Monday, March 16, 2009

Baseball trilogy (1st of 3): tribalism — “A Fan for All Reasons”

[UPDATE — October 12, 2009: I have finally finished and posted the third in my trilogy on baseball. The first is right here, the second over here, and the third over here. Go Angels! Go Dodgers!]

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Baseball season is starting up. And as I noted in a prior post, I’ve been wanting to do a piece that will riff on a friend’s saying — “God invented baseball” — because it relates to STA. But while wondering about this, I realized I had two other pieces already written about baseball, one that relates to tribalism (thus TIMN) and another that is about strategy. So I’ve decided to post them as a trilogy, one part per week or two.

My apologies to readers who expect something more serious. But these three pieces do relate loosely to STA and TIMN. And I'll intersperse them amid more serious posts I'm still drafting.

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I’m a latecomer to being a baseball fan. Sometimes I wonder what took me so long, but mostly I wonder what makes a fan tick. Best I can tell, there are three major motivations: sporting a tribal identity, admiring athletic performance, and appreciating strategy. Each has a bright and a dark side. And they all show up when I root for my favorite teams: the Angels and the Dodgers.

First of all, a fan loves to identify personally with his or her team. He or she belongs to that tribe. It’s rarely a rational choice, but one determined by geography. And it shows in the fun of rooting heartily, displaying emblazoned clothes and body paints, and waving banners (or “rally monkeys” for the Angels), and sharing high-fives even with strangers. Indeed, this is one of the few areas left where Americans can espouse a nearly tribal kinship. A live-and-die-with-the-home-team creed can carry a fan through winning and losing seasons, as well as through disturbing trades and injuries. In this era of constant personnel turnovers, a fine broadcast announcer, whether he seems balanced (Vin Scully for the Dodgers) or biased (Rex Hudler for the Angels), helps sustains a fan’s identity.

But tribalism in sports — as in politics, war, and religion — often comes with a dark side. A hard-core fan can name a team he hates, in addition to one he loves. It’s a mark of the warrior spirit; and derisive booing is part of the fun. But some fans get so on edge (and drunk) that, in a moment of predatory vainglory or wounded pride, they tip from a mild tribalism into a readiness to wage clan warfare. They yell abuse, hurl objects, pick fights, and run amok. Dodgers-Giants rivalries of yore exhibited this. Fortunately, this face of fandom has not been on display lately for either the Dodgers or the Angels — but the potential is always there.

Second, fans are attracted to athletic performance — both team and individual. Prowess and finesse are admired; so is mental toughness. Games with masterful pitching, home runs, skillful double plays, or a decisive suicide squeeze may lead to days of exultant chatter. Stars gain the most attention — like Vladimir Guerrero for the Angels, and now Manny Ramirez with the Dodgers. But there’s also a healthy admiration of unheralded players who are steadfast gamers. And both teams presently have plenty. Meanwhile, the performance-oriented fan takes delight in discussing the myriad statistics that are so unique to baseball.

But this second face of fandom darkens when there’s an eagerness for utter domination and doing-in. Quarterback sacks in football and wrecks in car races are typical lures for schadenfreude fans who relish the spectacle of others’ misfortunes. Baseball doesn’t offer much hard playing for fans attracted to macho mayhem, but it can occur — as when a pitcher aims a fastball at a batter’s body, a runner slides in with spikes up, or players (or managers) disrespect the other side. And if dark-side fans feel “betrayed” by lackluster performance, they may turn their fury on their own team, often its manager. Or they may seek lurid glee in catastrophes that befall celebrity players on rival teams. And meanwhile, they may tolerate juicing on steroids, just to see more home runs or fiercer fastballs. The Angels and the Dodgers do not currently arouse this kind of fandom, but it may still lurk in isolated spots.

The third key motivation is strategy. Sports fans with a deep knowledge of strategy are not the norm. How many really understand the Lakers’ “triangle offense” or complex car-drafting maneuvers in NASCAR races at Daytona? Most fans thrive just on the prior motivations: tribal identity and athletic performance. Yet, many baseball fans can explain why they prefer National or American League play in strategic terms. They can spell out their favorite tactical situations (mine is men on first and third, with one or two outs). And they know why one team’s strategy may differ from another’s. In our area, the Angels are renowned for “small ball” (moving men piece-meal around the bases), while the Dodgers often stake more on “long ball” (going for big hits) — though these differences are not as stark as a few years ago. Fans who focus on strategy appreciate managers, and we have two masters: Mike Sciosa and Joe Torre.

As for the dark side of strategy, baseball has few equivalents to the NBA’s old “Hack-a-Shaq” or NASCAR’s “bump-and-run.” Baseball’s players are too spread out, managers too professional, and umpires too alert for much mean-spirited or dirty contact to occur. The game is deliberately civilized — hubristic displays of any sort are not tolerated. About the most a fan can expect is an episodic spate of bullying “chin music” (high, inside fastballs) by an aggressive pitcher; hard, spikes-up sliding by a cranky base-runner; excessive base stealing to pile up a humiliating score late in a game; belligerent behavior by a manager, usually against an umpire; or an instance of open hostility between opposing team players. But all this is rare. Fans attracted to rough-and-tumble strategies are better off with other sports, or with clannish spin-offs like soccer hooliganism.

To fans steeped in all three motives, a game is thus more than just a game. It reflects their ties to their family traditions, companions, and community, perhaps also their ethnicity, and even their nation. It engages their standards about personal behavior and performance. It reveals their capacity for strategic and tactical thinking. And it pulls at the tensions — the ebbs and flows, checks and balances — between bright- and dark-side urges. No wonder baseball is such a storied and civilized sport, and that being a sports fan can be important.

[Adapted from various 2002 and 2007-8 drafts. Many thanks to sports fans and friends — John Arquilla in 2002, and Bob Bridges and Kevin McCarthy in 2007-8 — for their review comments. I tried to get op-ed versions published, to no avail.]

UPDATE — March 21, 2009: For a kindred view, read David P. Barash, "The Roar of the Crowd: Sports Fans' Primal Behavior," The Chronicle Review, posted March 20, 2009, including where he states:
By we, the fan means the whole deliciously desirable, immensely seductive group. He means that he is no longer just little old himself, but something larger, grander, more impressive, more important, and thus, more appealing. Sports fans, in this view, are nationalists writ small.

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