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MY TURN AT BAT

For Whom to Root
By Tim Walker

 

Stick with me for a second—the baseball part's coming. If you live someplace like Austin, Texas, where I live, it's hard not to notice the ill effects of our country's rootless culture. Sure, Austin still has its music clubs and rib joints and swimming holes (for as long as they don't turn toxic), but then there are the endless chain stores, suburban housing tracts, traffic jams, and highway construction projects. And Austin doesn't even have it bad compared to, say, Silicon Valley. For better and for worse, our culture makes it easy to pick up stakes: ESPN and HBO go pretty much anywhere; just about every community has basically the same malls and supermarkets and gas stations; and one Chili's or Costco or AutoZone is much like another.

We accustom ourselves to this rootlessness as we move around, to the point that we think it's normal. Austin and its fellow boomtowns (Atlanta, Las Vegas, Seattle, and so on) are particularly well known for their high number of transplants. Folks of my own generation—I'm thirty—often don't think twice about never becoming active members of a certain neighborhood, or devoted parishioners of a particular church, or lifetime members of a given club.

So what does any of this have to do with baseball?

Well, we could talk about how the past few decades have seen this rootlessness extend to the game, as seen for example in the history of the major leagues' franchise moves and expansions. But I have a personal point to make, one that I hope will resonate with readers of this journal.

I have no favorite team.

Anticlimax? Okay, it's not on par with poverty, disease, or war, but the fact is that I don't deal with those things nearly as often as I deal with box scores and league standings. For a guy with a baseball affliction as serious as mine—and believe me, I could bore some of you silly by the time I got into hour three of National League Players Who Retired before I Was Born—it's a real issue.

My lack of a fan's connection to any one team is especially glaring when it becomes a conversation-stopper, like this:

Me: "Hey, I've seen you wear that hat before. You an Astros fan?"

Mild workplace acquaintance: "Yeah, long time. I get down there for a few games every year. You a baseball fan?"

Me: "Oh, yeah, don't get me started; we'll be here all day."

M.W.A.: "That bad, huh? Who's your team?"

You're supposed to have a good answer for this—a short answer. It would be easy enough to come up with a plausible story for why I'm, say, a Yankees fan (I attended seminary in New York City for a year) and leave it at that. But this would be dishonest at best and, in the case of the Yankees, also grossly opportunistic.

My mother, bless her heart, is just

such an opportunist. She now calls me up to say, "Did you hear Mr. Torre say . . . ?" or "Go Yankees" when the Bombers do something big. While her Yankee fandom is heartfelt, it stems from that single year my wife and I spent in Manhattan five seasons ago—right as the Yanks were making the transition to juggernaut—and so, to me, has the whiff of the bandwagon about it. I, too, rooted for the Yanks against the Braves and Padres, and I still respect the organization for knowing what to do with its blessings. But lacking some lifelong connection to the team, or a current Manhattan address, I just can't bring myself to root so openly for the overdog. Pulling for them would be akin to rooting for Coca-Cola or Wal-Mart. Yes, Coke tastes good and Wal-Mart sells soap mighty cheap, but they hardly deserve my rooting interest.

I think my mother's Yankee thralldom is also a by-product of her frustration with her prior allegiance. As a teenager, she adored the Milwaukee Braves of Ed Mathews, Hank Aaron, and Warren Spahn and was even happier when the Braves moved to her own backyard of Atlanta. (Maybe I can summarize her once-unconditional love for them by telling you that she rooted for them in the 1980s.) I also rooted for the Braves—against the Twins in 91 and the Blue Jays in 92—but somehow that love never stuck for me, maybe in part because the Braves have been so ceaselessly and jingoistically promoted on TBS for all these years.

Ted Turner fascinates me; AOL Time Warner absolutely does not. Sure, Turner bought the Braves (and his other teams) as a business move to plug prebaked programming onto his cable stations, but he also invested himself personally into that ownership. Now the Braves are just another business unit. And since I write about business for a living, there's a part of me that can never forget that they have become yet another product to shill—like People magazine or Connie Chung's "hard-hitting" new show on CNN. Spare me.

The cynicism of other corporate owners likewise repulses me, so I can also set aside the Angels and Dodgers. While I admire Mike Scioscia and Jim Tracy and many of the players who toil for them, I don't admire Disney or Fox. (And don't think I've forgotten what the Dodgers did to the good people of Brooklyn, either. I have friends from Brooklyn, and I'm not sure there's any statute of limitations on holding the franchise move against the franchise itself, no matter how long Walter O'Malley has been dead. I'm willing to be irrational about this.) As for the Cubs? The Tribune Company's handling of the team makes Disney's diffidence toward the Angels look like a Steinbrennerian obsession with winning. Toss in gross mismanagement in the front office and on the field, not to mention the certain grief of endless losing, and what am I left with?

While I'm lobbing around charges of franchise mismanagement, let me just dismiss from consideration the once-proud Orioles, the underdog-for-no-good-reason Phillies, the willfully stupid Royals, and the shameful-from-birth Devil Rays. (Have to be a little careful here, though. If you start getting into the personalities of owners, you could quickly eliminate winning—and otherwise likeable—teams like the Diamondbacks and the Twins. Yes, the D-Backs beat the Yankees, and for that we must thank them, but Colangelo is a . . . well, you get my point. No reason to slag the Twins just because Pohlad is a mindlessly penny-pinching Selig backscratcher. It's not my money they're playing with.)

