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Fandom Under Glass: At the MLB FanFest

Baseball is an outdoor thing. New York City's Jacob Javits Convention Center is perhaps the most indoor space on earth. So how did the 2013 MLB FanFest still wind up so positive?

Manhattan is populous and dauntingly vertical and hilariously, punishingly expensive, but it is not all that big. The sheer stacked-up crush of humanity in the city has everything to do with both the verticality and expense of the place, and it makes places like the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center that much more difficult to explain. Here, in an island without enough space and with more than enough people, is a massive, mostly empty and robustly air-conditioned greenhouse sort of thing that stretches for six blocks between 34th and 40th Streets on the furthest West Side of Manhattan.

The building itself is not so much ugly -- it isn't quite: it was designed by I.M. Pei's architecture company, and has the glassy Reaganite right-angles that made Pei famous, boxed around a weirdly visible arachnoid steel skeleton -- as it is baffling. Here is something like a quarter of a mile of Manhattan real estate given over to vast refrigerated practicality, ready to enfold a boat show or auto show or whatever, in dimensions that dwarf the little striving kiosks and sample-dispensary counters that define the average trade show. It's as good a space as any in which to host something like MLB FanFest: it's big enough and rugged enough and appropriately vast and antiseptic. Whatever FanFest does, it will fit within the Javits Center with space to spare.

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It's tough to know if the Javits Center even made sense during the city's smoldering standoff years in the early 1980s --the building was finished after six years of construction in '86, the last time the Mets won the World Series and the year its namesake senator died -- but it's a sweet sort of relic, mostly. Manhattan metastasizes, expensively and without shame -- this neighborhood is already getting developed, and soon there will be luxury residences surrounding the Javits Center and crowding its meaningless hugeness; many of the city's most garish and Lohan-afflicted clubs are already in this area, away from noise complaints. For now, though, it's a blank with a bigger glassy blank in the middle of it, built to be filled with FanFest, or whatever else is enticing enough to bring people all that way west.

Walk a half-mile from Penn Station in baking heat, amid all those FanFest pilgrims in various sizes of Matt Harvey shirsey and other matching father-and-son jersey ensembles, extravagantly bellied grown men in pairs going for their own reasons. It's a long way to go for what is partially a climate-controlled carnival and partially an unusually pricey garage sale. It's expensive -- tickets are $35 per adult, and nothing is free on the inside -- but, at root, there's something about FanFest that is good.

There are a great many smiles on faces going towards the convention center, and smiles coming back. It's both gaudy and a little shabby, it's full of inexplicable things, it's huge and small at once. The whole goofy thing is puzzling, but it works. The smiles go in and the smiles come out, and I can tell you, because I went, that it all makes more sense than it should.

***

The Javits Center is, at first, shockingly cold, just as the air outside is shockingly hot and thick and awful. The people selling and scanning FanFest tickets and handing out the coupons -- five dollars off a $75 purchase at the MLB Clubhouse Store, which it turns out is two t-shirts -- are all Citi Field employees, doing what they usually do, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., at what is literally the other end of the 7 Train from their usual workplace. "I'm about to lose it," the woman selling me my ticket says when I ask her about the commute, but then she laughs, either because she has lost it or because it's honestly kind of tough to be angry at FanFest.

The words "Fun For The Whole Family" generally translate to "Grumbling Parents Struggling To Deal With Kids Amid Fried Food Smells," but FanFest is big enough and baseball-y enough for it to be more or less accurate. This is anecdotal on my part, because I did not attend with my whole or even any part of my family, and is based mostly around the number of incandescently happy kids and not-fully-exasperated parents I saw and spoke to there. (Sports On Earth's indispensable Howard Megdal went to the event with his wife and daughter, and vouches for the For The Whole Family bit.) There was one little girl with sparkly butterfly face paint crying as she was led into the MLB Clubhouse Store, but there is always going to be a little crying girl with a sparkly butterfly painted on her face at events of this size.

"We got Reading, Pennsylvania in the building."

