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July 18, 2002

Breaking Balls

Cheer Clubs

by Derek Zumsteg

A month later, despite Bud Selig and Bob DuPuy's continued Thelma and Louise-style drive towards a cliff--which probably includes hand-holding--I'm still thinking of something I saw during the World Cup. Baseball doesn't need to borrow much from other sports (oh, the good announcer/bad announcer from wrestling, sure), but it should steal the "cheer clubs" from European soccer and quick. Maybe save it for post-Impending-Labor-Action, when everyone's looking for something to "save" baseball again.

I love going to baseball games. If I lived next to a ballpark, I'd go every day. I watch, I applaud good plays, I cheer the guys I like or respect. I don't need to have all the scoreboards flash "NOISE!!!" and "LOUDER!!" to get me going. Playing the "Addams Family" theme to get people to clap in time is hokey, though that did lead to one of my favorite exchanges with a player:

DZ: Does the hearing the "Addams Family" theme played poorly a couple times a game, all season long, ever bug you?

Jeff Huson: Yes it does, because the "Addams Family" show is a favorite of mine.

At Safeco Field, people chant Ichiro Suzuki's name as "Itch-Chi-Rho," which, I guess, isn't so bad, and when they start, they put the sound effects on to do the three claps to sync up everyone. When people do the Edgar [Martinez] taunt (no, I have no idea why they do this), the M's put up an "ED-GAR" and try and ensure that the taunting is done in unison.

At the World Cup game against South Korea, I was up in the middle of the night, trying to keep the volume down so as to not wake the Lovely and Talented Mrs. Zumsteg, but the crowd was so loud it was hard to hear the announcers--even with the ESPN guys cranking the mix way pro-announcers--because there were 50,000 rabid Korean fans in the stadium, chanting almost the entire game. Turning it up to hear the announcers meant my hair flew back in a wall of sound. The blocks of American fans could scarcely get a word in edgewise before the crowd would be back into "Republic of Korea" (in Korean, of course).

That rules. That's the kind of awesome experience that creates fanatical, lifelong fans.

Baseball should be doing this. Instead of having Bud Selig stand outside stadiums and try to prevent fans from entering them ("No, no! They're terrible! Only the Yankees can win! Don't go in there!"), they should be working to build these kind of massive, loyal fan bases.

It can be done, even for franchises on the down side, where turning the true fans who attend games now into loyal team advocates will do wonders for your turnstile numbers as you start to win. It's like rebuilding your fan base as you rebuild the on-field product. Find local fan clubs, large groups that regularly attend, and make them a really simple deal: huge discounts on ticket packages, but they have to work for your money: lead cheers, do cool songs, don't start the wave, don't swear in chants.... I'd be upfront about the eventual possibility that if the team is selling out every game that it will be reducing the discounts, but that's just me. If you can, offer to let the fans into the stadium on off days to practice their shtick. You can even seed different groups, get some straight chanters led by beer guys, some singers led by your local semi-employed musicians. (I was thinking the other day about how you could sing tribute songs to particular players, for instance, like butchering "O Canada" to sing "O Cameron" to the M's outfielder.)

It's a better fan experience. I know there are fans who love the music, who get psyched up when the Obey-O-Tron puts up clap commands, but like all things that come from the individual level (democracy, environmental progress, the fan strike... er, maybe not), they're more creative, more fun to participate in and they give people a sense of belonging. If a team is really smart, it will work with these groups to help introduce new groups to the game, teach them the basics if they don't know them, identify players, get them to sing the team anthem (I don't know, work with me here). Bring new people in, get them to have a good time, bond with your partisans.

When the Mariners were chasing down the Angels for a playoff berth in 1995, there were games I don't remember sitting down, ones I left with my ears ringing, my hands sore and my throat so hoarse I couldn't speak for a day or more. It was insane. The crowd was so loud that the place shook, I couldn't hear the PA announce players coming to bat... and no team intervention required.

This is why I loved watching that World Cup game more than any other soccer game I'd ever seen: it reminded me of that pure joy I feel watching playoff baseball, where the fans are too excited to watch for cheer commands, or the sound of everyone in Safeco rising as one to cheer a crushed John Olerud home run to straight center field before the appropriate pro-Olerud affirmation appears on the board. Or when the opposing team makes an astonishing defensive play and the baseball fans, the real baseball fans, applaud and nod their heads.

This is what baseball should be doing: building fans, finding ways to get them involved and promoting the game, and introducing them to the joy of baseball. People don't want to feel like easily-controlled robots, and three hours of NBA-style goading makes people tired. Baseball is a patient game that ebbs and flows, much like soccer, and by creating fans who attend regularly, who understand the game and their team, where people cheer on their own and clap in unison as they cheer, it becomes unnecessary to play "Day-O!" over the PA system after every pitch, because the crowd will already be paying attention, already into the game, thinking of new cheers, and about which of their friends to bring next time. Build the fans, build baseball.

Derek Zumsteg is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.

Related Content:  Fans,  The Who

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