- The 'Game of Thrones' phenomenon has lived in major league clubhouses for years, but it's reaching a peak level as the series unfolds the final episode this weekend.
One by one, Yankees outfielder Mike Tauchman reads off the names like Arya Stark reciting her kill list: Otto, Greenie, Britton, AJ, Holder, Tommy, Voit, Paxton. But Chad Green, Zach Britton, Aaron Judge and the rest aren’t marked for death: They’re Tauchman’s teammates—and his competition in the Game of Thrones death pool he started ahead of its eighth and final season. Though with just one episode left, the battle for the Yankees’ own metaphorical Iron Throne isn’t quite as dramatic as the show’s.
“A lot of us are still in it, none of us are doing particularly well,” Tauchman said in early May. “A lot of guys are in the negative.”
Sunday night will bring about the end of Thrones, a cultural phenomenon that dominates discourse both online and in real life. That extends to MLB, which bought heavily into the frenzy around it with ubiquitous “Game of Thrones” nights at stadiums, where you can sit on a replica of the Iron Throne and get a character-themed bobblehead. But it’s not just the marketing and social media departments who dove in headfirst. Teams, too, are full of players who trade theories and recap episodes with a rabid intensity. “You can probably go into any clubhouse, and it’s one of the most popular shows out there right now,” says Mariners reliever Brandon Brennan. “Everyone watches it.”
“We all consume it like crazy and talk about it, discuss it, debate it,” says Yankees starter CC Sabathia, who dedicates a regular section of his podcast to the show.
A quick survey of a few teams shows plenty of players are closely following the travails of Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen, Tyrion Lannister, and the rest of the characters created by George R.R. Martin for his multi-volume “A Song Of Ice And Fire” fantasy novel series in the mid 1990s, which was adapted to the small screen by HBO in 2011. A series-high 12.48 million tuned in for the penultimate episode, “The Bells,” last Sunday, or just shy of the ratings for Game 1 of last year’s World Series (14.125). You can expect both of those to be topped by the finale this Sunday.
That will include hundreds of major leaguers, and once the credits roll, those players will jump into group texts dedicated to Thrones or gab with their teammates on Monday.
How exactly that discussion is handled can be tricky. Though most of those watching are fully caught up, others are episodes or even seasons behind. In the Mets’ clubhouse, first baseman Pete Alonso—who’s saving the show for the offseason—knows to steer clear of any conversation that includes Medieval-sounding names. Orioles outfielder Stevie Wilkerson is only up to Season 4; asked how he avoids getting spoiled as teammate Joey Rickard was discussing Season 8, Wilkerson responds, “I walk away like I’m doing right now,” and runs out of the room.
“As soon as you hear them talking about it, you either walk away or are like, ‘Hey, keep it down,’” says Mariners reliever Mike Wright, who was a few episodes behind at midseason. “Sometimes they talk too loud and you can hear it, but you just plug your ears or try to talk about anything else.”
Teammates who are up to date try to be respectful of those lagging behind, but only so far: For most, the policy is that you’ve got 24 hours after an episode airs to watch, and then it’s fair game. That doesn’t always hold up. After the fourth episode, Tauchman walked into the Yankees’ clubhouse on Monday only to have Britton stop him before he even got to his locker to complain about the plot.
“You need to watch,” Tauchman says, but if you can’t, there are ways to survive. Players with Twitter accounts stay off their timelines when the episode is on. If you’re traveling, as most teams do on Sunday night, you have to be vigilant about where you sit. “On the train [from Baltimore to New York last Sunday], certain guys didn’t want to sit next to certain people because they were going to watch it,” Rickard says. “They didn’t want to see their reactions.” Green, one of many Yankees into the show but who waits to watch it with his wife, ended up alongside fellow reliever and Thrones fan Tommy Kahnle on a recent flight as he cued up a new episode. “I was trying to shield my eyes so as not to catch any spoilers,” he says.
It shouldn’t be shocking that the biggest show in the country is one that’s also popular across MLB. But the fervor with which Thrones fandom spread speaks to its ease of consumption. While some like Sabathia and Britton were watching from the beginning, most got into it as it was already in progress and tore through entire seasons in mere days. Tauchman, for example, picked up the show during spring training in 2014, ahead of Season 4, and binged the preceding three seasons in a week.
The lifestyle helps, too. For baseball players, the hours spent traveling or in the clubhouse before games have to be filled somehow; so do the long winter months in the offseason. Game of Thrones does the trick. The series gives players something to talk about while sitting on the plane, stretching on the field or sitting in the bullpen. “It’s to get us from the beginning of April through the middle of May,” Tauchman says.
Thrones is also practically designed to create long conversations, given that it’s full of arcane lore and wild theories. A few players, like Tauchman and the Orioles’ Trey Mancini, regularly read Reddit message boards and Wikipedia pages to learn all they can about Westeros, its history, and the characters’ backstories. Tauchman has also read the books—most players haven’t—which makes him the go-to source for Thrones knowledge for his teammates. That earned him a spot on the most recent episode of Sabathia’s podcast, R2C2, in which he, Sabathia, co-host Ryan Ruocco, Britton, Kahnle, Adam Ottavino and Cameron Maybin had a roundtable discussion of the season as a whole and previewed the finale. (A sample from Sabathia, when asked if he’ll read the books: “After this season, man, f--- them books, because what’s the point? They f----d the whole s--- up with this last season.”)
Sabathia’s displeasure with Season 8—“It’s been trash,” he says on his podcast—echoes how divisive it’s been online. His fellow players are kinder to it. “I know that it’s a little rushed, and it would’ve been more ideal to have a 10-episode season, but it’s been a pretty interesting turn of events,” Mancini says. Britton agrees: “Maybe the last couple episodes haven’t been as good as the whole series in general, but I’m looking forward to seeing where it ends.”
If nothing else, Game of Thrones gives players something new to compete over. The Orioles have their own death pool going, which Rickard is leading heading into the last weekend (helped by a correct prediction of Arya killing the Night King). As for the Yankees, Tauchman is on top, though Ottavino and third-string catcher Kyle Higashioka trail him closely. The crown will ride on the finale, and on Tauchman’s guess as to who will sit the Iron Throne when it’s all said and done: no one.
When you play the Game of Thrones death pool, you win or you die. (In the case of the Yankees, you also reportedly get an undisclosed sum of money.) If it’s Tauchman who ends up the champion, though, he’ll have to celebrate from afar. Sent down last Sunday before being briefly recalled to be the 26th man for a mid-week doubleheader, he was once again Triple A-bound on Wednesday night. Regardless, he’ll settle in Sunday night for the finale, then pick up his phone once it’s over and start texting his teammates to get their takes. And then his watch, like everyone else’s, will be ended.