I think the joy of sports fandom comes in direct correlation with one’s investment in the team. It’s not about whether one has a “valid” claim to be a fan—no one except the players and coaches directly win or lose games—but how much one has given heart and soul over to share the team’s fate. None of this changes the actual outcome, contrary to what my, and every other fan’s, superstitions dictate. How you sit, which hat you wear, whether or not you breathe during the pitch, which beer cozy you utilize, these do not impact pitches and swings, catches and throws. They don’t.
But telling a fan this won’t convince him or her, any more than telling a dog that the ringing bell has nothing directly to do with getting fed. Bell leads to salivating because it means food in the dog’s mind. Sitting on the beanbag hunched over with my Yankees shirt and cap and batting helmet and batting glove and glove on meant victory when I was a kid. The dog gets food not because the bell rings—there is no causal effect between bell and nutrition—but because the owner/experimenter took the food and put it in the bowl. The fan ten-year-old got a victory because Bucky and Reggie hit home runs and Guidry and Goose threw the ball well enough to keep the Red Sox from equaling those homers (Woohoo!), notbecause of my clothing or baseball equipment or position or respiration.
However—however!—the investment we make, emotionally, and even spiritually, in our teams, in paying attention to them, talking about them, thinking on them in our idle moments, making our world about their world, “knowing them” in this sense, these all cause us to feel attached and thus we experience either joy or sorrow at their contest’s outcome. We have invested our hearts. They have become “our” team.
Believing that we influence any game’s outcome makes us feel connected more than anything else could. It’s a fantasy, a delusion, completely and utterly in our minds and nowhere else in reality,* but to believe fully that our and their outcomes are joined, are one, we must convince ourselves that their win is our win, our loss is their loss, and only because we, together, did everything right do we share our collective triumph.
As convincing as this might sound, it does not tell the whole story. The relationship between player and fan is much more intertwined than I just described because one other point of connection exists, a crucial one, that keeps this insane planet and moon of pro sports spinning together and, in fact, leaves us questioning which is the planet and which the satellite. Which is dependent on the other? Or, as some astronomers have argued, are we interdependent after all?
The “fantasy world” of fans would not exist without the physical world of players. But neither would the world of professional athletes exist without fans. We aren’t mere spectators. We, collectively, are patrons. The players play their games in what we call the “real,” physical world and fans build massive sky castles atop this world. But fans fund the enterprise. We don’t sign the players’ checks but we, collectively, pay the salaries. Fans, in the big picture, foot the bill for the whole venture.
We talk about rich, spoiled modern players, but fans make them wealthy. The entire orbit of sports and fandom rests on us, the people who don’t play the game professionally and our willingness to finance the people who do. I am a big fan—that might have come across—but how hilarious that fans imagine we control pitch location by how we hold our tongues, yet forget (or never quite grasp) that this entire house of cards depends on us because we paid for the cards!
Now, as with our body politic, this doesn’t feel true, or doesn’t feel personal. If you or I decided to boycott professional sports, our dollars would not be missed. There are too many of us, and too many varied levels upon which this castle is built, for any one of us to feel like he or she, you or I, have power—exactly as with voting, when we “know” that one vote means nothing. BUT enough votes together means everything.
One fan buying tickets and jerseys and full season broadcast viewing and sports cards and beers and hot dogs at the stadium, though this can add up to a significant budget item for a middle class individual, still means jack in terms of a professional sports franchise. If, next year, you decide to spend all that money, be it hundreds or tens of thousands of dollars, on ballet lessons, the works of Moliere and Flaubert, and a trip to Naples, Italy, instead of Naples, Florida (MLB spring training) and whatever is left from your previous year’s fan budget on eye and dental care for refugee children, though your life might change significantly, your team would not change one accent mark of a Hebrew letter. They will still make their budget, sign their multi-year players, offer their ten- or hundred-million dollar contracts, fill their stadium, and keep their crazy world spinning.
(Related tangent: The most alluring/enticing/maddening figures, to me, are the ones that estimate the good we could do with the money we would save if only we would stop drinking Coke (for example) and give that money to feed starving children or cure malaria. It might be true, those might even be accurate estimates, but it will never happen. Too many people like Coke, too many people believe in their “right” to buy whatever they want with their money that they earned, too many people love their own comfort and small luxuries more than a stranger’s “right” to eat or stay alive. What does “right to life” mean in that context? “If you could afford it, you would have a right to life? Unfortunately for you, you can’t.” Sorry, got serious there for a second.)
In professional sports, which is the planet and which the moon? Without this major league game, can our fandom exist? Without fans providing the gross national product of developing nations on sports team-related expenses, would the professional players end up in local adult leagues? Would the Carolina Mill Leagues form again?
And thus, when a team wins their title, be it Super Bowl, World Series, NBA Championship, or Stanley Cup, almost every single year when the players from the winning team get interviewed after the game, in that frenzy of excitement and manic joy of receiving their ultimate prize, they will say, “We wanna thank our fans, the best fans in the whole bleeping world, cuz we could’na done it without you.”
That is literally true.
Here, then, are the two poles of my argument: We are not, in reality, connected with these players or teams personally or directly that we might have have any claim that they are “ours,” though many of us garner meaning in our lives from precisely this claim; Yet we, the fans, spend absurd and obscene piles of money on what must be called, by definition, luxury, and we sustain the system that makes twenty-year-olds into multi-millionaires because they happen to be born with certain athletic ability and drive.
Is it all in our heads? Or does forty—or eighty—years of shouting for a team, crying (or cussing) when they lose, rejoicing when they win, wearing their colors and following their stats day after day while our kids grow up and get married and move away and have their children, while our pets go from young pups to old dogs and die and we get new ones and maybe even our marriages don’t last (though I hope they do), does all this mean that we’ve been “with” this team for longer than we’ve been with anything or anyone else in our lives? And even if that’s so, maybe it’s still all in our heads.
Is it real? Is it a superstition? Is it like praying to the moon or worshiping the fairies that come dance on our lawn? Is it more real if we do it for more years than we do anything else? Just because we’ve done it our whole lives doesn’t make it true, or substantive. Does it?
But maybe there is a connection. Maybe the one who follows his or her team through the ups and the downs, as reigning champs, cellar dwellers, and middle-of-the-pack hopefuls, who helps (in small part) to keep the team in business and collects cards of each player, whether great or mediocre or hopeless, who sends the grandchildren Yankees or Tigers onesies, who finally makes the team part of life, maybe this one has made him- or herself part of the life of the team.
If some of our happiest memories are at the ballpark, or in front of the TV when the impossible finally happened (Chicago Cubs, 2016), if we can recount a story in such vivid detail from the ninth year of life and it only makes us want to know and learn more, about then, about now, perhaps…
*Except maybe if you’re a 12th Man for the Seahawks.