Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Night In A Car Alone: A Brief Rumination On Irrational Fandom.

Being fans is a fascinatingly irrational part of our daily lives.  Whether it's a psychopathic overreaction to Kristen Stewart cheating on Robert Pattinson (and seriously, have we come to this, people?) or going near-catatonic over a humiliating playoff loss (like I did after the Falcons' atrocious showing against the Giants last year), the idea that we would emotionally invest in people and their exploits with virtually zero reciprocity is counterintuitive to the point of foolishness.  We cede certain territories of our souls to the objects of our fandom, and ask that they keep those fiefdoms in good repair.  Sometimes they're kind enough to oblige.  More often, those little geographical soul-areas are left with the weeds choking out all other flora and covering over the dilapidated buildings.  And yet, we keep going back to the well. 

We do this because, especially in this age of internet unilateral consciousness cum digitized isolation, we badly need real-world affirmation.  The nod to the person on the street wearing the same ball cap we're wearing.  The high fives with the random people in the stadium or the sports bar after a big play.  Fandom, even the long-suffering variety, is a balm for the countless bruises we sustain on our hearts and minds because we can share it.  Perhaps especially when it's also the cause of said bruises.  This paragraph is overwrought and a dead-horse-beaten reprisal of a thousand just like it, but it's that way because it is rooted in truth.  Fandom matters because it imparts a fundamental sense of belonging to the fan.    

Of course, there are also the contradictory tendencies that come with devotion.  Most common and identifiable is the "player you hate now but would adore if they were traded to your team."  (Copyright: Bill Simmons.)  I mean, I'm fairly certain Cole Hamels is an irredeemable d-bag, but if I woke up tomorrow and he was miraculously on the Braves' playoff roster, I would go buy his jersey immediately.  (Obviously, there are exceptions for people like John Rocker.)  It really is incredible how the name on the front of the uniform can eradicate any negatives associated with the name on the back.

But this kind of thing is mostly harmless, and also falls into the shared experience category.  It's when you isolate us, when the act of rooting becomes a solitary thing, that the emotions that find release and reflection among our fellow fans turn inwards and can lead to the more illogical extremes of rooting.  When you can't vent with or express you opinions to other people about what's going on in the game, things can take a bizarre turn.  

Last night, I had possibly the most viscerally irrational moment of my sports fan life, and that, folks, is saying something.  

Here I was, alone, in a dark car at night.  After a ten-hour work day, all I wanted was to get home, crack a beer, catch the end of the Braves game, watch the second half of Bears/Cowboys, and go to bed.  Unfortunately, I was stuck in a torrential downpour of the sort that grinds traffic to a crawl because no one can see out of their windshield for the rain, creeping down 400 South at eight miles an hour.  So I was already tense and cranky.  On the radio, Don Sutton and Jim Powell were narrating as the Braves struggled to stage a late-inning rally on the Pirates.  Since the Nationals were losing to Philly, we still had a shot at the division.  We win out, they lose out, presto: NL East title. 

Now, here's where things got strange in my interior fan dialogue.  (Or, you know, sad.)  Instead of getting upset at our anemic bats for failing to get anyone across the plate, I became absolutely furious at the Pirates.  Their season, after all, is over.  These last few games are a formality as they stagger to another sub-.500 finish, when even a month ago their playoff hopes were so vividly alive.  They don't have any dignity to play for.  Sid Bream took it with him when he left the visitors' clubhouse in Three Rivers Stadium in '92, and it hasn't been back since.  There was nothing in this game for Pittsburgh ... so why didn't the bastards have the decency to roll over and lose?  Why did they insist on fucking up our season?  Why?!?!?!  I started muttering snide and petulant asides every time a Pirates batter stepped into the box.  "I bet your OPS is terrible, Josh Harrison.  I've never even heard of you.  And you're probably lousy at Scrabble, too."  I was trying to be funny for the audience in my empty passenger seat, but I swear to Craig Kimbrel, there was real vitriol behind every thought and word.  For whatever reason, I simply could not fathom why the Bucs wouldn't lay down and die, and it incensed me with rage.

Two things about this: First, it is likely better for the Braves that we lost last night.  We can rest Chipper, Mac, Prado, and anyone else who needs a breather.  We can set the postseason rotation.  We can focus on scouting the Cardinals as fully as possible.  We can take a beat, let the kids on the bench get some time without it being critical, and see where they're at.  Tactically, this is a superior position to mad-sprinting and nail-biting our way towards an almost certainly unattainable division title.  And I knew that last night.  I knew losing that game would probably be better for the Braves in terms of the postseason, yet I still desperately wanted us to win that game.     

And second, why on earth should I want or expect the Pirates to just give up?  Truthfully, I'm afflicted by far more saccharine sentimentality than a proper 21st-Century sports writer ought to have.  I confess that to a great extent, I love all the "spirit of competition" and "majesty of sport" and "triumph of human will" jazz that gets spouted in the form of tacky aphorisms by certain ESPN personalities or in the pages of SI.  The thought of striving in the face of long odds or playing out the string for the love of the game fills me with warm fuzzies.  (Yes, I am a sap.)  In any other circumstance, I'm sure I would have thought the Pirates quite noble for playing hard even in the ashes and wreckage of another lousy September, made all the worse because things looked so promising for so long this year.  

But I didn't.  I was just pissed that these clowns were actually trying.  Again: I ascribed zero blame to the Braves' hitters who kept leaving runners stranded on base; it was all on the opposition for actually, well, opposing us.  And it occurred to me that I would never have felt this way if we were playing, say, the Brewers.  Because Milwaukee has been a pretty good ball club these past few seasons.  It was the notion of a lesser team, a weaker team, having the gall to step into our path.  In a brief moment of utter madness, I had become a bourgeois fan.  I felt entitled to my team stomping all over someone else purely because they were supposed to.  God help me, I'd turned into a Yankees fan.

I have no idea what possessed me.  Normally, I'm passionate but not irrational in my fandom, and not prone to these sorts of bile-fueled funks.  For whatever reason, last night set me off.  My neural pathways were shorted out, and temporarily replaced with idiocy.  Being a fan is strange that way, sometimes. 

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