For the most part, though, FanFest was awash in gamboling, chattering, grinning kids, generally orbiting around one Dad Type. Because the Javits Center is so huge -- to reiterate: it is six city blocks long -- there was never the noise or crowdedness that should by rights have come with a few thousand kids tear-assing around a giant concrete echo chamber in honking, sugar-rushing gaggles. A DJ in the corner played bygone Bad Boy hits -- it's strange to think that Biggie qualifies as safely nostalgic Oldies Rap, but there "Hypnotize" was -- and periodically shouted various things and people out. "I see some Tampa Bay Rays fans in the building," he proclaimed. "We got Reading, Pennsylvania in the building." He seemed a little lonely. Everyone was paying attention to everything else.

The various different things that comprise FanFest were scattered around the floor at generous intervals; the Javits Center is spacious, and there was a lot of space. In no particular order, the things comprising FanFest were: Historic Baseball Things Behind Glass (some up for silent auction), memorabilia dealers of varying sketchiness, carpeted baseball activity zones where volunteers -- there were 2,000 of them in the Javits Center over the course of FanFest -- fed batting practice balls into Jugs machines and encouraged seven-year-olds, numerous Designated Opportunities To Have Photos Taken, and little carved-out areas where semi-famous-to-famous baseball people signed autographs or were on the radio. A great many grown adults stood around watching Yankees broadcaster Michael Kay give ESPN's Mike Greenberg, who would be calling the Home Run Derby live over Citi Field's P.A. system, some words of guidance that amounted to, "try not to yell as much as I did or you'll wreck your throat." Kids jumped around behind a MLB.TV stage, their hats and hands periodically making it into the background of a live webcast. There was a carpeted baseball diamond in the middle of the floor on which two twentysomethings played MLB 2K13 as part of a tournament and people, inexplicably, watched them do it.

There was, bracingly, a good deal of the marked-up memorabilia-biz shabbiness and attention-hungry trade show weirdness amid all the branded fun-for-all-ages stuff. A woman in an oversized Yankees bathrobe with Yogi Berra's number 8 on the back walked around, making eye contact; I saw her later at a folding table and surrounded by information from the Yogi Berra Museum in New Jersey. Various local dealers in baseball cards and other assorted baseball-related crap -- leering outdated bobbleheads, weird pog-like Made In China collectible coins, various spooky figurines -- were scattered around the floor.

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Packs of baseball cards from the late 1980s and early '90s were five for $9; I tried to buy a pack of '88 Score baseball cards -- one of my original Proustian sets; I spent a lot of time squinting through the plastic packs for a glimpse of a black-bordered Todd Zeile rookie -- from a dealer who insisted on giving it to me for free. This was generous, but also he didn't want to make change of a dollar. It was reassuring, in a strange way, that the usual baseball card dealer archetype -- a slightly down-at-heel, slightly paternal and slightly predatory older dude who groans when he stands -- was so present amid all this brand-consciousness and positivity.

And it was fitting, too, that there was so much crap: the accretion and sentimentalizing and eventual throwing out of detritus of strictly notional value is a massive part of being a baseball fan, and there was something heartening about watching a younger generation yield to autonomic fan-response and purchase some shitty bauble because it had Derek Jeter's face on it. One dealer had a pile of desiccated old baseball gloves for sale: round, callous-hard catchers mitts that looked like giant burned cookies and cracked Kennedy-era models with obscure autographs in them -- I tried on an Earl Torgeson model, and my left hand smelled like a wet couch for an hour. I asked the dealer where he got the gloves. "Oh, wherevuh," he answered, wearily and through a thick-sliced Long Island accent. Three teenagers came over and laughingly tried them on. "How did this ever catch a ball?" one wondered, staring quizzically at a mitt that seemed somehow smaller than his actual hand. It was priced, hilariously, at $75.

The same principle held in the silent auction area, where items timeless and not-at-all timeless were being bid into the hundreds and thousands of dollars. A disco-blue zip-up jersey that Dallas Green wore while managing the Phillies to a 59-48 record during the strike-shortened 1981 season was at $600, which was slightly more expensive than the Marty Bystrom jersey in the case next to it. Ken, a Padres fan in a freshly pressed Khalil Greene jersey -- "I got it on eBay, maybe $30" -- who had come down from Massachusetts for the FanFest with a buddy, admired the memorabilia, but wasn't bidding. "This isn't really my scene," he said. "I don't know who's buying these, honestly."

