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February 18, 2011

Baseball ProGUESTus

Metafandom, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Superfluous Junk Surrounding Baseball

by Craig Calcaterra

Believe it or not, most of our writers didn't enter the world sporting an @baseballprospectus.com address; with a few exceptions, they started out somewhere else. In an effort to up your reading pleasure while tipping our caps to some of the most illuminating work being done elsewhere on the internet, we'll be yielding the stage once a week to the best and brightest baseball writers, researchers and thinkers from outside of the BP umbrella. If you'd like to nominate a guest contributor (including yourself), please drop us a line.

Craig Calcaterra writes the HardballTalk blog at NBC Sports.com. Before that he was the proprietor of Shysterball, a baseball blog of moderate renown. He was a civil litigator for 11 years, but he's feeling much better now.

In 1982, the Lipton Tea Company printed and gave away at ballparks posters with covers of every World Series program on them. My brother and I got ours at Tiger Stadium. I have no memory of the game we saw that day, but I distinctly remember climbing over seats after most of the crowd had departed, collecting extra copies of the souvenir handout. We went home with at least eight or nine copies of it. I lived in four houses over the next nine years before going away to college, but from the day I brought mine home, the poster—well, one of them, anyway—was always a fixture on my bedroom wall.

The program covers were arranged in eight satisfying rows of nine and one row of six, with the 1903 program in the bottom right corner and the latest—1981—at the top left. Each program cover was clearly reproduced, with the type and photos legible. It was a colorful poster, highly pleasing to the eye. It invited long hours of study, and did I ever study it. Indeed, I studied it so much that my nine-year-old self quickly memorized every World Series match-up in baseball history.

But something else happened as a result of my intensive study: to this day, I am utterly incapable of thinking of any World Series that took place between 1903 and 1981 without instantly picturing the program cover. Even for World Series of which I’ve subsequently seen highlights, or in some cases, entire games on film, it is the program cover that is emblazoned on my mind and in my memory, to the point where, to this day, it crowds out the actual events which transpired in those Fall Classics.

1932 is not about Babe Ruth’s Called Shot, it’s about the WPA-esque painting of the Yankees player sliding into home. 1934 is not about The Gashouse Gang, it’s about a Tiger, standing on its hind legs. 1956 isn’t about Don Larsen’s perfect game, it’s about how Casey Stengel and Walter Alston were zapped with radiation and grew large enough to tower over their respective ballparks.

Only now, nearly 30 years after I first laid eyes on that poster, have I started to think about what it all means. How can this mere totem—a free giveaway—eclipse all that I have since learned about World Series history? I’ve written dozens of blog posts about the World Series over the years. I’ve read multiple books about it. I’ve pored over box scores and articles about them while conducting research. Why do these little thumbnail sketches—many of which have little, if anything, to do with the actual matchups—continue to define the World Series for me?

I don’t have a definitive answer, but I do have a word and the beginnings of an idea that I can’t escape. The word is “metafan.” The concept is that, in my case, at least as far as the World Series is concerned, my knowledge is mere abstraction based on that poster. A poster that first served to complete the idea of the World Series in my limited understanding, but eventually consumed the idea, to the point where the real thing—the images, accounts, and descriptions of actual World Series games—have no room in which to flourish.

I’m not sure this is unique to me. I think almost all serious baseball fans are, to some extent or another, metafans. That they came to the game—or at least came to love or obsess about the game—through something other than actually sitting down and watching it. There was a hook there, be it fantasy baseball, computer baseball, Strat-O-Matic, collecting memorabilia, writing about the game, engaging in statistical analysis or any number of other not-quite-watching-baseball pursuits that helped them to transcend the life of a casual baseball fan and turn into a real zealot.

But as I’ve started to chew on this topic, I have begun to question whether metafandom pursuits just work as enablers or simply enhance the experience for people like us. I wonder if, at some point, metafandom can eclipse baseball itself and come to dominate one’s interaction with the game, much like my poster came to dominate my understanding of the World Series.

I’m a baseball writer and I talk to baseball writers a lot, so the notion of writing about the game changing one’s relationship to it is a familiar one. We’ve all heard of the baseball writer who claims he roots for no teams, only good stories. I’ve long been skeptical of such beasts—Really? Not a thing stirs within you when your childhood rooting interest wins?—but they do seem to exist.

