Monday, September 20, 2010

On Being a Fan

[[switching to first person]] It seemed odd to me upon reflection that the name of this site is the "Flagrant Fan" and yet I hardly ever talk about being a fan. To be sure, the shear volume of words here emote a deepness in that fan experience and yet it's never really talked about here. This is in stark contrast to sites like Sporta and the City and Sliding into Home which are much more open in the daily ups and downs, head rushes and disappointments that go along with being a fan. I guess that in the FanDome, things are more intrinsic which probably reflects the author. Perhaps discussing being a fan here has not occurred because it is such a broad part of my life that it cannot be covered in five to six paragraphs. But at the risk of boring you to death, let me discuss being a fan for just a little while and I'll make it as brief as possible.

First, being a fan (I will not beat you over the head with the device of capitalizing "Fan" for once) means dying inside at least sixty times a year even if your favorite team is one of the best teams in the league. Within those sixty deaths, most of them happen quickly as the game quickly determines its outcome. The worst ones though are when a sure victory turns into a loss or when your team struggles mightily to catch up only to fall at the end. Those are the worst. I can only imagine the pain felt by fans of teams who are struggling at the closer position when there may be ten or more of those events a year. These losses hurt the deepest. And no matter how I try to be a grown up about them, they still come close to ruining my day and my mood.

Within all of the 162 games of a schedule there are thousands of individual misfortunes when your favorite players on your favorite team fail to produce. Despite the fact that the brain knows that a batter will fail 60 to 70 percent of the time, the heart hurts during each single at bat that doesn't go the way you hoped. The worst of those times are when your favorite player comes up with the bases loaded when your team is behind and either hits into a double play to end the inning or strikes out (grounds out, flies out) to end the inning. Those really suck the wind right out of me.

My favorite pitchers will fail 40% of the time if they are a starter when they are really good. Relievers, no matter how good they are, will break your heart occasionally too. But moving away from that for a moment, let me paint a little story to talk about one of the worst kinds of heart-rending times.

When I first moved to northern Maine, I lived on a old farm that had about 100 acres of cleared land and 200 acres of woods. It was a beautiful place and the house was built in 1879 and still contains the original family. I had married into that family and my children still call that place home. One of the neat features of that place when I first moved there was a preheating tank for the hot water tank. This ingenious invention of a shrewd farmer's common sense was an old tank painted black and placed outside where the most amount of sun would hit it. The tank was encased by a box frame made of two by fours that framed glass that would sharpen the suns rays to hit the black tank and warm the water, which was then fed to the main hot water tank to aid in keeping the oil bill down. Smart right?

The frame around the tank had its open sides covered with wire mesh so that animals wouldn't get in there. Once day, as I was tending to my flower gardens, I noticed a blackbird had gotten trapped inside the frame after crawling through a small hole in the wire mesh. Being the softy that I am, I tried for a good twenty minutes to coax that poor bird in its frightened state to the opening and to freedom. In the bird's panic, it couldn't quite get the idea that I was trying to help it. But finally after much patience and soft words, the bird finally made it to the opening and flew out. I was thrilled and exhilarated by its freedom and shouted and cheered. Unbeknownst to me and to the blackbird, a marsh hawk must have found this entire enterprise highly entertaining while it watched in a nearby perch. After the blackbird had risen no more than ten feet into the air, the hawk buzzed by my head and caught the blackbird in mid-flight. My exultation quickly went to horror and then awe. I don't think I've experienced anything like it.

And yet I have. Say my favorite team is down a run in a very important game and it's getting late in the game. My favorite player comes up with a couple of runners on base and the crux of the game is right here and right now. My favorite player hits a shot that from years of watching and hearing the crack of the bat, surely means something good has just happened. The announcer is shouting, "That ball is hit DEEP to right field..." and the picture shows the outfielder moving back to the wall. The rush of good feelings are starting to build and then the fielder jumps up, reaches over the fence and snatches the ball. The hawk just got the blackbird.

So far, I have dwelt on only the negatives of being a fan. If your favorite team is a good one, then roughly 90 to 100 times in the year, the feeling will be one of satisfaction. 160 to 200 times a year, your favorite players will succeed on the field and it's always a thrill. Those are great times. And if your favorite team happens to do the impossible and win a World Series? There is no better feeling on earth for a fan.

But what if you are a fan and your favorite team is terrible most years? I think your expectations are lowered a bit. The wins are great. The losses expected and it becomes more about the players. I know because I've been there. Then it becomes all about rooting for your favorite players and for the young kids who will inevitably be given a shot because what the team has been putting on the field regularly isn't working anyway. Those are great times.

