The Red Sox have been growing beards this season; the roster seems to be reverting back to the antics of 2004, when the "Idiots" won the World Series. I don't know if the beards help their performance as much as their dispositions, and if they shaved tomorrow they'd probably still win the American League East, but given their success (and the roots of superstition) it seems very unlikely they'll be shaving them before the season ends.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the railing that separates the fans from the field, the White Sox play "Thunderstruck" by AC/DC before every home game, and as the last few beats blare at a deafening volume, a handful of fireworks are set off just beyond the left field fence, signaling the start of the game.
If you go to just one game a season, the fireworks seemingly come out of nowhere, but if you go often, you know the timing is so predictable that you can actually pinpoint the exact second that the booms happen just beyond the fence.
The fireworks are precisely timed out of necessity -- after all, first pitch has to happen on time -- but other in-game occurrences have become just as regimented. The experience at all ballparks has become formulaic and predictable, not just game after game in the same stadium, but across the entire sport. It mostly doesn't matter if you're in Cleveland, Seattle, or Denver, not only are they playing the same game, what's happening inside the parks has become banal. The music plays and the people dance along with "Gangnam Style", and even if the visiting team has a 15-0 lead, people will make noise when the Jumbotron demands it.
Today, there is nothing left to chance and spontaneity, and the micromanaging of the baseball experience, especially when it comes to rooting for the home team, is an added layer of virtual reality on top of the already virtual word of baseball fandom -- we can't actually be a part of the game, but we like to pretend that we are, and teams package that fantasy and sell it to the fans.
A variation on the Budweiser "Superstition" series of ads began running recently. It shows fans acting out various OCD rituals while watching games while a voiceover intones, "We'll never know if somehow, in some way we can affect the outcome of a game. But when the clock's winding down and everything's on the line... we all believe." The simple rejoinder is that we know, with certainty, that a fan has at best a miniscule impact on on-field performance. Yet, so badly do some want to erase the line between "audience" and "participation" that they will believe that they are truly the 26th man.
The players themselves are often superstitious and the history of rituals that are considered good luck, bad luck, slump-busting, performance-enhancing, or just entertaining is well-documented. The difference is that their rituals do stand some chance of affecting the outcome of the game. Some players won't step on the base lines, others scuff them up every chance they get. Some have elaborate routines in the batter's box, wear lucky socks, or eat the same meal before every start. Some of it is superstition, sure, but some of exists in an attempt to break up the doldrums of an 162-game season -- the themed road trips in which players all dress in camouflage or NFL jerseys are largely just the equivalent of the casual Fridays we have in our normal nine-to-five lives.
Back in 2008, Jason Giambi revealed that when he was trying to get out of a hitting slump, he'd wear a gold thong underneath his uniform and that it'd help him break out of the slump. He swore it helped -- and he did have an uptick in performance, according to his own evaluation -- and after he admitted his secret to his peers in the clubhouse, some of his teammates, including Derek Jeter and Johnny Damon, took turns wearing the thong to bust their own slumps and for the rest of the season, the thong routinely popped up in the lockers of those players struggling at the plate.
Some teams develop their own language for cheering and celebrating. There are elaborate handshakes that probably stem from boredom, but are busted out when things are good, and when some players reach base safely, they have a coded means of celebrating, be it the flailing "Beast Mode" arms in Milwaukee, the "Claws and Antlers" in Arlington, or "Lo Viste" in Miami.
Fans notice and start participating, and while there's a grassroots innocence to most of it, it doesn't stay that way, as the hottest trend, especially during the playoffs, is not only to manage the way that fans cheer and rally, but to also pre-package the preferred meme and sell it at the gift shop. It's no longer appropriate to just root --you have to have the right accessories, or at the very least, the right lingo.
Brian Wilson (Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports )
This isn't a new concept, but in the past ten years there's been an increase in the commercial cohesiveness. There are rally monkeys and rally squirrels, available on t-shirts or in stuffed animal form. Some fans ring cowbells and bang thunder sticks; rally towels are ubiquitous. DC went nuts for the "Let Teddy Win" hoopla, and Giants fans for the "Panda Hat" and "Fear the Beard" crazes. And the aforementioned "Beast Mode," "Claws and Antlers," and "Lo Viste" were no longer just for on-field celebrations. Fans and front offices got involved, mimicking the universal rally cries through merchandising and tireless marketing campaigns, making the teams that don't have some sort of catchphrase and t-shirt promotion look like the outsiders (and maybe even scrambling to invent their own).
The problem isn't with the means of entertainment -- some people love this stuff and we shouldn't judge them for it. It's just that there is a diametric difference in how modern fans enjoy the game compared with those of yesteryear who didn't have a scoreboard and a large marketing department doing all of the thinking for them. Since the experience has become so regimented, there is less chance now for fans and players to create a unique rooting experience with or without the beards (real or fake).
Every park has contests and on-field events, and when the sound bite from the "Cha Cha Slide" tells everybody to clap their hands; they remember the complex syncopated rhythm, even though most of them can't remember what they had for breakfast yesterday. The things that seem unique are really just customizations on the same principles that happen elsewhere. The Brewers race sausages, the Nationals race Presidents, and the Pirates race Pierogies. "Sweet Caroline" plays at Fenway, "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" is played at Oriole Park, and "Roll Out the Barrel" follows Take Me Out to the Ballgame at Miller Park.
Friday night fireworks (USA TODAY Sports)
Things might have been better in the Bill Veeck era, where the in-game entertainment was the subject of an ever-changing series of sitcom-style harebrained schemes to increase attendance: Exploding scoreboards, midgets at the plate, and managers in the grandstand. Over the years, however, the principles of Veeck, the godfather of fun, have been eroded and reduced to boring traditions so ingrained in the fan psyche that even "The Banana Boat Song" elicits a Pavlovian "Day-O" if you're not careful.
Of course, no one is forced to like or even tolerate this stuff if they don't want, but what seems to get lost in the neatly packaged experience of cheesy slogans and their accoutrements and the Jumbotron, is that for years fans have figured out how to support their team. In the absence of thunder sticks, spirit animals and other prescribed behaviors, the result is exactly the same. The difference is in the way that the ritual arises. What if we just allowed something spontaneous to happen for a change? We can be trusted to root on our own, without direction from above.
What if no one makes a big deal about the fact that the Red Sox are growing beards, and we just accept that it might be nothing more than a group of men that love facial hair and are just trying to have a good time? Would they still win the AL East? Yeah, probably.
And what if, despite their huge personalities, none of the Dodgers' players allow themselves to be turned into caricatures? Perhaps they are just a group of guys that have finally figured out how to play together and win games, and that's attractive enough in its simplicity to root for that it shouldn't matter if they do something kitschy -- the Dodger faithful will respond with the same energy level and enthusiasm.
There's no denying that the confluence of rooting and marketing sometimes requires preemptive action -- as these things gain momentum, if the teams didn't make t-shirts, stuffed animals, and noisemakers available, fans would likely just do it themselves. But not everything needs to be planned and neatly packaged. The game itself is often messy and unpredictable; it's fair to begrudge the perpetual desire to turn every organic superstition and ritual that sprouts up around the game into something as predictable as a day-camp field trip.