What also exist are writers who still have rooting interests and who don’t claim that they need to leave their emotion or passion at the door for professional reasons, yet have nonetheless come to think of the game itself as somehow secondary. Just this week I came across two of them, one via an email conversation, the other via something he wrote. I agreed to keep the first one’s identity a secret because, well, you’ll see why:

There's a small part of me that's apprehensive about Opening Day. I spend so much time reading and writing about the game that I'm not sure when I'm actually going to find the time to watch it. The scary thing is, for at least part of the offseason, that prospect doesn't really bother me. I kind of enjoy having the time away to decompress and actually keep up with the steady stream of baseball news, so I'm left wondering how long I could realistically maintain my all-consuming interest in baseball without actually, you know, watching a baseball game.

Sometimes I almost have to remind myself that I have all these unread items to get to in Google Reader because I like baseball, and not the other way around. These days, when Jon Heyman says something about stat nerds not watching games, I feel like he’s looking into my soul, and it makes me feel unclean.

My friend is being too hard on himself, of course. The “you love your spreadsheets more than you love the game” criticism leveled by the Jon Heymans of the world is an utterly incoherent one, because it mistakes one’s attention to metafandom pursuits for a rejection of baseball itself. Which is silly. Who would ever spend so much time reading, writing and thinking about baseball—and most people who do it do it for free—if they didn’t truly love the game?

Still, there is something to the charge, even if the Heymans don’t realize it. There’s something remarkable—not wrong, not right, just remarkable—about how that which we think of as mere offshoots of one’s love of baseball—the collecting, the analyzing, the writing—has come to consume it. The hobby has become the passion and the pastime has been relegated to servitude. Boy, I know a lot of people in that boat. And they’re there willingly.

The second example of this I encountered this week was Jeff Pearlman, writing in the pages of the Wall Street Journal. Now, Pearlman isn’t necessarily a popular figure and he and I don’t see eye to eye on a heck of a lot, but in this instance he wasn’t touching on any of the sources of past disagreements. He was just making an observation that even those who aren’t Pearlman fans can understand on some level:

Watching sports is mostly boring. Talking and speculating about sports is riveting…The truth is, offseasons are 8,000 times as engrossing as seasons. Transaction listings trump box scores. Status updates kill service points. Ken Griffey Jr’'s return to Seattle? Riveting! Ken Griffey Jr., overweight and 40, regularly popping up to shortstop in his return to Seattle? Not so great.

The “mostly boring” is wrong, but I don’t think Pearlman is off base with most of that. I know a ton of fans feel that way. I write the HardballTalk blog over at NBC Sports.com, and I can tell you that for two years straight the traffic in December during the Winter Meetings has broken records for the site, and not just from the same people hitting “refresh” over and over again. More people—unique readers—want to read and comment about trade rumors and the hot stove than they do about Opening Day, the All-Star Game, the pennant races or anything in between.

These people are metafans. They are, if web traffic and general chatter are any guide, people who expend more time and effort thinking about the context of baseball and the environment in which baseball operates than they do about the game itself. People who like the idea of putting a team together more than they like watching the finished product. People who, growing up, wanted to be general managers, not center fielders.

And they’re not alone. There are fans who channel their energy into fantasy baseball and devote an inordinate amount of attention to aspects of the game that are primarily important for fantasy baseball purposes. There are baseball card collectors who are far more interested in how what happens on the field impacts card values than for its own sake. There even writers—and I’m a perfect example of one—who, at times, anyway, see baseball as something that is more interesting to write about than it is to actually watch. At more times than I’d even care to admit, actually.

Our metafandom doesn’t diminish our love for baseball. But it does, quite often, crowd it out. There are only so many hours in the day, after all. Sometimes it’s more expedient to turn off the game and get to our rosters, our checklists, our blog posts and—yes, I’ll say it—our spreadsheets.

And you know what’s coming next. This is the point where most people making the kinds of observations I’m making would mount the expected appeal. To argue that it’s time for us to set aside our metafandom, grab a beer and watch a ballgame because, by gum, that’s what it’s all about! It’s time to stand up for baseball for baseball’s sake and remember what it is that got us interested in the first place! Fresh-cut grass! Hot dogs! The crack of the bat! Jesus, people, why don’t we all get our heads out of our meta and watch a ballgame!

