on radio yet. Most people couldn’t even afford radios. Baseball was live performance, that’s where communities went and people saw each other. In the ’40s, there were thousands of baseball and softball teams across the country. That’s what people did. It truly was the sport of this country, America’s Pastime. We don’t necessarily know what that means, with so many entertainment options now.”
Butcher said they have a plan to watch and discuss baseball movies during the offseason, and to record pilgrimages to such baseball shrines as Kansas City’s Negro League Hall of Fame. Taking the act on the road fits perfectly with their ambitions for the podcast. Baseball doesn’t lack for obsessives, but even in October it needs the right kind of evangelist—one who sees a way for the game to be bigger and better, in every way that matters.
* Correction: The article originally misspelled Boham’s last name.
John Lingan is the author of “Homeplace: A Southern Town, a Country Legend, and the Last Days of a Mountaintop Honky-Tonk.” He’s on Twitter at @johnlingan.