I can remember being a kid watching basketball and keeping score of the games. There was no 3-point line back then (yes, I am old). So a field goal was a two (2) and a free throw was a one (1). So you could easily add up the points and know how many points the players scored and how many of those points were field goals or free throws. The very best of times were blowouts when your favorite scrubs would get to play. I remember vividly being thrilled when Phil Jackson would get in such a game and put three of his left-handed sky hooks into the basket.

Poor teams also come with the side shows that really aren't permitted on competitive teams. There was Steve Hamilton and his Folly Floater (a really slow humpback pitch) or Oil Can Boyd and all his comical antics on the field. Those kinds of things eased the pain of the daily losing and that didn't hurt as bad. In reflection, it's almost easier to be a fan of a bad team than it is to be one of a good team.

The strangest thing about being a fan has been the evolution of the media. When I was a kid, all we had to go by were baseball cards, the Sporting News and whatever body language you could pick up by watching players. We didn't know the personal demons or foibles of our players. We knew that Mickey Mantle had a charming smile on television with his aw shucks speaking the few times you got to hear it. I took to liking Mike Shannon of the Cardinals because his picture was eminently appealing on his baseball card. He was later a star of my strat-o-matic games.

There were players you grew not to like because they glowered on the field like Eddie Murray or Roy White. Murray holds the major league record for sacrifice flies. Did you know that? Sad to say, but we liked or disliked players based on how they looked, how they smiled, if they laughed and so on. I think my eternal dislike for Randy Johnson was a double dip of his ugliness (sorry) and his demeanor on the field. He never had a chance with me. But if a guy like that was on your own favorite team, you turned that around to be positive attributes like being a tough son-of-a-gun and a competitor.

It gets really confusing now because we know a lot more about the players than ever before. They have Twitter pages and Facebook pages and pregame interviews and post game interviews. There are news stories about the player's private lives, magazine tours and cable shows about their glamorous homes. We know about their charity work or their lack of it. Often times what we learn from the media seems to contradict the body language we see during the game. I hope Swisher is as fun off the field as he seems to be on it.

Baseball is much easier than other sports on fans. If your favorite football team loses, you have to wait a full seven days to see if they can redeem themselves. But in baseball, there's always tomorrow. In football, the preseason is a total drag and the regular players hardly ever play. In Spring Training, your favorites are good for at least several innings every week. That means the wait for the real deal is a lot shorter.

Fortunately for me, wherever I've lived in my life, those I was closest to rooted for the same teams as me. My brother and my day-to-day best friend in my childhood had the same favorite teams and we lived and died with them together. My first wife liked the same teams as me as does my current wife. It's not uncommon for my wife and I to high five when something good happens. It's not uncommon for both of us to be yelling at the television when things aren't going right. My son loves the same teams I do. That has led to a closeness all of his life based on those threads alone. But it's okay that my daughter could really care less. She's much more interested in the latest song on iTunes.

There is nothing rational about being a fan. There is no logical reason to care so much about something that matters so little in the grand scheme of things. But there is no way to turn it off. I tried that once. When baseball went on strike, I tried valiantly to give up the game. "Screw them!" I shouted. But I think that was the worst summer ever. And after it was over,  I tried to forget about it and move on to other passions. But being a fan is too large a part of my life. Being attached to my teams take up too much history and so much energy has been given there that it would be like losing an arm.

My favorite team is in the hunt for the playoffs. That's wonderful and it's also horrible. The stress is so great that I have trouble even watching the games. My emotions can't seem to handle it anymore. I'm like a kid during a horror movie running out of the room during every scary part. I have no idea if my team is going to go very far in the post season. If they do, it will be thrilling and satisfying. If they don't, it will be heartbreaking and no, knowing they had a good season will not mollify the feelings any. But no matter how they do in the post season, once again, my stomach will be churning until all the favorite players are signed back into the fold for next year. They are family and I'm a fan. I can't help myself.


Navin Vaswani (@eyebleaf) said...

Nice essay, William. Enjoyed reading it. Baseball has a way of really breaking your heart, doesn't it? So much of the game is about failure. It's beautiful, and I love it. Makes the successes, individual and team, all the more special. Enjoy October baseball. The Yankees spoil you!

bobook said...

Your water heater tank describing was very well written, William. Placed me in the moment-- well done. As is said, 'No good deed goes unpunished'. But I would have kicked your ass in Strat-O-Matic!

Miles said...

nothing ruins my day as quick as when my baseball team loses.

Josh Borenstein said...

Great post. Nothing more deflating than an inning-ending double play with the bases loaded.