But screw that. Not me. I’d never make that argument. I loved that Lipton World Series poster so much that I found a copy of it on eBay a few years ago, framed it, and had it mounted on the wall of the very den in which I’m typing this. I will gladly switch off ballgames this summer because they’re distracting me from reading box scores and turning them into snarky recap posts for my little snarky recap feature I publish each morning. At some point in July I’ll go down to my basement and sort 1988 Donruss commons for three days, and I won’t turn on a game at all.

Give up my metafandom? Are you kidding me? There are thousands of baseball games each season. I’ll see plenty of them, and even if I miss a few, they’re not going anywhere. But I may lose my poster again one day, and I want to study it more. I watch a baseball game, but I truly commune with the objects of my metafandom. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

29 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

clete6
(577)

I admit, checking my fantasy teams' results (or reading And That Happened) is often more important to me than watching the actual games.

Feb 18, 2011 06:07 AM
rating: 0
 
Dave Holgado

Fantastic. And I love that you worked in the bit about the baseball cards, because for me and I'm sure for many, that (along with Strat) was the meta-obsession that preceded the fantasy baseball and/or statistical analysis thing. Even w/r/t my favorite player of all time, Don Mattingly, my most endearing memories of him are not the batting title, or the MVP, or the 8 games in a row with the HR, or his last hurrah in the '95 ALDS, but those baseball cards. They might always be my most prized possessions, no matter what the price guide says they're worth. On my death bed, I may even whisper "'84 Donruss" a la Citizen Kane.

Thanks for this article, Craig.

Feb 18, 2011 06:30 AM
rating: 7
 
bravejason

You're on to something with this metafan idea. I think I have a touch of metafan in me. I watched maybe four games all of last year, but I read BP everyday. It's like I'm more interested in learning about the game than the game iteself.

Feb 18, 2011 06:32 AM
rating: 1
 
nateetan

1988 Donruss cards were my first real exposure to baseball.

Feb 18, 2011 07:11 AM
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jhardman

Fabulous article. I have a scaled down version of that poster (released by Kellogg's in the early 1990's, along with two other posters depicting caps and uniforms, and given away free with boxtops from cereal boxes) framed and on my wall, and I have the same visions of World Series past.

Feb 18, 2011 07:31 AM
rating: 0
 
Jay Taylor

I blame my Cubs fandom for my love of all things baseball, except for watching the actual games!


That's not quite true. I love watching the games, up until the Cubs are out of it. In other words, I watch until May at least.

Feb 18, 2011 08:55 AM
rating: 4
 
RedsManRick

I wonder, how would this compare to other avenues of interest? Perhaps we're making a distinction that exists in almost every area, but which is simply not made. Think of any activity in which a person engages. Is a person who loves to eat less of a "fan" if he/she also loves to cook -- and spends more time cooking than eating?

Or heck, maybe Jon Heyman isn't much of a fan of the game because he's got his head buried in a telephone and MS Word.

I think it is the case with any activity that there is a finite amount of it to be experienced directly. Even sitting at a game, a significant part of the experience is not directly the event on the field. Why is the smell of the hot dogs, the buzz of the crowd, or the stories from the color guy any different than an analysis of player performance? And in some ways, isn't performance analysis closer to the heart of the game than some vapid quote given in a press conference or rumor emanating from a front-office coffee monkey?

Feb 18, 2011 09:05 AM
rating: 2
 
bmarinko

You may be on to something. I love to go hiking/camping, but sometimes it feels like I spend more time thinking about were to go next, what equipment to but, etc, then I spend actually doing the activity.

The other aspect is that going to a game (or going hiking) takes a lot of work, time and money. So that's why we spend so much time on these meta-activities, because they can be done anywhere, they are usually cheap, and can be done in small chunks of time.

Feb 18, 2011 09:42 AM
rating: 3
 
BurrRutledge

Excellent article, Craig.

I will put forward the idea that we (and that is not the royal "we," but the all-encompassing humanity) are creatures who live in the future.

For instance, Friday at lunch, you're happy not because you're in the office with another half-day ahead of you. You're happy because you're thinking about what you're going to do over the weekend!

Sunday night. You're bummed as the last football game ends not because your beer is empty, but because you're already thinking about what's waiting on your desk Monday morning.

