Tuesday, April 16, 2013

On Baseball

"The relationship between a fan and his baseball team is unlike anything else. If you love a team - if you truly love it - then that team infiltrates your daily life for six straight months (seven if you're lucky). You wake up, you shower, you eat, you work, you eat, you watch your baseball team, you sleep. When the Mets collapsed for the third straight season last week, myevastated friends who follow them all said the same thing: it wasn't losing again as much as reflecting on those 162 games and the hundreds of hours wasted along the way. They felt betrayed. Only baseball does that to you. It's a game of routine, of watching one at-bat after another, hoping something different happens, of relishing the little things that happen along the way. You don't know your favorite players personally, but you feel like you do."

- Bill Simmons, Now I Can Die in Peace (3rd ed.), p. 433-434

Bill Simmons, the originally self-proclaimed and now widely acknowledged "Sports Guy" is a ridiculous man. He's an unabashedly unashamed Boston homer who writes more about his teams (Celtics, Patriots, and Red Sox particularly) than every other team combined. He uses references to 70s pop culture, porn, and pro wrestling within sentences of one another, and he has a seemingly eidetic memory for the most inane of sports trivia. He writes as if he relives each and every moment of agonizing heartbreak and unbelievable victory every time he writes about his teams and their daily ups and downs. Somehow, over the past decade, Simmons has become one of the authorities on sports in the internet era, as anyone who claims to be a sports fan but does not read Simmons is immediately disqualified from having any further meaningful contributions to any discussion on sports until he has experienced the full glory of Simmons' voluminous archives. That brings us to this book, a collection of running diaries, knee-jerk reactions, thoughtful commentaries, and mastery of parenthetical clauses and footnotes culled over a decade of following the Boston Red Sox. Simmons has included articles he wrote from 1999 through 2008, mostly unedited, that give one of the truest pictures of what it is like to follow any sports team, but particularly one with the kinds of highs and lows experienced by Red Sox fans. I'm sure I read many of these articles as they were published, but somehow they all seemed fresh and newly meaningful when they were packaged together in this way. Simmons not only defines the voice of Sox fans; he has redefined what it means to be a sports fan in the 21st century. Now I Can Die in Peace is a must-read for any sports fan, even if you don't like baseball. Scratch that - especially if you don't like baseball; then you can get a real sense of what it means to be a fan.
That was the review I just wrote on Goodreads about Bill Simmons' baseball book. What I didn't mention is that I'm one of the people I wrote about at the end of the review: I am not really a baseball fan. I could have been, but it never really solidified for me. I've had an interesting journey through two-plus decades of occasionally watching baseball, starting with experiences in my childhood. I remember the first time I ever watched baseball - the 1991 World Series between the Twins and the Braves. The main things I remember were Jack Morris' mustache, Kirby Puckett's paunch, and being excited when the Twins won in Game 7 since that's who my dad told me to cheer for.
The '92 Jays were an eclectic bunch of players and mustaches - including Jack Morris, who signed with the team in the off-season - who beat the same Braves in the World Series. I don't remember much of that team, other than Dave Winfield's interminably long batting times, Roberto Alomar's fantastic acrobatics at second base, and Pat Borders playing out of his mind and winning the Series MVP. It was exciting enough that I joined the Jr. Jays and started following the team more closely the following season. It was the '93 Jays that really captured my attention: Olerud, White, Alomar, Sprague, Molitor, and of course Joltin' Joe Carter, whose Game 6 game-winning home run remains one of the most exciting moments in any sport ever. I also lived in Saskatoon, perhaps the only city ever to have a riot after a championship series without having a team involved in the series. At that point, I probably could have actually become a long-term baseball fan. I was eleven years old, I had a great mind for numbers, and I had a lot of spare time. Then came the 1994 strike and cancellation, and any good will that might have been built up at one time was summarily ended in my mind.
There were enough elements over the next few years to keep me moderately intrigued: two Ken Griffey Jr. baseball games for the Super Nintendo, Cal Ripken's streak, the Florida Marlins winning the World Series. I still could have become a baseball fan, but I was not quite ready to commit yet. Then came the 1998 season, and the floor fell through. Three things happened that could have solidified by fandom, but in retrospect, they marked the beginning of the end.

