Almost exactly a year passed between the day my dad moved out of the house and the day my parents' divorce was final. In that span, I became a sports fan. I always considered this a coincidence, an accidental confluence of "The Super Bowl Shuffle," the Mets' amazing 1986 season, and various small changes in my life stemming from my physical and mental maturation at the age of 10. It wasn't until I was interviewed about my fandom in 2006 that I realized there may have been something deeper going on there, something more meaningful even than my dad taking me to my first ballgame that summer after the separation.
The older I get, the more I am able to perceive the larger forces at work in my life. If you had asked me 10 or 20 years ago why I liked baseball, I would have told you that I liked the suspense and the strategy, the cat-and-mouse battle between pitcher and hitter, the balletic movements of the fielders and baserunners, the abundance of statistics which provide fertile ground for interpretation, comparison, and analysis, the game's connection to history, its bucolic setting, and the superficial and oft-cited ways in which the game and its season serve as metaphors for life. You've heard all of those before, likely agree with many of them, and they all remain part of my answer, but that reply misses the forest for the trees.
The real appeal of baseball, or any sport for that matter, is that it represents a parallel existence, one that unfolds over years, careers, and lifetimes, one that is unscripted and thus a source of genuine suspense and surprise, yet is also simple, logical, knowable, follows an explicit and finite set of rules and is devoid of the complexities, dangers, and consequences of real life. It is, to put it simply, a safe place. It is a place to which we can retreat mentally and emotionally when the real world becomes too frightening.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously wrote baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis just five weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor to say that "it would be best for the country to keep baseball going" as "a chance for recreation" amid the long, hard work of the war effort. Many have paraphrased Roosevelt by labeling baseball an important distraction for the country in the wake of national tragedy, but to call baseball a distraction is to simplify too greatly, particularly in this day and age, when our waking hours are a steady assault of distractions. A distraction occupies your mind for a brief period of time. Baseball, however, lives beside us on a daily basis over the majority of the year.
For those who are truly invested, baseball can stretch from mid-February, when pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training, until early January, when the last key free agents typically find their homes for the coming season. There are actual games for eight months of the year if you include spring training, which is now frequently televised, and the postseason. November brings the season's major awards and the first Hot Stove action. December brings the winter meetings and a flurry of Hot Stove activity, and early January bring the announcement of that year's Hall of Fame class, all of which are fertile ground for impassioned argument and discussion.
That those arguments concern things that even the most passionate partisan knows are trivial or unimportant, even if that knowledge is buried deep, doesn't matter. What I've only recently come to realize, is that it is the fact that they don't matter that is the source of that passion. It is precisely because they are of no real consequences that fans become so passionate. Because they are free to be wrong, they can be wrong as loudly and as aggressively as they want. Because there are no real consequences to being wrong, and, in some cases, no real way to prove who is wrong or right, everyone is right.
Pat says Jim Rice deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. Pam says Jim Rice doesn't deserve to be in the Hall of Fame. Pat and Pam are both right given the clear, undisputed facts of Jim Rice's playing career and the playing careers of the other Hall of Fame inductees. The fun is constructing the argument. Pam says Baseball should abolish the designated hitter. Pat says the National League should adopt the designated hitter. Both are right, because it doesn't matter. Baseball will still be baseball either way. No one will die as a result of the expansion or elimination of the designated hitter rule. It won't make anyone sick or prevent them from getting sufficient care. It won't send them off to war. No one is going to quit their job as a baseball player in protest. No teams will fold. People who love each other won't stop loving each other. Baseball will still be baseball, and it will still be there for you when nothing else in the world makes sense anymore and you feel like the foundations of your existence are crumbling around you.
Photo credit: Jim McIsaac
Of course, this makes baseball a very valuable thing in the lives of the many people who, largely subconsciously, turn to it for comfort. It is something that must be protected, lest we baseball fans be cast back out into the chaotic, irrational, cruel, and godless world that we actually inhabit. That is why certain reactions are so strong. For example, when Bill James and his disciples challenged the traditional methods of evaluating players, they weren't merely making a previously counterintuitive argument that one player was better than another, they were messing with the fundamental nature of this world which so many had come to inhabit, some emotionally and some, who had made the game their livelihoods and life's work, be it as a player, manager, scout, broadcaster, or writer, physically. If a large part of the comfort provided by baseball stems from its clear, simple, logical rules and statistics, it's no wonder that there was such a backlash when some young punks came along and told the old guard "everything you know about the game is wrong."
The analytical revolution, however, was nothing compared to the disruptive impact of performance-enhancing drugs. Suddenly the facts of a player's career are no longer clear and undisputed. Suddenly this world which was so comfortingly finite and knowable contains an element that is not knowable and likely never will be knowable. Suddenly the arguments take on greater significance. If Pat says Jeff Bagwell shouldn't be in the Hall of Fame because he cheated and Pam says he should be because he didn't, they're not both right anymore, and if Pat's right, Pam isn't just wrong, her entire world starts to fall apart. That's why so many turned a blind eye to doping in the first place, because, again possibly subconsciously, they knew it would be a Pandora's Box. That once opened, it would attack the very foundation of their world within the world.
Now that that box is open, some have responded with anger, some with resentment, some with denial and rationalization. These are not the reactions baseball is supposed to evoke. We come to this game to escape the things in life that make us angry, that cause us to resent one another, that are so emotionally troubling that we turn to coping mechanisms such as denial and rationalization. Yet, now that game is one in which the records of some of its greatest players are looked upon with suspicion and in which the commissioner is said to be actively pursuing just cause to suspend key players during a pennant race.
I still think it was largely coincidence that I became a sports fan at the exact moment that my parents split up. After all, the divorce itself was a relief. It was during the years leading up to it that I most needed a mental and emotional sanctuary. Still, I can't deny the comfort I take in the game. Nor can I deny the anguish I feel when I'm reminded that this game still takes place in our messy, chaotic world and that it is played by real, flawed, and complex human beings.