Spring training arrived, marking the return of the real and natural world of baseball after a winter dominated by dealing and squealing. When pitchers and catchers reported in mid-February, millions of fans in northern climes traipsed through the ice and snow with a lightened step. Yet for some of the game’s most ardent devotees, the grass had not turned brown and sere with the end of the World Series; in the green fields of their minds the lure of the game had, if anything, sparked a new thrill of the grass: there were statistics to digest, projections to make, fantasy transactions to contemplate, and history’s attic to rummage through. Some may call them nerds, intending to deprecate their drive to gather, interpret, and invent new ways of understanding the grand old game that the rest of us have always thought we understood pretty well.
In writing that last sentence I have come to a sticking point. Describing nerds as “them” while placing myself within the “rest of us,” I may proceed to analyze them, categorize them, and finalize them with palms raised to the sky, saying “There but for the grace of God go I.” But I have walked their walk and talked their talk not only in my years as a writer on baseball history and statistics. I have always been one of them – literally an old boy, a strangely earnest lad – as long as I can remember, before nerd was a word. It has always been easy being nerdy, even when my demeanor seemed to be a problem for others. (“Why can’t you be normal?” my exasperated mother used to wail.) Being odd has been the source of substantial solitary pleasure and a lifetime of wonderful friendships with other like minds, who signaled their membership in the nerd tribe not by their devotion to baseball, necessarily, but simply by the intensity of their curiosity, regardless of its object. These were people worth knowing.
In recent years nerds have begun to distinguish themselves from drips, dweebs, geeks, and duds, pejoratives applied by the hipper-than-thou set for a century and more. The film Revenge of the Nerds was a spine stiffener some twenty years ago, while recent book titles have included Nerd in Shining Armor and even the frightening Nerd Gone Wild. While the dictionaries continue to treat square and nerd as synonyms, ask around and you’ll find that nearly everyone detects a difference: while both terms connote a measure of social ineptitude or at least discomfort, the latter has come to be associated with intellectual aptitude and is worn as a croix de paix by some who are not reduced to quivering jelly in the presence of a member of the opposite sex. Indeed, times are good for nerds right now: the internet has brought email, newsgroups, list-servs, dating and friend-finder services, blogs, and other ways for odd birds of a feather not only to flock together but also to influence mainstream society and culture.
Contrast this with the first citation in print after Dr. Seuss created the eponymous critter in If I Ran the Zoo ( “And then, just to show them, I’ll sail to Ka-Troo/ And Bring Back an It-Kutch a Preep and a Proo/ A Nerkle a Nerd and a Seersucker, too!”), namely, the February 10, 1957, issue of the Glasgow, Scotland, Sunday Mail: “Nerd – a square, any explanation needed?” Like the square peg in the round hole, in the age of conformity the 1957-model nerd came to be simply another term for misfit. Fifteen years later, nerds began to drift into Silicon Valley and Wall Street and such newly sprouted “nonconformist clubs” as the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR). Sport proved a particularly fertile ground for alternative viewpoints as the very term denotes peculiarity, as in “sport of the litter.” Cut-throat competitors in Scrabble and Monopoly, military re-creation aficionados, vintage ballplayers, all are irritations to the “big-picture” wheelers and dealers who have neither patience nor appreciation for detail.
The stereotype of the nerd is one who is more comfortable with computers than with human beings; has a keen scent for phoniness and opposes the dominant culture; and regards information as the most valuable of all currencies, as it permits the nerd to show up the fatheads who run major software companies, news organizations, and the like. In this country techno-nerds have become somewhat intertwined with hackers and bloggers; in Japan, they have come to be known as otaku-zoku, or otaku for short. Globally, techno-nerds are united in their hunt for covert information. “All that matters,” wrote Karl Taro Greenfeld, in a story on the otaku in 1996, “is the accuracy of the answer, not its relevance. No piece of information is too trivial for consideration: For instance, for … military otaku, it’s the name of the manufacturer of 55mm armor-piercing ammunition for the PzkIII Tank. For idol otaku – fanatics who follow the endless parade of cute girl pop singers – it’s the specific university the father of darling idol Hikaru Nishida attended. Anything qualifies, as long is it was not previously known.”