Human live in/for the future. In baseball, as in life, the anticipation is at least as captivating as the upcoming event. This may also explain why the hotstove is so much better more interesting than the actual season.

Feb 18, 2011 19:30 PM
rating: 2
 
devine

There are definitely foodies who (almost?) prefer to read cookbooks than cook or eat, or prefer to cook things that are challenging than ones they really want to eat.

Feb 18, 2011 19:55 PM
rating: 0
 
ScottyB

Great article. I also love HBT- it's kinda like the "tabloid" cousin of BP.

Feb 18, 2011 10:18 AM
rating: 0
 
iorg34
Other readers have rated this comment below the viewing threshold. Click here to view anyway.

It's not a Calcaterra piece without the peremptory Heyman-bashing. Heyman unfollows Calcaterra on Twitter, and a mult-year unilateral guerrilla smear campaign ensues. Give it up.

Feb 18, 2011 11:07 AM
rating: -5
 
Joe D.

In Mr. Calcaterra's defense, Heyman does indeed suck. That's not up for debate. :)

Feb 18, 2011 16:08 PM
rating: 13
 
varmintito

I think the "meta" aspect is why I've always loved going to old ballparks so much. The smells, the angles, the rust, the car horns and train screeches, the city beginning again right across the street. So much richer for the senses than any of the new parks, and having absolutely nothing to do with the actual game being played on the field.

Now there are only two left.

Feb 18, 2011 12:29 PM
rating: 0
 
ColKiner

I'm guilty of knowing my fantasy league standings top to bottom and players stats, while not being able to tell you how any of the divison races are shaping up or even how many games my own beloved Royals are behind. Baseball serves as the mechanism to generate my fantasy baseball habit rather than my habit enhancing the baseball experience. Perhaps, being a fan of the Royals plays a role too.

Feb 18, 2011 13:36 PM
rating: 2
 
npb7768

Great article...Consider yourself lucky though --- you could have gone through life with this as your definitive of the 1966 World Series, like I did:

http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_8BVcGoREYwc/R8TnZFrofUI/AAAAAAAAArA/ulY_VRm1e6U/s1600-h/1966+WS+1970.jpg

Feb 18, 2011 13:58 PM
rating: 0
 
Agent007

I am a metafan, I'll admit it. I survive the winter by following all the management moves closely, and reading baseball books. I grew up in Saskatchewan (Canada) and I rememeber my father hauling our big-ass radio to our back step, plugging it in and playing with the dials / revolving the radio until a major league game was received. We seemed to pick up the Cardinals a lot.
But of all the teams, I preferred the Baltimore Orioles though I did not learn why I chose them until about 17 years later when I was a university student. I walked into a sporting goods store in Regina (Saskatchewan) and spotted an Orioles cap. I put it on, looked in the mirror and realized : when I collected baseball cards, they had the nicest hats!
I don't participate in fantasy baseball and, while I am absorbed in (most of) the new stats, they support my viewing pleasures : What's that idiot manager doing bunting in the second inning!

Feb 18, 2011 14:01 PM
rating: 0
 
R.A.Wagman

Brilliant article, Craig. In recognizing myself (so many meta-components), I was enriched.

Feb 18, 2011 15:52 PM
rating: 0
 
roughcarrigan

What's a baseball writer to think when watching games starts to assume secondary importance?

Um, he should think that he'd fit right in at the MLB network where, except for the rediscovered tape of game 7 of the 1960 World Series, not a single actual baseball game has been shown to viewers since mid November.

Coming up, 4 straight hours of Prime 9!

Feb 18, 2011 15:57 PM
rating: 5
 
deacon14

Agreed, I think that platform and the library I assume they have is incredibly under-utilized.

Feb 22, 2011 05:28 AM
rating: 0
 
devine

Excellent article, Craig. Thanks for that.

I too have my metafan side. I get the whole thing. But there's another side to my love that I fall into some years - and it can only happen when I see (on TV or live) some inordinately long streak of games (say 30-40) played by my favorite team (the Yankees, which I name only so I can put in telling details as examples below.)

There's a zone I fall into then, when any particular game is not as interesting as the greater story arc of the season at hand, unfolding in real time.