***

The monetized nostalgia is for grown-ups, and FanFest, to its great credit, is mostly not.

But if the extractive aspect of baseball fandom was on display at FanFest, there was also a lot of the other and more generous thing that makes the sport's chiseling sub-economies possible -- the real and strong thing that persuades fans to attach some value to transparently valueless collectibles and autographed polyester or horsehide or cardboard or 8x10 glossy. This has less to do with the players fans pay to see, and bother for autographs -- Jesse Orosco blithely signing anything a long line of fans put in front of him; a fit and friendly George Foster and sadly mustache-less Rollie Fingers signing $30 autographs over nearish the bathrooms -- and more to do with the game. The kids whose happy squalls were the under-soundtrack for FanFest were not there to meet George Foster, and fist-bumped him only at his and their fathers' behests. The monetized nostalgia is for grown-ups, and FanFest, to its great credit, is mostly not.

There were lines for the various baseball stations, where little kids hit soft-tosses and threw baseballs at targets and fielded grounders and pop-ups issuing from variously angled machines. There is, of course, absolutely no reason to go to the (freaking) Jacob K. Javits Convention Center to have the experience of fielding a grounder or taking batting practice -- even in a city as diamond-deficient as New York, virtually any other place is better. And yet there was no mystery to why all these kids -- and the periodic grinning, dumpling-y parental figure who decided to take a turn -- were waiting happily to field spongy batting practice baseballs as they skipped across carpet laid over the convention center's concrete floors. The place was full to its ridiculous rafters with the answer.

The overlay of half-scuzzy commerce atop what we might call the Real Baseball Thing is how the game makes its money -- all those sponsors and all those sponsorships, the automatic marking-up of every sellable thing, the sentimental grumps hustling various crappy talismans to each other at exorbitant prices. But the Real Baseball Thing, even in the refrigerated isolation of a no-place like the Javits Center, was also -- as the DJ would've said, to all those not-listening people -- in the building.

The Real Baseball Thing has something to do with the act of playing baseball and something to do with the cumulative experience of watching it over a lifetime, and it's easy to sense its presence and see its effect. It manifests as a slow, blissed-out trancefulness, and it -- and not the sepia tones or the synergy -- is what still fills stadiums and domes. The chance to commune with it is what led volunteers to spend day-long shifts feeding pitching machines and encouraging strangers. It was the only reason anyone was at the Javits Center in the first place, and why the game -- alternately shrunken and puffed-up as it can seem -- can still fill six blocks with excited people.

There was this one guy I kept seeing, a wide and thick dude with a sleeve of reptilian tattoos and a shaved head; behind his left ear was inked a three-inch rendering of the Bride of Frankenstein -- a Sons of Anarchy background player wearing a Bobby Valentine Mets t-shirt. He was over by the memorabilia, and then he was getting his picture taken next to a cardboard cutout of the New York Mets, and then he was by the batting cages, and then -- when I saw him last -- he was by the Steal A Base, Steal A Taco attraction. There, kids waited on line for the chance to run in time with a video of the player of their choice -- lot of David Wright, from what I observed -- down a carpeted baseline and then sliding into a base placed at the end of a thin black gymnastics mat.

I wanted to ask this guy some questions, but didn't. He and a woman were watching, beatific as someone so tattooed can be, while kids -- presumably theirs was among them -- came down the line, pumping hard and ineffectually. Some of the slides were crisp and clearly coached-up. A few were in the style of the helpless, knees-first, arms-raised collapse popularized in Willem Dafoe's death scene in Platoon. But every kid got the same thing from the volunteers -- a gogogo encouragement at one end of the baseline and an emphatic call of 'safe' at the other. The volunteers straightened the sheet and reset the base, and everyone did it again, smiling: safe safe safe in the air-conditioned airlessness, with the tattooed guy beaming on and the kids popping up, exultant in this silly simulation of something real and good, popping up happy, exiting and getting back in line to do it again.

Photos by David Roth

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