Loving Baseball on the Left: A Few Confessions.

by Robin Marie

pennant win 2

“Take me out to the ball game — take me out to the crowd.

Buy me some peanuts and cracker jacks — and I don’t care if I never get back.”

Prelude to a post about baseball.

It has been too long since I’ve been in a regular habit of writing. (Two “been”s in one sentence, she thinks; perhaps I’m rusty?) I suppose writing a dissertation ought to be counted as writing, but there’s something particular about being able to control your topic and tone so completely, that you are freed from the normal rules of academic discourse and allowed, in the most straightforward sense, to be yourself. So now that the dissertation is done and uncertainty looms ahead, I’ve been thinking about how to get back into this groove – which is in many ways a process of becoming reacquainted with a substantial portion of myself left sadly neglected in recent years.

The first question I immediately face, of course, is what to write about. And I have a list. And it’s decently long, and mostly consists of unsurprisingly political and academic-like choices. But as in most things, writing works best when it flows naturally, and honestly, out of the thoughts and concerns of the author. And so, I think it only appropriate to write about a topic which has been on my mind a lot lately – and by lately, I mean not only the past few days, weeks, or even months, but for about a year. I think I’m going to write about baseball.

But don’t worry, I’m not going to write a fan piece, per se. I won’t simply be glowing over how different the experience of baseball is to me from all other sports – how soothing its rhythm, how skilled its various tasks, or how deeply rich and satisfying its history is. I’ll do a bit of those things on the way, but only in the course of talking about what I’m really interested in – what’s been on my mind ever since I realized (with a feeling not entirely unlike deciding to join a church) – that I had become a baseball fan. Because as a baseball fan, what I’ve really become, in a larger sense, is a sports fan – and participating in sports fandom in our modern, market-driven American world is no small thing. In fact, it can be a very messy thing.

 Proper beginning of post about baseball.

Somewhere out there, I am sure someone has written a book about the conflict between sports fandom and our contemporary culture of capitalism. In fact, it seems to offer itself so obviously to analysis that I am sure a quick google search would turn up dozens of articles and books expounding on the question. But as I’ve not yet run into any of these on my own, I’m going to first type out what has occurred to me independently of any reinforcement or suggestion, so that I might then compare and contrast and not lose track of what my initial thoughts and experiences were, unclouded by any outside suggestions.

Of course, I could imagine a perfectly understandable reaction of surprise that I would open with declaring that there are a host of tensions between being a sports fan and participating in our market-driven society. What else could be more compatible?, one might ask. The opportunity for corporations to use the exposure of major league sports, and the popularity of their heroes, for relentless advertising campaigns is perhaps unsurpassed by any other forum. Most sports teams are owned, moreover, by assholes of the 1 percent, and the majority of the profit ends up pouring right back into their hands. Even more fundamentally, the very nature of sports fandom seems to leave the field overwhelmingly vulnerable to market exploitation and the spirit of consumerism – for when you love a team, and you love a player, you just fucking want the jersey, the hat, the World Series sweatshirt. You just do. Like crazy.

Or ok, let’s stop speaking in generalities and get real here – I do, at the least. Indeed, for being a Giants fan for only about a year, I have an obscene amount of Giants stuff. The first item of apparel – and I suppose this mitigates the guilt of the whole messy addiction perhaps a bit – was a gift; a surprise from my boyfriend for no particular occasion, and what a good surprise it was. Sitting at an unexceptional dinner one evening, he asked me what that orange thing was in my tote bag – and lo’ and behold, there was an orange and black Giants t-shirt with Timmy’s name and number on the back. I could not have been more pleased. It quickly became one of the most common items in my (actually worn) wardrobe, and just as quickly, I started making plans for what other Giants apparel I wanted to buy.  A few weeks later we went to a game in San Francisco to celebrate our mutual birthdays, and I added on a Posey t-shirt and a hat. (Also perhaps in my defense, the hat was purchased out of sheer necessity – after passing up a more muted style in the main shop before the game, we took our seats and discovered that when you sit directly in the sun during the middle of the afternoon at AT&T Park, you need a hat. So I made a trip to one of the smaller shops next to the stands and got myself a more traditional, black and orange cap.) So at two shirts and one hat, I would say that I probably reached the level of the average sports fan, and could have stopped there.