1. The Blue Jays' only meaningful season since 1993, when they finished four games back of the Boston Red Sox for third in their division. The 1998 season cemented "also-ran" status for the Jays at that point, as well as the reality that New York and Boston would rule the division for the foreseeable future; it ended up being a decade until Tampa Bay broke through, but the standard was set that year. Any chance of me being a Jays fan was done.

2. The race to beat Maris' record between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. Sure, it was exciting at the time, but there was something about the record not only being broken but shattered that broke some of the mystique. 1998 truly was the height of the steroid era, as we now know, and although we didn't know it at the time, baseball had lost its innocence - you know, if you don't count the 1919 Black Sox, or the widespread blatant racism well into the 1960s, or the all-time hits leader being suspended for gambling...well, you get the point. By the time Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs in 2001, the entire landscape had changed, and we realized 1998 for what it was. We just didn't really know it at the time.

3. The Yankees swept the Padres in the World Series. These were not the same Yankees that had won the Series in 1996, when they were the plucky underdogs against the powerhouse Braves. They were not quite the Evil Empire yet - even though they were still the Yankees - and they were likable. Something changed between that team and the team in 1998, when they started a winning streak of three World Series in which they lost only one game in the Series in the ridiculously insular Subway Series in 2000 against the Mets. I didn't know it at the time, but things were different after 1998.

Between the events from 1998 through 2000, I was established as not a baseball fan. Then one moment gave me hope: Luis Gonzalez' bloop single to win the World Series in the bottom of the 9th inning for the Arizona Diamondbacks over the New York Yankees in the 2001 World Series. It was entirely unexpected, especially since the Yankees were close to their fourth Series in a row. I remember watching the game at a Boston Pizza on Sunday, November 4, 2001, because my now-wife and I were having our first major DTR ("define the relationship") talk at the time. I left the restaurant with hope for a new beginning on a relationship and for my future as a baseball fan. The next decade or so is a mostly indifferent morass of highs and lows. There were some great highlights: the elation of watching the Yankees lose another Series, this time against the Marlins; watching the Red Sox, Cardinals, White Sox, Giants, and Phillies win World Series titles; Moneyball (the phenomenon and the movie); the rise of the Tampa Bay Rays; and the run of the Rockies in the 2007 playoffs. There were a lot of lows, too: the Mitchell Report; the steroid era; the Evil Empire (the Yankees); the Athletics never making it to the World Series; contraction talk; the ignominous end of the Expos; and the continuing stratification of franchise payrolls. It was never enough to fully pull me in, and never enough to push me away definitively.
I watched it all through the lens of writers like Simmons and Jonah Keri, never really feeling the need to invest myself or any pull toward the game, but never really knowing why, other than the lingering disillusionment from 1994 and 1998-2000. Then, as I read Simmons' book and the quote with which I led off this reflection, I realized that to really appreciate baseball, you need to have your team to follow - and that really can only happen in a place with a baseball team. I've thought about picking a team and trying to follow them, but it has not been easy to decide which team I could cheer for. It was almost the Jays for me, but they're halfway across the country. I thought about the small-market A's, but they're just too far away. The only team that has ever been geographically close to where I have lived is the Seattle Mariners, but they're across the ferry, so it's not really feasible to pick them based on geography.
I know it does not really make sense to pick a team, but then I realized who my team would be if I were to pick one: the Minnesota Twins. The pieces were all there: fond memories from childhood; identifying with a small-market team; a great cast of players, including some from Canada; and an embattled history, including almost being contracted in the 2002 season. There's no way I could be accused of being a bandwagon jumper (after all, they did finish last in the American League last season), but they have also had enough success over the past decade that I could reasonably expect that there would be some good highlights of being a fan. I suppose that even geographically, it could make some sense, since the Twins were one of the closest teams to where I lived when I was growing up, and I have some distant family ties in the Minnesota area. So maybe that's what I need to try this year to really try out with the baseball fan experience: following the Twins on a semi-regular basis. Maybe that will help me actually have baseball mean something, and I can get a little taste of what it might mean to enjoy baseball like Simmons does. Besides, if I start being a Twins fan now, then I can legitimately enjoy their eventual success without jumping on the bandwagon when it happens. So there you have it: I am arbitrarily declaring myself a fan of the Minnesota Twins. Go Twins go!

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