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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.

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