We Are Baseball: A Manifesto

I am more smitten with baseball in the last two weeks of February than at any other time of the year. It was in the last two weeks of February in 2009 that I conceived of this blog and opened it for business. This time of year, before Spring Training becomes a tired rehashing of the same position battles, before fantasy baseball numbs our collective intellects, before Opening Day creeps from the subconscious, is fertile for baseball writing.

It is also fertile for nostalgia. You can see it in that last paragraph and the optimism that spilled from it. Pitchers and catchers and left fielders and shortstops. They’re back. We’re back. Everybody’s happy. This post was supposed to be studied and precise – a sociological work, not a drooling soliloquy about green grass and red dirt. And yet here we are.

The truth about baseball is that there is no avoiding nostalgia. History lingers over everything, and our many different approaches to fandom are just mechanisms for coping with it. Nostalgia is a fundamental desire to be part of something better – to feel something great that you once felt, or think you felt, or imagine somebody else could have felt. Nostalgia is a way to align ourselves. That is the past I want and this is the present I must now deal with.

“Fandom, like nostalgia, is a way of wrapping ourselves up in sensible context”

Fandom is not so different. We place ourselves in artificial nations. We align ourselves. While the acts of fandom – watching games, researching stats, nurturing complex feelings about players or set of players – may be deeply personal, they amount collectively to a declaration of co-dependence, a linking of hands with history and the people who are currently making it. Fans, much like voters and activists and even opinionated readers of the news, are staking their claim in the culture of something meaningful to them. Fans are necessary. Instead of hesitating to refer to their favorite teams as “we,” fans should be going one step further and referring to the entire sport in the first person collective. We are baseball, hockey, hoops etc.

Fandom, like nostalgia, is a way of wrapping ourselves up in sensible context. But the relationship between the two is nuanced. Fandom also involves nostalgia. Especially in baseball, where the relationship is so storied, so ubiquitous, so self-perpetuating. Practically the entire history of baseball literature from Ring Lardner to Bill James deals with nostalgia in some conscious or subconscious way.

Some fans, of course, choose full immersion. For them, nostalgia is an active possibility, and living in the moment and living in the past are exactly the same thing. In 1973 Roger Angell wrote a story for The New Yorker called “Three for the Tigers” about three crazed Detroit Tigers fans. For these men, the past was as vital as the present. Time was fluid. Far more important was their full immersion in the sport, in the team. By way of their friendship and their fandom, they essentially created an alternate universe in which topics of conversation flowed unencumbered by time and were only marginally influenced by present-day goings on. In this fandom, nostalgia becomes present tense. Angell’s story is a reminder that fandom is an act of self-affirmation:

They are the veterans who deserve notice if only for the fact that their record of achievement and service to their game and their club often exceeds that of any player down on the field. The home team, in their belief, belongs more to them than to this passing manager or that arriviste owner, and they are often cranky possessors, trembling with memory and pride and frustration, as ridiculous and touching as any lovers.

The act is not always so aggressive or aggrandizing. One does not need to define his or herself by fandom to claim a stake in the collective nature of a sport or a team. And one certainly does not need to seek asylum in nostalgia like Angell’s Tigers fans in order to confront it. Even rejecting nostalgia outright as a component of one’s fandom is a manner of confronting it, acknowledging it and even embracing it. The ultimate model for this is Bill James, who’s thirst for convention-breaking was/is matched only by his fascination with the most arcane details of player’s careers. For a modern example: Jonah Keri is one of the baseball media’s most convincing purveyors of new ideas. But when he starts musing on the late Expos, you can practically see him before you picking daisies and staring longingly into the Canadian distance.

“Sabermetricians have bludgeoned the baseball dialogue into something unrecognizable (and I would say better) from that of a previous generation, but they have also bludgeoned their way into history.”

There is inherent tension in Jonah Keri’s fandom and in anybody’s who doesn’t succumb fully to their deepest nostalgic yearnings. We are reconciling our modern selves — our willingness to confront newness, our information-addled brains, our self-conscious multimedia identities — with an undeniable craving for solid ground amidst a cultural landscape that reinvents itself every minute. Sabermetricians have bludgeoned the baseball dialogue into something unrecognizable (and I would say better) from that of a previous generation, but they have also bludgeoned their way into history. In this way, they are creating solid ground for themselves.

But that doesn’t make them/us exempt from the trappings of traditional baseball nostalgia. It was those trappings that inspired me to start writing this post. I saw Bethany Heck’s Baseball Scorebook Revival Project on Kickstarter and immediately descended into what I call the thought spirals. The scorebooks themselves are beautiful, slender, and modern. The accompanying merchandise all has the same stylish retro-grace. It’s no wonder the project has captured baseball fans’ imaginations.

Ted pointed out that they are a product perfect for the moleskine era. How true. Moleskine notebooks themselves are nostalgic — and easily mocked — souvenirs. I bought my first one because it looked cool. I bought my second because of the little card inside the first one listing the great artists and writers (Matisse, Hemingway, Chatwin, etc.) who allegedly carried moleskines around. I was placing myself in history. We do the same by keeping score. It’s an inherently nostalgic act, a deliberate throwback. But by doing so with a delightfully well-designed product, we aren’t just steeping ourselves in comfortable tradition, we’re reconciling it with our present-day aesthetics and values. We’re making nostalgia modern.

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