But then the World Series happened. We won it, to be precise. And I simply could not control – indeed, it never seriously passed my mind to restrain – the urge to buy “FUCK YEAH WE WON THE WORLD SERIES!” merchandise. I mean this was my team, after all, and I had to remind everyone I saw on the sidewalk, ever, that this was my team, and oh by the way, we won the World Series, again.  So I added a black sweatshirt with my preferred World Series Champions design on it, and a cozy winter hat to match. The sweatshirt fit perfectly, and since it arrived in the mail sometime in October, it has been my primary go-to clothing item to keep me warm. A few times, I thought I had lost it, and a genuine sense of loss clasped my heart until I located it again, like a kid looking for his blanket. I frankly love that sweatshirt. I think I might cry if I ever really lost it.

And we are still not quite done with the list of items consumed, either. At a night game against the Phillies this year – during which I finally got to see Timmy pitch, and during which we, appropriate to that particular experience, lost – I also got a Romo t-shirt, which I had been desiring for months. I mean, how could you not love Sergio Romo? Honestly, you’ve got to have one of those. And yet, my desire for Giants merchandise remains unquenched! I held back last time, but the next game I go to, I entirely intend to get a Crawford t-shirt – because truly, that man is underappreciated and his shortstop game is amazing – and one of those wife beater tank-tops with the Giants logo scrawled across the front. Because in the heat, you know, that would be comfortable – sometimes I can’t wear my longer sleeved Posey and Romo shirts even when I want to because the summers in the Central Valley are not exactly mild.

And in listing all this, I’ve forgotten I actually have two Timmy t-shirts – a friend of my boyfriend’s visiting from Israel was kind enough to buy me one for sale at Target for three dollars, as a kind of thank you for the use of my car and, I’d like to think, general good company. So that was three dollars. But you know, while we are the emptying the skeletons in my closet, might as well come completely clean.

So alright. We’ve established that I am completely under the spell that the owners of the San Francisco Giants want me to be under. And every time I purchase Giants merchandise, I know that some portion of the proceeds goes right into hands of 1 percenting assholes, which very well might then turn around and use that money to fund the political campaigns of even more 1 percenting assholes. And yet, I can’t help myself. Or I can but do not really want to. (Same thing, really.) Now, considering I spend a very significant portion of my waking life thinking about all the ugly of American life – capitalist exploitation, consumerism, sociopathic ideals of competitive individualism, oh how the list could go on – why do I nonetheless gleefully take part in one of the domains of American life thoroughly captured by the evil powers that be? Why do I still choose to participate in this?

On one level this represents, first and foremost, a choice that is consistent with my views about the problem of navigating life in a society that frankly, runs on processes that you oppose justified by ideals you despise – you can’t avoid participation entirely. You just can’t. There’s no way I could never consume products put together by exploited workers, never buy a ticket to a show that gives the proceeds to some asshole out there, never enjoy an activity that much scholarly analysis tells me is designed to assuage my discontent. (No Harlem Shake for you!) Correction – there is no way I could do this within my current budget and, moreover, without giving up a not insignificant amount of experiences which bring me genuine joy. Unless I want to be a monk. But I don’t want to be a monk, or a martyr, and for myriad reasons I’ll talk about elsewhere at some other time, I don’t actually think that would make me more successful at helping to create a better future for the majority of people who exist as they are in this society right now, today. There are certain things I won’t do, because I just can’t stomach them – such as shop at Abercrombie & Fitch or eat the vast majority of pork – but I’m no Puritan. That’s neither my style nor my philosophy. And in this sense, my enjoyment of baseball is perfectly consistent with that viewpoint. It is just too damn fun, and it makes me too damn happy.

