A long time ago in a media galaxy far, far away from Netflix streaming, a young R.A. Dickey would come home from school and pop the same VHS tape into the video player. He would hear John Williams' stirring soundtrack and watch in wonder as Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo, Chewbacca and Obi-Wan Kenobi battled Darth Vader and the most evil empire this side of the New York Yankees.
Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi, you're my only hope.
These are not the droids you're looking for.
Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.
I find your lack of faith disturbing.
Use the Force, Luke.
Dickey fell in love with "Star Wars," watching it over and over and over and over ... and over and over and over, so often that he estimates he has seen it more than 100 times. "I was hooked on it from there on," he said of those first viewings. "It was fun to get lost in that. And the storyline that really transcends us in its essence. It's about redemption. The whole trilogy points to that."
Dickey's Star Wars passion still thrives. The Toronto Blue Jays' veteran knuckleballer said he purchased tickets for "The Force Awakens" many weeks before its opening Friday, though he isn't sure he'll go see it that night because he doesn't want to be distracted by the masses of people showing up for the experience as much for the actual movie.
"Maybe I'll rent out a theater and be the only one there," he said jokingly. "The sick thing is even being by myself, I would still go in costume."
And that costume would be Darth Vader. Yes, Dickey has a Darth Vader costume. He even included a photo in his best-selling memoir of himself where he is holding his infant child while dressed as Darth. And his kids and wife have worn Darth Vader, Ewok, Jawa, Chewbacca, Greedo, Princess Leia and stormtrooper masks and costumes on Halloween and other occasions. "We've covered a lot of characters."
Dickey isn't alone by any stretch. Unlike any other movie, the Star Wars force can be felt across all sports with fans and teams embracing the franchise as if it were their favorite team.
"I think there are similarities between Star Wars and sports that create so much crossover appeal,'' said Gregg Greene, the Mariners' senior marketing director. "They both have heroes to root for, feature a battle between good guys versus bad guys and provide an excellent escape from some of the ugliness in the real world.''
Evidently. Baseball teams throughout the majors and minors hold Star Wars promotion nights, with stormtroopers marching on the field, T-shirts selling in the stands (as well as Jedi Rally Monkeys at Angels home games) and costumed Darth Vaders throwing out the first pitch (though the Force clearly wasn't with this Vader on the mound). Star Wars nights in the majors averaged around 35,000 fans per game last year, almost 5,000 higher than the average game (or somewhat better than what an Entourage night would draw).
Minor league teams further the theme on their promotional nights by dressing their players in Star Wars-related uniforms. Last year, the Durham Bulls wore golden C-3PO uniforms, the Birmingham Barons wore stormtrooper jerseys, the Buffalo Bisons wore Jedi warrior robe jerseys and the Lehigh Valley IronPigs wore jerseys that showed Han Solo sealed in carbonite.
What, no Princess Leia slave costume?
Minor league hockey teams also regularly push the Star Wars uniform theme -- the USHL Omaha Lancers recently wore uniforms with X-wing fighter helmets -- while college football teams are referred to as going "full Vader" when wearing all black uniforms or "going stormtrooper" when wearing all white. The latter probably leaves Yoda wondering, "Just team colors wear, why not?" Speaking of which, my alma mater, the University of Washington, sells Yoda- and Jedi-themed sports apparel, as other schools probably do as well -- though hopefully there is no Jar Jar Binks Crimson Tide shirts.
So, yes, the fans wear Star Wars stuff as well, even on non-Star Wars nights. A Cincinnati Bengals fan wears an orange stormtrooper costume to every game. His Facebook page describes him as a "Die hard Cincinnati Bengals fan since a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away." Which is appropriate given how often the stormtroopers wind up on the losing side.
And then there is New England coach Bill Belichick, who has been compared to Emperor Palpatine because of his similar hoodie fashion style. Although that is also partly because of the constant accusations of the Patriots' nefarious cheating. We will deflate your pitiful little band of Colts, young Pagano.
Still, it is the Yankees who are regarded as sport's evil empire. Back in 2002, then-Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino famously referred to them as such and the Yankees so embraced the reference that the club legally fought against a company that wanted to use the name. New York also plays Star Wars music during team introductions: "The Imperial March (Darth Vader's Theme)" for opponents and "The Throne Room/End Title" for themselves (though A-Rod should get "The Imperial March" as his walk-up music).
"The Imperial March" gets played throughout sports almost as often as "Welcome to the Jungle." The Georgetown band started playing it when the Hoyas took the basketball court back in the 1980s. The Montreal Canadiens have played it during penalties. The Lakers played it when Kobe Bryant returned to the court from an Achilles injury in 2013.
The Vader theme has even been played on occasion when tennis' beloved Roger Federer has taken the court, which came about after he wore all black at the 2007 U.S. Open.
Novak Djokovic, meanwhile, took the Star Wars theme to a higher level on Halloween 2012 by wearing an actual Darth Vader mask onto the court during the player introductions at the Paribas Masters indoor tournament in Paris. He took off the mask before playing but perhaps he should have kept it on -- or replaced his racket with a lightsaber -- because Sam Querrey beat him in three sets. Asked the next year why he didn't wear the mask again, Djokovic told reporters he hadn't properly prepared. "So I'm going to have to be pretending that I'm myself this year. No Darth Vader."
Alas, Dickey hasn't worn his Darth Vader costume on the mound, though he has often pitched while wearing a Star Wars T-shirt under his jersey, including "Dickey Strikes Back" shirts that Mets fans printed up with his face wearing a Darth helmet.
Darth Vader, as you might have surmised, is Dickey's favorite Star Wars character.
"I think it's because he embodies [the Star Wars] narrative more than any other character," Dickey said. "Han Solo has it, and Luke has it, but no one has that experience more than Darth Vader, who gave himself completely to evil and the dark side and then was turned back and actually saved his son's life. ...
"I can relate to being a guy who's made a lot of mistakes in a lot of different ways and had a second chance to do things differently. And he got that chance and, though it was late in his life, he got to take advantage of that."
Yeah, but Darth did not have a knuckleball. Or come back to win a Cy Young Award.
"He did not, but he had this lightsaber technique that was the knucklesaber technique," Dickey said, laughing. "Or he could have just choked the batter if he put the ball in play."