Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Halcyon days? Polo Grounds crowd, 1908 playoff game.

As the Fan Turns

From "Play's the Thing," Woodstock Times, May 8, 2008:

For 35 years now I have been pursuing, in varying precincts, the Great Story of Baseball, looking at the statistical record, the historical archives, and the daily action on the field. Lately I have turned my attention to the individuals surrounding me in the stands, or those silently communing with me before television shrines, and it seems to me that fandom has taken a troubling turn.

This was brought home forcibly last week when Carlos Delgado, the Mets first baseman who has been excoriated at the ballpark and in the media, broke out of a month-long slump by smacking two home runs in one game, then denying the fickle fans' behest to a curtain call at the dugout steps. It was his home run, dammit, and he would decide how to celebrate it. He was not a marionette, he implied.

As players have wrung ever money from the game — redressing a century of wage slavery — a chasm has come to separate fans from the objects of their admiration. (Players have always taken a dim view of them.) Older fans may long for a return to the days when a Brooklyn boy might bump into Gil Hodges on the streets of Bay Ridge, but they know that ballplayers have fled the lunch-bucket fraternity for good.

Younger fans, however, have taken matters into their own hands through the strange revenge of fantasy baseball, which encourages them to act like oldtime owners, holding full sway over their chattel. In turn, this view of ballplayers as mere property — rather than members of a team and champions of civic pride — has spawned a mob hauteur. For an increasing number of today’s devotees, the players are game pieces whose failure to perform to expectation triggers simmering frustration, even rage. The logorrhea of the blogs and talk radio further fuels fans’ impatience and sense of entitlement.

It may well be time for a gentle guide on etiquette and right conduct — how to be a fan, for those who have forgotten or never truly knew.

A ballgame has many features in common with theater and ritual, from rousing emotions and suspending disbelief to experiencing catharsis. But baseball is not a staged drama or religious rite, with their preordained outcomes, but a real life struggle in which we sense that risk is everywhere present ... if in the end without real consequence for our lives. Baseball in America is a sort of faith for the faithless, and its seven virtues are the same as those of religion — faith, hope, charity, fortitude, justice, prudence, and moderation. Let me explain.

Adults who come to the game late tend to make rational decisions about which team to embrace, as a forty-year-old might choose a marriage partner; it can be a cold and dispiriting business. A child, however, selects his team for a range of reasons he or she only dimly understands at the time; call it love. It would not be too much to say that reason does not enter into this choice; it is almost entirely a matter of faith. What must be comprehended at the outset, however, by even the youngest fan, is that a rooting interest is not to be reversed lightly. A youngster who wavers in his allegiance may not amount to much. Defeat is a challenge to faith, but it must be borne.

A fan’s hope is like the unreasoning, inexplicable love of Krazy Kat for Ignatz: each blow to the head is merely a love tap, binding victim ever more closely to assailant. (Some may call this neurosis.) Although maintaining faith can be a struggle in the face of present misfortune and injustice, hope is forward-looking and, thanks especially to spring training, cyclically renewable.

Charity enables the fan to appreciate the human frailty of the players. A child may regard these Hessians as heroes but a grownup fan may not. Disbelief may be suspended, especially in April, but a real baseball fan embraces reality before the end of October forces it upon him. Closers blow saves; infielders make errors on routine plays at awful times; cleanup hitters strike out with men on base. Yes, playing the scapegoat is part of the tribal role for which players sign on. Yes, this is the game you played when you were young and from a distance it still looks easy. But No, you would not have done better in their place. As an attitude borne in silence, charity is commendable. Voiced in defense of a player sorely abused in your presence — now that is a true virtue.

Fortitude is staying until the game is over, even when your team trails by ten and the traffic will be murder. Fortitude need not be exercised solo: rally caps, crossed fingers, thunder sticks, whatever fetishes you need to get you through the game, they’re all okay. Sure the players are important, but the outcome of the game depends upon you. Remember that.

Justice is being fair with others, even Yankee fans. Look upon these benighted souls with bemusement. Winning isn’t everything, and debilitates character. Let them pursue victory heedless of the ruin that awaits them in the next life. Can they gnash their teeth as you can? Certainly not. Right conduct, even in the face of provocation, will get you somewhere (though not with girls). As Mark Twain said, “Always do right; this will gratify some people and astonish the rest.”

Exercising prudence helps one to avoid excesses of optimism. When Tuffy Rhodes hit three home runs on Opening Day of 1994, he did not go on to hit 486 for the season. Don’t extrapolate from today’s good fortune. Don’t bet on the law of averages. Think twice about getting that tattoo of today’s hero. Be calm and serene even when your insides are jumping with joy as your team has come back from three down in the ninth. This will deter gloating by others when your team blows a three-run lead in the ninth.

(Okay, just kidding on that last virtue. Ya gotta believe. Ya gotta enjoy. And ya gotta suffer. That’s the human condition, not simply the arm’s-length world of fandom.)

So, to toll the seventh of fandom’s virtues: employ moderation in all things, including moderation. You know that you are not playing shortstop for the Red Sox, though your emotions are racing as if you were. But face facts — there’s no stopping that rush of testosterone or fancied pheromones when your team improbably snatches victory at the last. Winning has its rewards. Enjoy them, even while knowing, at the back of your mind somewhere, if you can recall where your mind went to after that walk-off homer, that losing is the superior instructor.

[Portions of this column are based upon my essay in Anatomy of Baseball, SMU Press, 2008.]

--John Thorn