It is the prestige of ownership – I got it and you didn’t – that makes a data miner into a geek stud. Pretty childish, really – the most accomplished nerds, and the ones who become known in the global media culture – are generally those who are most disposed to share and least inclined to preen. And yet … the lure of late-night net trawling is that you will find something, very nearly in plain sight, that had always been overlooked until you, perspicacious one, spied the gold amidst the dross.
Some nerds are tolerant of mainstream society though assertive in their wish to act outside it. But for most, rejection – both perceived slights and retaliatory acts – is at the heart of the matter. It is defiance that spurs the nerd to his sometimes great if antisocially inspired notions. The nerd is often stuck in toddlerland, at the potty-training stage, with only one arrow in his quiver – “No!”
A trait we might term stubbornness (or independence, or principle) might as easily be called arrested development, a broad and amorphous label that is marked by three essential qualities: a treacly nostalgia for an ersatz childhood, one more imagined than lived, with unrealized benchmarks; an affectionate attachment to media kitsch of one’s childhood, such as the theme song to Gilligan’s Island; and an improbably preserved childish sense of curiosity and wonder. A veneer of cynicism may also present in a self-protective way, but it will be easily penetrated: scratch a cynic and find a sentimentalist. In truth, the nerd has few emotional defenses, which may render him or her a figure of fun among those for whom a taunt is as good as a kiss.
In the further stereotyping of nerds it may be noted that they don’t like to be fussed over, be confined in small places, or have their personal space violated by strangers. (They may themselves, however, be fussy, pushy, and insensitive to the social requirements of others.) Like Amazon headhunters, they like to collect things, either mementoes of experiences they may have had or wish to have had, or items associated with persons of power, from Winston Churchill to Barry Bonds. In the heat of information pursuit they are indifferent to the demands of the body for food, sex, or relief from pain and discomfort. In their profound division of mind and body, life is lived above the neck. With their active imaginations nerds generally have little need for the company of others (the mantras include: a good book is preferable to indifferent company and alone does not mean lonely), though when they are feeling companionable the absence of companions may seem a cruelly personal affront.
In my own life as a nerd, other traits, by no means unique, came into play. I was convinced early on that I was surrounded by secrets, mysteries wrapped in the enigmas of language and time. As an immigrant to this country at age 2½ , I of course spoke no English, only the German I had learned from my nurse/nanny in the displaced persons camp in Stuttgart. My Polish parents spoke German to me as well, but between themselves they reverted to their native tongue. So, placed in an English-language nursery-school setting upon my arrival on these shores, I came home to announce that henceforth I would refuse to speak German or Polish or to respond to questions not posed in English. The message was clear: life was to be solved before it could be lived, an archaic belief that retains much of its force today. I see ghosts everywhere, though not the Bruce Willis sort.
I learned to read by deciphering the backs of cereal boxes and baseball cards. Like all lonely boys I became a listmaker and daydreamer, able to disappear into a fugue state for the better part of an hour. My early interest in reading soon revealed a photographic memory as well as an ability to read right to left or upside down with ease. I built models, I collected fetishes – from baseball cards to bottle caps, from comic books to back-date magazines – and thus fortified myself against the demands of the outside world. In my intense devotion to mastery as the amulet against … who knew what …I felt compelled to bore down deeply and rapidly in order to satisfy my need for completion, then, sated, move on to something else.
Even today, I’m always on the lookout for the next thing, the way a man will look over the shoulder of his date at a dinner table to check the woman who’s just walked in the door. There’s nothing that is as much fun, Yogi Berra might have said, as learning something you didn’t know before. More nerdy bits to come next week, after which we will resume our search for the next thing.