- Faith and Fear in Flushing - http://www.faithandfearinflushing.com -

A Fan's Question

There's an interesting discussion today over at Dan Shanoff's site [1] about fandom.

Dan is a pal of mine — he was on the same bill as Greg and me at Varsity Letters [2] last winter — and besides being salt of the earth, he's one of the most knowledgeable, enthusiastic sports fans you'll meet. That said, there's one very odd thing about him, which I've never known another sports fan to let go unremarked: He never had a boyhood team. No hometown team. No team to which he gave his undying, unconditional love, come hell or high water or heaven. Dan's only allegiance is to the Florida Gators — but he didn't go to Florida. His wife grew up in Gainesville; the Gators are her team, and he adopted them.

I know, I know. To born-and-bred crazies like us that sounds contrived at best and faintly sinister at worst. But Dan's completely genuine, and unapologetic about the oddity of both his rooting interest and the way it developed. Which he addresses here [3]. It's an interesting tale, told well and told honestly, and it's generated a lot of reaction — most of it very thoughtful, some of it pretty visceral. (For example: “huge hypocrite” and “BS bandwagon fairweather fandom,” and those aren't even some of the nastiest ones.)

Here's the part that set Dan's critics off. It also happens to be the crux of the argument:

…I argue that making an active choice about my fandom — even pushing 30, in what some would describe as a “mid-fan-life-crisis” — wasn't just acceptable, but arguably superior to the more traditional, passive roots of sports allegiance:

Biology: Let me guess -– you root for your favorite team because it's the team your father rooted for, and he “passed it on” to you. While I agree that's a nice way for parent and child to bond, it smacks of inheritance rather than fandom earned through independent, thoughtful decision.

Geography: Another accident of circumstance. Your fandom is less about the team itself and more about having a sense of civic pride.

Besides a question of tone (“arguably superior” waves a red flag at a lot of bulls), I think the disconnect is that Dan is trying to be rational about what for most fans is a product of irrationality — and in my experience people will do most anything to avoid having to admit to themselves or to others that they behave irrationally.

I'm not one of them. I can tell you why I'm a Met fan: One of my earliest memories is being about four and seeing my mom leaping up and down cheering for Rusty Staub. When you're a toddler and your mother is behaving bizarrely in response to something, you focus on that something and desperately need to classify it and understand why it's important, usually either by being frightened of it or by embracing it wholeheartedly so you're not left outside of it. I chose the latter. (Big surprise: Rusty Staub was my first favorite player.)

I won't say that story is 100% accurate (what family tale passed down from the time you're four is?), but in every way that matters it's true. And I'm aware it's utterly ridiculous. I've spent the better part of 34 years agonizing over a ever-changing cast of young men playing a game in goofy outfits because I was taken aback by something I saw my mom doing in 1973? Well, yeah. More or less.

Instead of that story, I could rattle on for about the millionth time in these pages about pitching and defense and miracles and taking your best shot even if it's at your own feet and believing and the difference between believing and expecting — about Faith and Fear, in other words. And all that stuff is true — but it's also the pearl that's formed around the bit of sand that got caught in the works.

Did I choose to be a Met fan? No — just as I suspect most Met fans (or Dolphin fans or Jazz fans or whatever) didn't. And I think it's this having not chosen that makes “traditional” fans so suspicious of — and often hostile to — any fan who does seem to have made a choice. It doesn't really matter if it's a “good” choice (got swept up in a team after moving to a new city, fell in love with a girl) or a “bad” choice (Team X is in first place, Team X is the Yankees). Either is at least slightly suspect to those of us who never chose.

I embrace (or perhaps have thoroughly internalized) the irrationality of fandom — the world is comparatively rational, and it's also frequently dull or depressing (though also frequently beautiful and wonderful), and constantly demands you engage and strategize and figure out how to get between arbitrary points A and B. Which is fine — I deal with the world perfectly well, thanks — but sometimes a respite is welcome. In fandom I'm swept up in a cause whose outcome I can't possibly control, and part of something larger — a community of people also living and dying on the outcome of something they can't affect any more than I can. Fandom is a form of surrender no rational person would find wise — what idiot gives his or her heart to a bunch of rich kids to do with as they will? But in that surrender, in those three hours a night, I'm free. (And if that talk of surrender and being part of something bigger sounds a bit like religion — let go and let Gotay — well, that's no accident. This is my religion. I don't begrudge anyone theirs and I don't apologize for mine.)

I wonder if Dan feels transported by sports the way Greg and Emily and Charlie and Laurie and all the rest of us do. Can he, without the wellsprings of childhood and place and memory, without having been washed in grief and hope and wonder before his emotions were fully formed? Without irrationality, in other words? I can't know and he can't know — which, again, is not unlike religion. In the end we are all of us — not just childhood fans and newly minted ones — mysteries to each other.

(Whoa. So heavy. Let the record also show that baseball is beautiful, rewards intensive scrutiny and casual attention alike, and an excellent excuse for drinking beer, eating hot dogs and sitting in the sunshine.)