I love baseball, but don’t worry: this is not going to be one of those essays that waxes dreamily and poetically about the beauty of the game. Like most human endeavors, and pretty much all human endeavors where there are winners and losers, baseball frequently gets downright ugly. Without even getting into the drugs, the money, the egos, the immaturity, the corruption, and all the other nastiness of the game itself, there’s so much ugliness to be witnessed in the fans themselves that we barely even need the all that other crap. Now that we’re into the post-season, I made the mistake of sneering at fair-weather Cubs fans who are suddenly all about how “their” team is going to prove Back to the Future right this year and finally, finally prevail. I wondered aloud (or e-loud, at least) how many of them have actually even watched a game in the regular season—or even know how many regular season games there are, or how many innings there are, or the fact that a ballgame is divided into innings and not quarters or dimes or something else? In short, I became an ugly cliché: the die-hard fan who thinks no other fan could possibly live up to their own level of fandom.
The funny thing is, I quickly recognized that I myself could easily be accused of being a fair-weather fan, or at least a finicky fan who doesn’t know the meaning of loyalty. First off, I was born and raised in Hawaii, which has no pro sports. There was once a minor league team, the Islanders (and telling you that I went to a couple of their games when I was a kid is seriously dating me), but eventually it got too expensive to schlep the team around and have other teams schlepped to Honolulu (as much as those teams might have wanted such schlepping), so bye-bye Islanders. In short, I was not a baseball fan of any team at all until I left home. Football was my game, since my father was a big 49ers fan, and luckily we got to follow the team during the Montana/Walsh years. You can’t really be accused of fair-weatherness when you live in Hawaii and you happen to root for a damn good team. What other kind of weather is there?
When I went to college, I started following the San Francisco Giants. A football fan needs something to do the rest of the year, after all. The first year I followed them, they lost a hundred games, which certainly disqualifies me from fair-weather status (especially because that was back in the Candlestick Park days and if you’d ever been to Candlestick Park, you know that even in July, there are Arctic winds and dense fog, and the bleacher bums frequently have to be treated for hypothermia). Eventually a few seasons later they made it to the World Series … which was promptly hit by an earthquake, and they ended up losing four in a row to the A’s. Maybe this is rationalization, but it was kind of hard to care about the series after seeing freeways collapse and a section of bridge fall into the bay.
When I moved to New York, it became impossible for me to follow the Giants the way I used to, which was to watch or listen to every single game from pregame to post, so I stopped watching baseball for a few years. If I couldn’t watch my team, well, what was the point? And then there was a boy. The boy was a Mets fan, so I became one too. Unfortunately New York back then was all about the Yankees, whose unfathomably deep pockets meant they could buy a winning team and attract legions of equally deep-pocketed Manhattanites who wouldn’t be caught dead on a subway headed to another borough much less actually in the Bronx but still somehow managed to claim die-hard fan status. The Mets were “the other team,” whose fans claimed to be the tough, blue-collar, salt-of-the-earth counterpart to the Evil Robber-Baron Skankees. Even at the time I thought that was baloney, but the boy believed it, his own family from Queens, his ancestors Irish miners, his accent thoroughly Long Island (big things weren’t just big, they were “yuge”)—so I went along with it. The Mets weren’t any good, but the boy seemed to like that, as it allowed him a martyr’s long-suffering dignity.
Of course, Mets martyrdom pales in comparison to the Cubs. Here in east-central Illinois I’ve had my choice of teams to root for, and I could have ended up deciding to follow either of the two Chicago teams, the hard-luck Cubbies or the … who are the other guys again? (You want to talk long-suffering, talk to someone from South Chicago who loves a team nobody else even remembers much less cares about.) As it turned out, though, there was another boy, this one from St. Louis. And as it further turned out, the team this boy followed was damned good, year after year, present year included. This could easily earn me bandwagon-fan status, particularly from those who have been loyal to one particular team since birth, their first baby bibs emblazoned with the team logo, their first outfits in team colors. I’ve visited St. Louis a couple of times and enjoyed it very much—what’s not to like about a place where the zoo is free and the ravioli fried?—but I have no other direct connection to it, and even the BF hasn’t lived there in many decades. Why then do I care? What kind of “fan” am I, really, and what gives me the right to judge any other fan’s motives?
Obviously the only right I have to judge anyone else is the self-assumed right that comes from being a human being with strong opinions about ridiculous subjects. Of course there is no “best” way to be a fan—or to not be one, for those who would dismiss the whole baseball thing as absurd. It is absurd. It’s a game played by men who act like children and get paid a lot of money to do so. These men are professionals who have no real loyalty to the city in which they play, and in fact they may end up playing for an entirely different city next season—maybe even their current “enemies.” When I choose to root for a team, I’m not rooting for the men that make up that team or even for the city where they play, since I’ve lived in a lot of cities and I’ve found something to like (and dislike) in all of them. I guess I’m sort of rooting for baseball as a general concept, but not entirely, since I don’t quite buy into all that Field of Dreams mysticism, no matter how convincingly declared by James Earl Jones, about how baseball will save our souls. It won’t. Like so much in life, baseball is something I decided to care about, knowing its flaws, knowing that I certainly didn’t have to care about this but deciding I would anyway and then caring about it deeply, learning all I could, embracing what’s beautiful in it yet not blinding myself to what’s ugly (as well as what is, let’s be honest, frequently very boring). You can do that in life, if you’re lucky; you can pick things and choose to make them matter to you.
And despite the fact that any given team’s fans will tell you that some other team’s fans are the rudest, the stupidest, the ugliest, the worst, despite the fact that so many people believe, as I briefly made the mistake of believing, that their own type of fandom is the only true fandom, in my experience all baseball fans are pretty much the same. They’re looking for something they can care about that’s outside themselves but still connected to their lives. It isn’t deeply connected—no one really lives or dies by their team—but it’s something that they can decide, however arbitrarily, matters to them. That’s a good thing. Can you imagine a world where we don’t find things that matter to us? Even if they’re silly, faulty, or deeply problematic, better to care about things, and enjoy caring about them, even occasionally suffer caring about them, than not.