How We Root

There is plenty of analysis regarding Alex Rodriguez' stagecraft yesterday, and the situation got us thinking a little bit about the bonds we have (or lack) with the players who toil for our beloved ballclubs (my thoughts aren't quite as focused as Jeff Pearlman's) and the sport itself.  How, and for whom, do we root?  And why?  It comes down to this: we like our players and our sports likable.  We like to root for men who act with class and dignity, who play hard.  We like guys who perform in the clutch, ideally.  We like guys who play to the best of their efforts.  We like guys who are honest, as far as we can tell.  We also like guys with attitudes, even if they would normally tick us off.  And we like guys who wear the uniform of the team we root for, even if we hated them in other duds.  We measure them by their own actions and do not hold them responsible for the actions of others', even if they might be complicit or too accepting of those teammates' actions (see Pearlman), our critical skills tempered by their elite abilities.  We don't like guys for any one of these things alone, though in certain circumstances any one of them might suffice.  It's why we pick favorites and why, if we had the choice, we'd select our guy to hit a game-winning homer over some other person's guy, why we want our guy to throw that last pitch and jump into the arms of the catcher over some other guy.  Anyone who says we don't pick favorites for certain attributable (and perhaps unprovable and sometimes even misapplied) reasons isn't being honest.

That's the thing.  We make choices of for whom we root, who we will remember the most, who our "heroes" are.  And our heroes are different from 30 years ago: the hero of a ten year old is a different man from the hero of a 40 year old is probably different from the hero of a 70 year old.  We idolized Wade Boggs at age 15, not so much at age 30 once reality had set in, and at 40 Boggs in his prime is just a happy reminiscence for us, not the memory of a role model.  We hope that we will always respect fair play, even if the plays (and players) themselves aren't always fair.  We respect people who put in an (apparently) honest day's work (however we subjectively or, foolishly, measure that), and people who try, and keep trying, even if they fail.  Especially if they fail and then eventually succeed.  One doesn't have to be the greatest ever to be the most adored, though being very good or great certainly helps.  We revel in the classiness of Mariano Rivera, the resilience of Jon Lester, the composure of Derek Jeter, because these are traits we desire in ourselves.  That may be somewhat deluded, naive.  In reality, those for whom we root may be more like the awesomely talented Alex Rodriguez than we want to admit or may ever know.  Insecure.  Calculating.  Dishonest.  Fallible.  But in the end this doesn't matter: for those we love, those who we perceive to have put in those honest days, we direct our gaze the other way.  The slack is longer.

So while we may constantly root for those who we don't like, in moments, we'll always root for those who have built up our trust.  But most importantly, and amidst all this syrupy navel-gazing, we have realized (or just recognized anew?) that the sport is what garners our support. It mimics, to an exaggerated extent, our life apart from the game.  Filled with characters, it is powerful, poetic, and imperfect, an often uncanny analog for life outside the lines.  Baseball is resilient but, like many of its participants and fans, flawed.  On a daily basis we fans put up with the flawed in our own lives – we are flawed ourselves — and hence are able to assimilate events like those of the past few weeks and move forward.  Just as we root for those who have qualities we aspire to exhibit, we forgive the game because we recognize that perfection is unattainable. 
In the end, it seems that we root first for baseball, as a sport.  And we root second for the men who play the game.  That prioritization innoculates this game, our national pastime, for better or for worse.  It's how, and why, we root.

13 replies on “How We Root”

Elegantly stated, and at just the right time. Thanks, SF.
“Filled with characters, it is powerful, poetic, and imperfect, an often uncanny analog for life outside the lines.”
This is true, but it’s also, I think, the imaginary perfection of the game that we seek–giamatti’s “green fields of the mind”–and it is for this reason, our need for something outside our own quotidian struggles, that we are so willing to divorce ourselves and otherwise ignore the ugly realities of the professional game.

Or worse, pretending there were much better times in the not too distant past. That allows guys like Torre and Gossage to pretend that some results are tainted but others are not while reporters to fail to ask questions about their use of now banned substances. It’s so much easier to bemoan the modern athlete while lamenting the loss of a supposed virgin time period.

I think it that it isn’t so much that there is an imaginary perfection that we seek, but rather that the game is as imperfect as we are, and thus fully accessible and, to an extent, forgivable. We forgive ourselves our flaws almost every day, so I don’t think it is a stretch to say that this enables us to forgive baseball its sins as well.

“We forgive ourselves our flaws almost every day, so I don’t think it is a stretch to say that this enables us to forgive baseball its sins as well.”
I do wonder what it is about baseball that makes us so intent on examining its flaws so thoroughly, as opposed to other sports. I think that you’re right, sf, that we ultimately always forgive baseball its sins, but the process seems prolonged, almost a punishing one. Is it because we’re a more neurotic or self-reflective group than other types of fans?

