Hell Isn’t (Necessarily) Other People

Last week, the wife and I moved — via Penske-brand truck — from Portland, OR to Madison, WI, leaving little time to watch and/or read about and/or write about baseball. Turns out, the experience provided an opportunity to think about baseball in ways I hadn’t anticipated. I’ll probably bloviate all over this theme in the next week or so.

This past Saturday night — my first as a Citizen of Madison, Wisconsin — I had the pleasure of sharing the Good Times with both my wife and also FanGraphs contributor Jack Moore on the lakeside Terrace of the University of Wisconsin’s Memorial Union.

Based on this and previous visits to the Terrace, I’ll submit to the readership this assertion: that the aforementioned Terrace is among the most excellent public spaces in the Continential 48. I’ll submit this other one, too: that the excellence of the Union Terrace teaches us something about the aesthetics of our fandom.

As for the first point — i.e. the excellence of the Terrace — don’t take my word for it. The A.V. Club’s Jason Albert wrote the following last spring:

If the terrace hasn’t already been named the No. 1 place in the country to have a beer, then it should. It’s a combination of lake views and breezes, live music, beer, Babcock ice cream, and folks from all walks of life doing everything from dealing cards to playing quarters. That’s all good stuff no matter how you cut it.

While I’m not convinced that “dealing cards” and “playing quarters” represents the full gamut of possible activities in which one can engage at the Terrace — like, I think “reading a book” or “writing a FanGraphs post” are probably outside of that particular spectrum — the point remains: the Terrace is excellent. It’s an excellent space, right on the shores of Madison’s Lake Mendota, offers beer and brats at affordable prices, and is absolutely teeming with happy people. In fact, it’s this last detail — the sheer number of people invested in the experience — that I believe gives the Terrace its charm.

So far as I can tell, the Union Terrace — as a public space — is unrivaled in this country. Mind you, I haven’t been everywhere in the US of Frigging A, but I’ve been to a whole bunch of places*. And, really, the only thing that compares to the Terrace is — conveniently, for the sake of this post, this site — the giddy, expectant feel of the crowd at a ballgame.

*For example: Reno, Chicago, Fargo, Minnesota, Buffalo, Toronto, Winslow, Sarasota, Wichita, Tulsa, Ottawa, Oklahoma, Tampa, Panama, Mattawa, La Paloma, Bangor, Baltimore, Salvador, Amarillo, Tocapillo, Baranquilla, and Perdilla.

Although, as JP Sartre once suggested, hell is other people, the truth of that statement (i.e. “hell is other people”) is largely dependent on context. In traffic, sure, hell is other people. In a line at the DMV or the supermarket, hell is also other people. On this beautiful series of tubes we call the interwebs? Yes, hell is frequently other people here, as well.

But hell isn’t always other people. Having spent a couple of springs in the cavernous and mostly empty confines of Portland’s PGE Park, watching the Padres’ Triple-A Beavers, I’ll attest vigorously to this fact. This season, for example, the Beavers are drawing fewer than 4,000 fans a game — in a stadium with a capacity of almost 20,000. Mind you, it’s not terrible: I, personally, was still able to observe the likes of Buster Posey and Chris Carter this past spring, which is pretty cool. Still, the joy of the game is mitigated, as there are simply too few people witnessing the action.

Put another way: if a tree falls in the woods and no one’s around to hear it, it still very probably makes a sound. A baseball game that’s played with no one around to watch it, though — that’s a different proposition.

It’s unlikely that any of us enters a ballpark and takes a seat with the express purpose of becoming BFFs with every last person at said park. These are the same people who will, after all, slow our exit from the ballpark after the conclusion of the game, who will snag a foul ball down the line even though the home team’s left fielder very well could’ve made a play on it.

It’s a group capable of despicable acts, in other words.

That said, the experience we know as “going to the baseball game” is impossible without other people. In fact, it’s an experience whose joy is largely dependent on the presence of those same other people. When the game is tied in the bottom of the ninth, it’s the expectant gasps and sighs from the crowd that heightens the pleasure of the event. When the home team hits a walk-off home run, it’s the crowd’s hysterical cheering that reminds each of us that we’ve witnessed something great and unique.

Cynics, overzealous undergraduates, Germans: many of them will suggest that crowds and the “group mentality” is/are dangerous — evil, in fact. Nor is this completely a trifling matter. From what I know of Red Star Belgrade’s Ultras, for example, or of the teenage girls at our nation’s malls, groups can be brainless, frightening.

But what we learn from the Union Terrace is the same thing we learn from the very best of our spectator sports — namely, that crowds have benefits, that hell isn’t always other people. Why is this so? Why are crowds so able to heighten our experience of an event or space? What constitutes an ideal-sized crowd? Those are questions probably best left answered by the discipline of urban planning.

In the meantime, it’s very clear to me that the Terrace, like a well-attended ballgame, is pleasant because of the crowds.

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Carson Cistulli has just published a book of aphorisms called Spirited Ejaculations of a New Enthusiast.

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