At times like this, I'm often very interested in the scrub or mostly-useless player or steps in and plugs a hole, and maybe plays way over his head for 10-12 games (e.g Luis Sojo, or Aaron Small - God, I was geeked when he showed up for Old-Timers day) and you wonder perhaps what he could have been or might one day be, but you know that this season, he won't for more than that one sporadic stretch and then he isn't hitting, or isn't playing, and is catching a huge amount of pine time and you wonder what he's thinking, and what his teammates think of him and if the GM is going to dispose of him before the season ends for some other replaceable part, and you wonder why you care or even if you care, but at least you care about how this type of thing helps define a season at least as much as a star-level performance, except for the fact that few people will remember it as important.

There are other little story-bits like that that only really become visible when you get deeply immersed in a long stretch of games. And the fan base that understands and tracks these story-bits is at least as small (if not smaller) than the universe of metafans - and we are (when we find each other) at least as weird to the mainstream. At Old Yankee Stadium, we sat in the loge - we were the partial-season plan holders, who spent way too much of our income on a 33-game package and went to the games with radios and earpieces, and considered the people in my section to really be "my people", even if I knew very few of their names. I have no idea where my people sit in NuYankee Stadium - I switched coasts years ago, and although I watch 80-90 Yankee games a year, I miss my people. There is a hard-core group who goes to see minor-league games here, and that is a very close substitute.

Sorry for the long comment.

Feb 18, 2011 19:20 PM
rating: 3
 
BP staff member Neil deMause
BP staff

Great comment, and one I can very much relate to. Sometimes when I'm trying to explain the attraction of baseball to someone who thinks it's "boring," I explain that what really keeps me interested is the soap opera aspect of it all - the rich history, and all the little niggling details that let you spot a back-of-the-bullpen guy come in in the 7th inning of some meaningless game and say, "Hey, didn't we see him give up three home runs in one inning for Seattle once?"

This is one of the reasons the insanely loud music at modern stadiums drives me up the wall: I go to ballgames not just to watch baseball but to talk about baseball (and, on at least one occasion, modes-of-production economic development theory), and it's really hard to do that while shouting over heavy-metal guitar riffs.

Feb 20, 2011 08:14 AM
 
R.A.Wagman

Yes. What's more, but the more "stadium entertainment" distracts from the game, the less the novice, or potential fan can appreciate the game, and the less likely s/he is to want to return to the game - which is the core product that is being sold. The peripheral stuff is not too dissimilar to countless other forms of entertainment. So why pay for the bland - game planners should focus the bells and whistles in such a way that highlights what makes baseball unique.

Feb 20, 2011 08:41 AM
rating: 0
 
Matt Kory

That's the real reason the Dodgers moved to LA, isn't it?

"Giant Alston angry! Giant Alston smash Ebbets Field!"

Feb 18, 2011 20:39 PM
rating: 4
 
Matt Kory

I fall into the metafan (I keep wanting to spell it "metaphan" for some reason) category in some ways, such as my love of BP and analyzing the inner-workings of running a baseball team. I've come to enjoy statistics and economics through their relationship to baseball.

But, I love watching the games as well. I plan my day around watching my favorite team play, and I watch every pitch. The only time I don't is when I have an adult league game to play in.

So I'm proud to say I'm a metafan and an actual fan. But on the other hand, I do live in my mom's basement.

Feb 18, 2011 20:44 PM
rating: 0
 
Travis G.

My favorite part of being a baseball fan is watching the games. What can I say? The off-season is the prologue to the season.

Feb 19, 2011 12:44 PM
rating: 1
 
WaldoInSC

What's this about Metfans not wanting to watch the games? Who can blame them?

Feb 19, 2011 17:24 PM
rating: 2
 
bulldogcakes

As a fellow metafan, I can only say 'bravo' to your maiden voyage here at BP. Hope the powers that be see fit to posting more of your work in these parts.

Feb 19, 2011 18:10 PM
rating: 0
 
BrewersTT

@RedsManRick, I think you're right. Certainly it's true of book people that talking about books and reading books about books often surpasses reading the books of interest themselves for a while, sometimes forever.

I've been a metafan of baseball since age 6 but for me the real game and the meta stuff augment each other. Neither dominates. But it took some bravery to write this article, and I'm glad that the reception has been what it should be: accepting.

Feb 22, 2011 14:18 PM
rating: 0
 
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