Since I live in Texas, it's obvious that I could root for either the Rangers or the Astros. But there are problems with those clubs as well. First, since we're talking about owners, we'll just note that Tom Hicks and Drayton McLane are both fat-cat squillionaires, and I don't think that likeable would be the first word used to describe either of them. Also, they both jockeyed the law mercilessly to get what they wanted in the way of ballparks—Hicks by some fancy eminent-domain footwork to get "The Mallpark" built, McLane by (maybe) rigging a public-funding referendum for "The Bandbox" after (certainly) strong-arming the city into giving him what he wanted. Recently, both Hicks and McLane have also become crybaby squillionaires, which by itself is enough to turn the stomach of the average ticket-buyer.

So, for reasons of philosophy or just prickliness, none of these teams—and several others I haven't named—appeal to me, and I'm stranded in conversation. I have a half-baked theory that sports fans are supposed to have clear favorites as a converse of the same rule that polite strangers don't announce their political or religious opinions. While it's all too easy to go awry with meaty issues like abortion or gun control or the afterlife, when it comes to sports, it's actually beneficial to take sides. Taking sides allows for pleasant, semaphoric conversation:

"Yeah, I'm a lifelong Cubs fan."

"Uh-oh, I'm the biggest Cardinals diehard you ever saw. . . ."

And ribaldry ensues as our two fans proceed to talk baseball, well grounded in terms of each other's beliefs, but without knowing or caring—or needing to—about each other's politics, religion, income, or foibles. Fandom can provide a respite from rational dissection of the game (a favorite hobby, or particular affliction, of mine) and a social haven among other fans.

Fandom also implies a personally nostalgic connection to a game that is unapologetic in its love of nostalgia. This is where my lack of a team really gut-punches me. Plenty of older folks from, say, western Pennsylvania could tell you about when they were eight years old and their father took them to old Forbes Field to see the Pirates play. I have nothing like that. On an emotional level, I wish I could have that for myself, and I'd like to give it to my own young children. But my prickly side kicks in and tells me that they won't get it at The Mallpark or The Bandbox, which traps me between a yearning for a missing nostalgia and a perhaps neurotic quest for baseball purity.

These matters aside, here's the awkward crux of my problem: Texas has never felt like home to me. We moved here when I was ten, had lived three different places before that, and I always assumed that I would end up someplace else. Mind you, this feels a little awkward to say about a place that's home to so many of my friends and family, a place that I usually like and sometimes love, but it's the heart of the matter for me. I take note of the symptoms of our rootless culture because I myself feel rootless.

Okay, so a love of baseball isn't the answer to all of life's problems, and it isn't the answer to my desire to live elsewhere, either. In fact, as will already be clear, Major League Baseball sometimes disgusts me as it and its plutocrat owners bank on the nostalgia and faux-nostalgia that the game generates. They bank on it literally, in collecting their millions under the shield of the antitrust exemption. They bank on it figuratively, in the sense that they count on fans' love of the game to bail them out from their cravenness as, from time to time, the game comes to a screeching halt—or, thankfully this time around, merely threatens to come to a screeching halt. (By the way: I have issues with the players' bargaining methods, too, but I'll spare you.)

Whatever future labor negotiations may hold in store, there is at least a solution in sight for my personal dilemma. My wife (a dear woman who indulges my baseball obsessions) and I have decided to move to Vermont—this year if we can, 2004 at the latest. We have many reasons for this, but they center around natural beauty, four real seasons, lack of crowding, and personal affection for the area built up through repeated visits.

While some Vermonters feel the pull of the Expos (or even the Yankees), most of New England fandom is, of course, locked into an epic love-hate relationship with the Red Sox. Considering my own background in religious studies, this may be the most appropriate course; Red Sox fandom has been compared to an ascetic spiritual discipline, since it's centered around the beautiful Fenway cathedral but still forces one to deal with the most abject sorts of suffering while retaining purity of faith.

I find myself rooting for the Sox more and more. I chat about them with a coworker, a Boston native who got good seats to Sox games back in college by buying tickets on behalf of professional scalpers.

At the moment early in the 2001 season when my wife and I first tossed around the idea of a move to New England, rooting for the Sox might have looked mildly opportunistic: the club was in first place, the Yankees appeared mortal, and it seemed like the best chance in years for Boston's return to the World Series. Early last season, things looked good again, with the Sox still atop the American League East and the Yankees looking less than juggernautesque.

Don't tug on Superman's cape, you know? The Yankees streaked to 103 wins and the Red Sox finished several games back in the wild-card hunt. Oh well, maybe this is a perfect introduction to Red Sox fandom: watching a good team with great players fall short. Might as well get used to it early.

Fandom is supposed to be more visceral than cerebral, and I know that some of my quasi-logical analyses here won't hold water for anybody but me. As much as anything, no doubt, they're merely rationalizations for my own opinions. But maybe I need those quasi-rational connections between Red Sox fandom and my hopes for rootedness to help satisfy my own visceral desire to belong. If so, so be it.

I don't feel right to shout it yet. For someone who's usually anti-superstitious, I'm also unaccountably skittish of jinxing things by buying a Boston hat before we make the move. But here it is, sotto voce: Go Sox.

—EFQ

 

TIM WALKER writes about the semiconductor industry for a living. His freelance work has appeared in the Austin Chronicle, Blue Ear, and other venues. He lives with his wife and children in Austin, Texas (for now).

© 2003 Tim Walker

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