Wednesday, May 07, 2008

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


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi John, i'm a huge advocate of baseball history myself, and i read on wikipedia that, "In 2004, Thorn discovered documentation that traced the origins of baseball in America to 1791 in Pittsfield, Massachusetts."
but alas, no source of this information was cited.

I'm ULTRA curious about this find though, is there anyway you could post a link for me to show exactly where i could find such information? I am very curious and it would brighten my day. either post a link, or shoot me an email.

10:37 PM  
Blogger John Thorn said...

7:16 AM  
Blogger John Thorn said...

Also, more directly, page 447:

The History of Pittsfield, (Berkshire Country) Massachusetts...: 1734-1800 ... By Joseph Edward Adams Smith

7:22 AM  
Anonymous said...

Hi John,

My iconography, Golf Through The Ages, 600 Years of Golfing Art, involved some fifteen years research in archives, libraries, galleries, museums and private collections on four continents. The eight language Selected Bibligraphy has some 1,500 entries, many unknown in relation to sport.
In the course of the years, I found numerous illustrations of batting and fielding; batting and batting; and cricket-like games (the original French word is 'guichet' - the earliest of which is an illuminated manuscript dated c.1120. Many more were illustrated in Gothic and later devotional works (see the Bible of William of Devon, for example.)Many depict a 'modern' bat.
And, of course, Kastie was enormously popular in the Netherlands long before 'baseball' was invented by the Americans.

Look forward to hearing from you.

12:12 PM  
Blogger John Thorn said...

Seems like great work you're doing, with several interesting intersections (including New Amsterdam's kolven). I'll try pinging you via your website.

12:16 PM  
Blogger Maggie Mosteller said...

Mr. Thorn - I would love to have you autograph a copy of your new book for a dear family friend (whom you may know). Please let me know how I can get in touch with you.
Thank you,

1:08 AM  
Blogger John Thorn said...

You may reach me at john.thorn 2 where 2 + @ in the address.

7:59 AM  
Blogger John McGrath said...

Dear John,

just read your recent book on Baseball and Eden on the Nook. Good read.
Anyway one mystery remains unclarifled. Abner Graves is the key character IDing Doubleday as the mythical originator of baseball. However, unadressed in the book is what may be an earlier claim of Doubleday's role. In 1897 a CW monument was built on a hill in Williamsport, MD, commemorating an 1862 action in which Doubleday participated. Supposedly the monument claims Doubleday was credited with inventing baseball in 1835. The monument was built nine years before Abner Graves made his claim. Is there truth to this legend? If so, the Doubleday myth existed before Abner Graves. Is this a garbled story or is there more to it?

10:41 PM  
Blogger John Thorn said...

This is indeed a hilariously garbled tale. The monument makers placed no such claim but its site managers did, in a printed sign. See: At the Abner Doubleday Wikipedia site the nonsense is compounded by this statement: "Doubleday's purported invention of baseball was such a widely accepted belief in the late 19th century, that the legend was recorded on a Civil War monument in Maryland in 1897. The Doubleday Hill Monument, erected in Williamsport, Maryland to commemorate Doubleday's occupation of a hill there during the Civil War, claims he invented the game in 1835." Sometimes I feel I am bailing against the tide with a teacup.

8:45 AM  
Anonymous Doug Hellinger said...

I see that the 19th century committee is meeting again next year in Cooperstown, now a taboo stop for me until Marvin Miller is inducted. I'm curious to know, however, if you or others have successfully picked up the scent of the working-class roots of baseball. Recorded amateur play was the domain of the middle class, but what to make of the fact that English surnames were replaced by Irish and German ones when the game went professional? I've made limited progress in finding recorded history from mid-century industrial leagues and firehouse and saloon teams. Did figure out, though, that it's the sons of immigrants and not immigrants themselves who turn to truly American, particularly recreational, pursuits, so the earliest the kids would show up would probably be after the Civil War. Any progress on that front?
Best, Doug Hellinger (

4:32 PM  
Blogger John Thorn said...

Doug, you may wish to check out my Baseball in the Garden of Eden, which deals with the subject of a rough working class taking up the game far earlier than we had suspected.

7:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just read where you make the claim that Joe DiMaggio was over-rated.

I don't want to argue the point, I just want to ask, what type of idiot are you? Are you the type that wants to make money by saying/writing controversial things?

Or, are the type of idiot that honestly believes the stupidity they speak?

I'm not sure what the technical names are but I'm sure you're one of these two types of idiots.


Joe Ciolino

2:23 PM  
Blogger John Thorn said...

If this last comment were not so amusing, and flattering, I would delete it.

2:39 PM  

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