I do wonder what it is about baseball that makes us so intent on examining its flaws so thoroughly, as opposed to other sports.
The problem is baseball fans, and writers, value the game’s numbers. And numbers can do no wrong. They’re too far abstracted from the people and game to accumulate a personality of their own. Sure, 61 or 56 or .400 are tied to particular players, but the notion that they could somehow be topped is part of the timeless aspects of the game.
The only other sports that have such an attachment to specific accomplishments is in the Olympics (and perhaps cycling). Each has also had its share of doping scandals. The problem for baseball is we cherish the numbers in some Platonic ideal but it forces us to reconcile difficult questions about their status – past, present, and future. So baseball writers have easy stories written for them when Torre talks about “taint. But those same writers show how vapid they are when they fail to put those comments into proper perspective by asking the all-too obvious questions.
Any case, the real problem with A-Rod (and Bonds) long-term is how their play affects the timeless aspects of the sport – the numbers. Since most baseball writers only deal in absolutes, especially the ones working for rags, they can’t possibly fathom a changing landscape that exists only in shades of grey. The problem is the landscape is changing underneath our very feet. We’re watching it happen, if we haven’t already. 61 just doesn’t mean anything anymore (and it’s easy to forget it had an asterisk at one point). Who or what is to blame would be an interesting read, but it certainly isn’t as simple as PEDs or as simple-minded as the rag scribes would lead us to believe.

Well said, SF. It’s about honesty and integrity over the long haul. Period. The A-fraud and unfortunately the Yankees don’t get that and continue to exhibit an arrogance that will harm their brands/businesses. I hesitate to say ruin these because time heals all wounds and, as SF says, the hero or villain of a 15-year-old is different than the hero of a 40-year old, etc.
Mike Francessa was very eloquent in is criticism of “the presser” yesterday afternoon but what can really be done on the spot to satisfy all of the public’s problems with A-Fraud? He is a phony and a liar with a 10-year contract, and his employer appears to encourage him rather than chastise him. I’ll repeat an A-rod episode that I witnessed: In the 07 playoffs vs. Cleveland when game 4, the series and the season was on the line, what did Arod do between mid-game innings? He waltzed over to where Katie Couric was sitting to exchange signed bats. What he was really doing was softening up the person who would be interviewing him a few weeks later and who would sit and swallow all his lies. Oh, and he is stupid young and naive and has no advisor infrastructure (or years in college with the keg and funnelator).
Francesa made another good point: many more fans played baseball at least as kids than any other sport. This puts more emotional ties into the mix when we judge events in the game.
I could go on and on…it is frustrating to see baseball and our teams toally out of touch with reality and stumbling down a path that leads away from the immensely lucrative and popular spot they have in our socioeconomic system.

Thanks SF. Navel-gazing or no, this is something I think about quite a lot myself as I’ve never really understood how or why I’m a Baseball fan, and this, especially in the last two grafs, described it pretty spot-on.
The game itself is (I think) what draws people in to stay. Specific players provide the human face to anchor our attention but players can sometimes fall out of our favor or even fade from our memories. Our teams provide a level of involvement and a narrative arc for continuity, but even when their fortunes wane, the teams still playing remain interesting to most fans.
This is not an expert opinion, but my sense for why we’re collectively so tough on Baseball (as opposed to the other sports) has less to do with being neurotic but rather just how long the sport has been around, which cuts both ways. It seems that for almost as long as Baseball has been popular, it’s had problems. So just as today’s stars and story lines are enriched by their parallels to the stars and stories of the past, every time there’s a scandal, we instantly think of “Say it ain’t so Joe” – even despite the quote being apocryphal.

Perfection is so much mopre attainable in our innocence. Yaz was perfect because I was 10 the only time I would see him play in a World Series.
The flaws come with age. And so we pine for a return to perfection. (This feels like a hackneyes version of a line stolen from Terrence Mann.)
As Dylan wrote, I was so much older then, I’m younger than that, now.

Well, obviously I love baseball. But I think it’s been really, really over-romanticized, like many pastoral games are.

Beautiful post. As I’ve gotten older and come to realize that not all is as black and white as I thought as a kid (Red Sox good, Yankees bad), this topic has more and more been something I’ve thought on.
Rob brings up a good point about the supposed perfection of the past, though I don’t think this is unique to baseball. How many times do we hear that this is the most XXXXXXX era in history? Most violent, most rapacious, most enlightened, dumbest, etc. Often, this just isn’t the case, but it’s the egoism of the present. Every generation thinks it’s better than those before it — even if it’s better at screwing up. It creates this odd juxtaposition in which we see stories, sometimes by the same writers, praising this as both the Golden Age of baseball and the most depraved era of cheaters and ne’er-do-wells.

mixed fellings: what a refreshing thread [thanks for starting it sf], even if it made me a bit melancholy to read it…my take on it is that time puts a nice soft patina on our memories…and you’re right bill, i had a different perspective about life and baseball at 10 years old than i do now…the end of the innocence comes at a different time for every generation…

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