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Liberating Liberated Fandom

Reading Joe Posnanski’s latest piece about the struggles of the Royals, in which he opines about the fact that they’re a bad offensive team despite leading the league in batting average and showing no desire to promote two of their more intriguing young players (Alex Gordon and Kila Ka’aihue), I kept being struck with two pervading thoughts: (a) it must be terrible to be a fan of the Royals and (b) why would anyone do it?

Posnanski, of course, has become something of a darling in the sabermetric world not only for his excellent and insightful writing but for his acceptance and use of some of the more involved stats that we use to measure ballplayers. As such, he’s able to look past the fact that his Royals are taking pride in leading the league in hitting and have no interest in advancing beyond using batting average to measure players. Walks to them are res non grata, Posnanski argues, and he does so in the sort of tone that suggests that he has come to believe that there is no hope for change on the horizon. Which, you know, as long as Dayton Moore’s in charge, that does seem to be the case. But in any event, that’s really what made me wonder why Posnanski – and the other fans of the (disproportionately well-represented on the internet) Royals – keep following a team that gives them nothing in return.

Now, I suppose that on the surface, it makes sense: you root for the team you root for, and if you don’t root for the team that you grew up near, then you’re destined to be labeled a fair-weather fan. Such is life. But, perhaps because I adopted the Braves as my favorite team when they were on TBS every day and the Cubs were terrible, I don’t understand why that has to the case. See, sports is entertainment; we watch them because we enjoy the athletic splendor and all, but mostly because we are entertained by our favorite players going out there and plying their trade – because it’s fun.

If I had my copy of FreeDarko’s Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac with me, I’d quote here from their bit about liberated fandom. As it is, though, there is this post (first two paragraphs being of especial relevance) that will have to suffice for the moment; essentially, it argues for the eschewing of The Home Team in favor of the players that we actually enjoy watching. Are you a Cubs fan, but can’t stand watching a team put runners on third base with fewer than two outs in the 9th 10th and 11th innings and not score them even though come on just hit a freaking sacrifice fly or at the very least try a suicide squeeze*? Don’t concern yourself with it; soak in the good times to be had in watching Carl Crawford steal bases or Vladimir Guerrero defy age or…oh, boy…or Albert Pujols beat down the doors to Cooperstown.

*I petitioned for this to happen in each of the three aforementioned innings. People say the triple is the most exciting play in baseball. People are wrong. The brief burst of drama and immediacy that a squeeze provides is unlike anything else in baseball. And it’s not for only that reason that I don’t understand why we don’t see more suicide squeezes, but also because it seems a really easy way to get a run, no? As long as bat hits ball, your chances of scoring a run are far higher than if you’re just letting the guy at the plate hit.

Two things: (1) Outs are almost always the dominant outcome of any game. Teams simply don’t put 27 men on base very often; they will always make enough outs (sometimes as few as 12; far more often 27) to finish a game. (2) Don’t think of batting average relativistically. Viz., think of them as percentages, not in the context of your baseball experience. A .330 hitter sounds like he’s really good at hitting…but ultimately, it means that he’s been getting hits in one-third of his at-bats and making outs nearly 70% of the time. If you’ve a guy on the team hitting .501, then, sure, let him swing away. But hits simply do not happen all that frequently; bunting is a much easier way to put the ball in play.

That’s the kind of suggestion I can make nowadays, what with the availability of MLB.tv and the internet making it easy to follow any team. During the World Cup – and immediately after – people loved to talk about how this would be the World Cup that got people into soccer. Now, they say this after nearly every Cup where the USMNT doesn’t get totally embarrassed, but this one was Different because we have the Internet and can keep track of our Nation’s Heroes as they play for Club Teams over in Foreign Lands. Similarly, though infinitely more effectively, people can follow any baseball team, or any selection of players, that they choose. At the risk of sounding like a shill for MLB, MLB.tv has a feature where you can select any player in the league, and they’ll alert you when he comes up to bat or in to pitch. I myself follow guys like B.J. Upton, Jay Bruce, Ichiro, Matt Wieters, Colby Rasmus and Pablo Sandoval that I wouldn’t be able to see otherwise – guys whose careers I enjoy more than, say, Melky Cabrera’s*.

*This is perhaps the wrong time for me to be writing this article, because this Braves team is probably the most enjoyable one to watch since Andruw Jones and the Baby Braves ruled the roost. Cabrera and Eric Hinske were the only two guys I could think to speak of derisively and I don’t hold any particular grudge against them. I guess Derek Lowe isn’t all that fun, but it doesn’t seem fair to pick on pitchers.

So why shouldn’t I just declare myself a fan of baseball, rather than the Braves? Everyone knows that Seinfeld bit about how having a favorite sports team is like rooting for laundry; what makes the Braves’ laundry so compelling that I should forego the pleasure of watching Jose Reyes and Hanley Ramirez and Chase Utley and Stephen Strasburg? I imagine the answer to this question is ‘it just is,’ or some similarly vague and far-reaching statement. Perhaps the tribal nature of fandom is so engrained in sports fans’ minds that there’s no turning away from it; perhaps people think there is a greater reward to be gleaned from “suffering”* through a team’s ups-and-downs and winning a championship.

*Y’know, for all the good there is in sports, it sure is a bastion of hyperbole. People love to throw around how Cleveland fans have “suffered” because they haven’t had a team in their city win a title in so long, and don’t have any real prospects of doing so in the near future. With the culture of superlatives that dominate sports, is it any wonder that Dwyane Wade dropped his 9/11 line? I’m going to stop there because the only thing more grating than that hyperbole is the moralizing and holier-than-thou attitude inherent in telling people that they’re not feeling real pain, and turn on the news if you want to see tragedy.

I don’t like that view. Sports isn’t life; sports is a diversion from life – it’s a forum for unparalleled conflict resolution (winners, losers, champions, meticulous documentation and quantified performance) and enjoyment of things we don’t see in everyday life (e.g. 450-foot home runs and diving catches and walkoff celebrations*).

*Though I do think this could (and should!) be brought into offices and schools. Say you just gave a really great presentation; you could have the audience cheering throughout your conclusion and hitting a crescendo as you nail the last syllable of ‘thank you,’ and then they vault over their tables and mob you and everyone jumps around. You could even rig the projector to drop company-color confetti. If this were commonplace I’d almost be excited to graduate soon.

So why do we arbitrarily bring unpleasantness into the equation? Why do we self-identify as fans of a team of guys that we may not like? Why do stat-minded guys like Rany Jazayerli and Rob Neyer and Joe Posnanski put themselves through the drudgery of a Royals team that couldn’t be more antithetical to their baseballing values? It is an inherently jingoistic, paleolithic process, a throwback to the days when the United States was a name and not a realized concept. I do think that there is a place for fandom in sports; I would argue that the incredibly fluid player movement in the NFL leaves fans rooting for teams as the only constants in a league of flux, and that watching a game where you don’t care for (or actively dislike) both teams is painful. But, with all due credit to those exceptions, I do not think that we need to subvert our enjoyment of sports and call ourselves ‘fans’ of a team. We don’t need to slog through inning after inning of uninspired baseball that’s not played to our liking when there are so many options out there. We can cast off the shackles of supporting a last place team and enjoy watching whomever fits our fancy; we can, or indeed should, be a fan of the game without being a fan of a team.