I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, what one would call a sports guy. Strangely, this might be Kurt Cobain’s fault. Around eighth grade, I read a bunch of interviews where he talked about the dickhead attitudes instilled by organized athletics. Maybe it was a coincidence, but I certainly noticed it when I entered high school a year later. And, y’know, if Kurt didn’t like sports, well, maybe there was something to that idea. It’s not like I ever liked anything but baseball anyway. After playing first base, obsessively collecting cards, and memorizing statistics up until that point, I no longer gave a shit. Of course, it probably didn’t help that the Mets — my team of choice since childhood — had degenerated into a series of disappointing years.
For the subsequent decade, I maintained my hatred of the Yankees, while identifying myself as a Mets fan in name only, like they were a hometown of which I was reluctantly proud. This year, it’s different. This year, things are good. Spring has sprung, and the Mets are in first place (at least, as of this week). But, as I’ve realized, I’m that most lizardy of fanatics: the one who goes out to the park ‘cause the getting got good. Early in the season, my neighbor and I were all set to go out to a game until we found out about an impending storm. We stayed in and watched the rain-soaked match on television. I was, I realized — both literally and figuratively — a fair-weather fan.
At first, the shock of recognition disgusted me. After abandoning baseball, I started listening to hippie music: Phish, the Dead, and the like. Along with any numbers of ethics lessons (real or imagined) I may’ve learned by hanging out in utopian music obsessive communities, one a priori belief ran constant: stand by your band.
The Dead were still touring then. I saw my first of two shows at the Nassau Coliseum in the spring of 1994. The crowd was louder than the band, and the band wasn’t very good. The Deadheads were obviously having a blast, though. They stood by their band because anything else was unthinkable. Without the band, there’d be no reason to gather, and without a reason to gather, what would be the point of identifying as a Deadhead? If the Deadheads might be considered a real, defined community — and plenty of sociological studies have suggested that that’s exactly what they were — the rose-colored glasses were merely the tribe’s evolutionary survival technique. There was a certain pride in listening to a band through thick and thin, in being able to appreciate what was objectively bad music by understanding the vocabulary it was created from.
When I started following the Mets again, I grew suspicious of myself. But the games have been good, which is certainly a fine standard to apply. More than a band, a professional sports team is a business concern, assembled by a money-driven organization that believe that a better team will draw more people to the game. They’ve succeeded, at least with me. But is it fair to think of a band as something greater than a "mere" business? Or wrong to think of a sports team as a collection of athletes and organizers only in it for the money? Certainly, commitment is required on the part of the fan in order to fully appreciate the product in question. The more one knows about baseball, the greater the drama that will engage him over the course of a year. But what, exactly, is one’s relationship with a sports team?
What does one gain by accepting the bad along with the good? What does one lose by rejecting it? After all, sports and music are both (ostensibly, anyway) entertainment, both are (in reality) businesses, and — to make up the difference — both have existential stakes in presenting themselves as something more than either of those descriptions. Like religion and government, both are institutions given power by the collective unconscious of those who agree to follow them. The ability to abstract a larger plot arc from a smaller piece, such as a routine ground out to third or an errant guitar solo, is perhaps what separates the fair-weather fan from the fanatic, and both are ways of giving meaning to a sequence of quickly passing moments.
The fair-weather fan is hated because he is a bandwagon hopper. He has not suffered for the rewards of a winning team. Maybe I am a fair-weather fan, but — hey — somebody’s gotta do it. That’s how baseball works, right? What incentive would the Mets’ owners have to put together a winning team if the stands were packed at the team’s shittiest? No one I’ve encountered at Shea Stadium this year seems particularly perturbed by my shallowness. Besides, there are still plenty of empty seats.
"You gotta believe!" was the rallying cry of Mets’ reliever Tug McGraw in 1973, as the Mets rose from last-place at the mid-season All-Star break to make it to the World Series. If that’s all I have to do, I think I can handle that. To paraphrase Stephen Colbert: I believe in baseball, I believe it exists. Maybe that’s all you need (and love, of course).
Jesse Jarnow blogs at wunderkammern27.com.