But it is also more than that. Lots of things are very fun and enjoyable, but baseball has brought something even more substantial into my life. It has brought, to be embarrassingly sincere about it, a sense of community. If I were to sum up the allure of sports fandom in one phrase, I would borrow from how someone in a book I once flipped through put it – sports fandom provides you with the joys of tribalism.[1] Here is this team that just happens to be the most successful and well-known baseball club near where I live. (And yes, I am an A’s fan too and no, I don’t view that as a contradiction.) That my boyfriend enjoyed baseball, and then introduced me to this team in particular, is all very arbitrary and carries no profound, larger significance attached to my particular historical heritage. And yet, here I am, feeling the wins and the losses of the Giants as though they were members of my family – members I am fiercely loyal to, even when they are sucking it, and even when I’m angry at them for sucking it. And there I was, nine months ago during the NLCS, fantasizing about going up to Matt Holliday in a big black sweatshirt, roughly pushing him into a wall, and asking him what his fucking problem is – completely ready to throw down. (The absurdity of the idea of me picking a fight with Matt Holliday just adds to the charm of this fantasy, in my opinion.) And every time I’ve seen Holliday at bat since that day, I boo, and I taunt, and I tell him to go fuck himself – and I’m pretty sure I always will. How serious am I? Not terribly, and mostly it is just for fun. But I really did experience the response of a loyal tribe member when he slid into Scutaro, and I reveled in the Tweets promising revenge sometime soon on the plate. And when Cain hit him with a pitch several games later – well, that was fucking awesome.

And yet, it was not awesome when Kennedy hit Greinke with a pitch in the head. It was not awesome when Dodgers fans beat a Giants fan nearly to death, leaving him crippled with brain damage for the rest of his life. So my playful flirtation with the violence of tribalism runs pretty shallow, and gets dampered down very quickly once anything becomes serious. At that point, the first and most important thing about the game is clearly that it is just a game. If you actually become violent over it, you’re destroying what is so beautiful about being a sports fan – tribalism without too much of the ugly.

Because by tribalism, I do not primarily mean aggression towards “the Other” – although clearly, sometimes it spills over to this as well, especially at say, European football matches – but again, that cheesy word, community. When I am watching a Giants game at a sports bar full of Giants fans, we are instantly united over something. Something which is, yes, in a sense very shallow – but by the same token, we’re not merely enjoying the rooting for our team together; we are also sharing our love of sport, and in my case in particular, our love of baseball. We’re experiencing the highs and the lows together, the elation of a walk-off home run and the heartbreak of a lost elimination game. And then, we either celebrate or mourn together.

And the most beautiful thing about this sudden community I have gained is that the requirements for acceptance into the tribe are so minimal – enjoy baseball, root for the Giants. That’s it. And because of these low standards, it means that I am in a community that is incredibly diverse. Almost too diverse. There have been times when I have seen Giants fans behaving in boorish or confusing ways which has made me pause and think, holy shit, I am in an imagined community with these people? But on the other hand, baseball has allowed me to connect to people I never would have before. Sitting in a Tahoe casino one night, watching the Giants battle the Diamondbacks, Eran and I ended up talking to and joking with a handful of blue-collar, working-class men about our players, the play-offs last year, our team’s uncharacteristic pitching problems, and even when our spouses started watching baseball. The bartender who was from Milwaukee told us his memories of being a Brewers fan, and taunted us for having recently been swept by them. I’m a very noisy celebrator, and after a few good breaks, a woman from across the casino came over to tell me that she and her friends were enjoying hearing my responses – their TV was a few moments delayed past ours, so they always knew when something good was *just* about to happen. (And something bad; there was a very loud “FUUUUCK!” let loose that night.) So here I am, a thoroughly middle-class white girl about to get a Ph.D., who struggles with her discomfort with non-politically aware, intellectually involved people about as much as anyone I know (not a virtue, I know), carrying on a very sustained conversation with people who, previously, I would have struggled to find something in common with, despite no lack of curiosity on my part about their stories – but indeed, half of the problem is that I wouldn’t know how to strike up a conversation in the first place. But through baseball, we can know each other, even if just a little bit.

And that’s why I find it so hard to resist buying that merchandise. I want people to know, when I walk down the street, that I’m following the games closely and I’m a devoted fan – that’s why I save my Lincecum shirts for days Timmy is pitching. I want to give people the same small spike of elation I feel when I see someone with Giants gear out and about – “yes, I’m one of you!, wasn’t the game amazing last night?” we secretly say to each other with just a look and sometimes a smile. Sometimes we say it out loud – the first day Timmy pitched this season, I passed a woman who had a “I ❤ Lincecum” shirt on, and she stopped me in the middle of sidewalk. “Hey!, we’re the Lincecum brigade!” she exclaimed, and we exchanged high-fives. It’s that sudden, unexpected moment of recognition and affinity that breaks through the usual disjointed, alienated experience of our contemporary public space that makes being a sports fan so great. Even if it’s just a game – (but oh, what a great game it is!) – we’re not just strangers passing each other by. We’re somehow connected in this big, disconnected society.

And yet, the beauty of this is undermined by the institutions that bring baseball to us. I know this, and it makes my heart ache. Our beautiful parks are named after exploitative corporations. Our teams are owned by a handful of assholes with a couple of decent people, perhaps, sprinkled in. Those same assholes tear down low- income neighborhoods to build the ball parks which will net them millions. Our players are not organic members of the community (yet what’s organic, anyway?) but hired workers that can be bought and sold and switched to the other tribe without the consent of even a single member of the fan base. Sometimes, the assholes who own a majority of sports teams even tear the teams away from the communities which they are beloved by, where they seem like such a part and parcel of the local fabric that losing them feels like, as Billy Crystal put it about the Dodgers leaving Brooklyn, “a death in the family.” And yes, the players make too much damn money.

As detailed in Ken Burn’s excellent documentary, these things have not gone uncontested – when Dodgers fans realized the team might actually be moved to Los Angeles, they resisted and protested. An argument was put forward by some that sports teams should be considered as at least partially public institutions, owned by and responsive to the communities in which they originate. Unfortunately, not enough people listened, and the people in power almost certainly didn’t care. Thus we lost a chance to turn baseball (and hopefully, all sports) into a public institution with public meanings– to take the spirit embodied by the loyal fan and elevate it into something not merely about escape from alienation, but truly eroding alienation. To my dying day, I will resent that our beautiful ballpark, where I feel a Zen-like sense of calm and childlike happiness, is named AT&T Park – and I will not go to that park whenever its concession workers are on strike for their fair share of the massive profits the 1 percent reaps from Giants fans. Some might respond that we need these corporations to bring us the beauty of baseball on a large scale, but that’s merely the bullshit logic of privatization and neo-liberalism that you see everywhere. And in turn, although I’m not the biggest fan of the NFL, this is why you always, always root for the Green Bay Packers.

Many people have noted the irony that baseball is often associated with a rural lifestyle, for it really got its start in urban areas. But urban or rural, there is, as others have noted as well, something decidedly pre-industrial about the rhythm of baseball – near the top of any baseball lover’s list of why it is superior to all other major American sports must always be the fact that there is no damn clock. That is, at least, how I feel when I am at a game – when the slowness and purposefulness of the execution of every pitch, every strike, and every swing takes me out of a world of repetitive tasks and monotonous duties and into a world of skill and simple mindfulness. When there is no work to be completed or clutter to be cleaned but merely the slow, steady observance of a beautiful sport on a beautiful day in a beautiful, open public space. I have a beer, or maybe two. I cheer and I boo. I high-five the fans behind me. And somewhere, quietly in the corner of my open, relaxed mind, I dream of a better world.

[1] For the life of me, I can’t remember what the book was. Something my sister had and I only glanced at briefly.