The offseason has many milestones. Winter Meetings kick off next week. Free agents will come and go, finding homes and new uniforms. Rosters will begin to take shape. And come the darkest winter days, when all that remain are the last gasps of football and a seemingly interminable NBA season, stadiums across the league will open their doors to celebrate FanFests.
FanFests are sublimely strange and oddly revealing, illustrating a baseball truth universally acknowledged: Fandom is so weird, you guys. We all collect and curate the trivialities of fandom; we give players nicknames; we buy long-forgotten promotional giveaways on eBay and squirrel them away in bookcases and on mantels, a testament to our longevity as fans and a knowing wink to those similarly initiated. We pick our favorites and wear their jerseys to the ballpark. Sometimes those garments are put on a particular way, or for a particular purpose: to honor the day’s starter, to inspire offense, to issue silent prayers to the baseball gods to smile on our guys. We claim particular seats; we dance between innings; we chant along with our fellows. It is a collective willing to win that emanates from a false but endearing belief that this is how we can contribute. This is how we become part of the team of men doing something we can’t do.
We long to suggest intimacy and connection where none really exists. And while we wear our talismans out in public and sing along with the crowd, our fandom remains largely private, eclipsed by others in the audience, rendered largely anonymous but for the rude intrusions of the broadcast camera. We could be anyone in the crowd so we’re really no one at all. Even those temporarily made famous by a very good (or very bad) homemade sign or shimmy retreat back into the ether in due time, bound to be replaced by another fan until we all blend together only to unfurl again in a different shape, like a weird Animorph. We long to be close to the game, while being close to the players, holding them in uneasy tension, forever moving away from one as we move closer to the other. When players sign autographs or josh with fans those moments are fleeting, and serve as a prelude or addendum to the business at hand. These might be our guys, but our guys play Over There and we watch them from Over Here.
But FanFests intentionally collapse that distance. The whole point is to bring the Over There right Over Here. Come meet your idols! You’ll never believe how relatable Robinson Cano is! There’s nothing Kyle Seager would like more than to sign autographs for you and 15,000 of your closest friends! (As an aside, I imagine there are at least tens of things he would rather do. At least tens.) The distance negated, we’re invited to tell tales, with our orchestrated meet-cute slowly altering itself, going from “I met Felix Hernandez” to “When I was talking with Felix” to “Yeah, I know Felix a little.” Devoid of the context of a game, all that is left is the shifty ground between the myth of a player and the regular guy that he might be, and the suggestion that we might pick out the truth of player in a panel or a photo op.
I don’t especially want to meet my guys. What if my guys think my sobriquets are cloying or off-putting? What if an offhand remark reveals something disquieting about my guys? What if they’re rude, or bro-ish, or dull? Put simply, what if the ways in which they are human are disappointing? What if that space between the myth and regular guy is better left undefined, allowed to be hazy?
Maybe it all suggests that private rituals of fandom shouldn't interact with the objects of their affection. Our understanding and experience of the game is by definition different than theirs. Remove the game entirely, and suddenly the only thing you had in common with your guys disappears. We need the game to be absent for us being there to make sense, and that makes us being there make very little sense at all. These contrivances of fandom count on you confusing physical closeness with emotional closeness, and being able to fill the void left behind by the game with anecdotes and souvenirs, creating new traditions and ticks, new ways for you to feel like you’re contributing. So that when the game is at hand, when you don your talismans, and do your dances, you remember with longing a time when your idols were close and human. Acquaintances rather than total strangers, finally (albeit temporarily) on your side of the fence.
The most intimate game of the 2015 season happened when no one was there at all. I’ve never seen anything like what happened when the White Sox played the Orioles on April 29th, and neither had anyone else. Amidst the protests and civil unrest in Baltimore, it remains the only regular-season game in history to be played without an audience.
If fandom is, at least in some measure, an experience of belonging, a feeling of closeness to the team and the game, then this contest was the closest I’ve ever been to the platonic ideal of fandom. With no shuffling of ushers, or shilling of peanuts, no shifting of fans, all you could hear was the game. You could hear how the umpire’s calls boomed; how every shuffle on the mound rumbled on the edge of the announcers’ call. How the announcers had to go to a golf whisper because the radio crew complained they could hear the broadcast crew the next box over. The team observed the beats of the game; Chris Davis’ flick of a ball into the stands when the fifth turned over was a programmed ritual of fandom he couldn’t quite ignore.
It’s hard to know how much of that day would have been the same if the supreme strangeness of the circumstances hadn’t been so obvious, or if so many of us hadn’t been watching, in part to avoid watching what else was happening in the city that day out of fatigue or willful ignorance. But even in the midst of the simulacrum of baseball, baseball shone through. It couldn’t help itself. We couldn’t bring ourselves closer to the players through our fandom, but they were brought closer to us by the game itself. The distance brought us closer. And with our noses pressed against our TVs, keen to experience this historical oddity, much like we long for the best autographs at FanFest, we couldn’t help but let in the rest. The real game, as odd a phrase as that might seem.
We’ll never quite get there, never be part of the action the way we want to be. When we’re on the field, it isn’t part of the game; our mere presence sees to that. After all, our guys are supposed to be playing Over There as we watch them from Over Here. Oddly, we are in it much more when all the markers of fandom we bring fall away. Stripped down to just the field, the guys playing on it, and the press box. The vast swaths of empty seats that day brought all the focus on the play. The composition of the broadcast angles felt weirdly claustrophobic, perhaps because so many of the normal sounds were gone and all the ones that remained was so heightened. The pop! of the ball off the bat, the thump of it hitting the back of the catcher’s glove, the plunk as it bounced around the seats, freed from the usual opposition of hands and beer glasses and children’s cries. We tuned in to see theatre, to see baseball acted out, and got something much more real instead.
We’ll never quite get there, never be part of the action the way we want to be. That closeness to the game could only be achieved with our absence; our sustained closeness to players can only be achieved with the game’s absence. The experience of fandom is so odd because it is never complete. There are always pieces that have been vacated, essential elements that are missing. Given the circumstances that necessitated its atmosphere, I hope we never see another game like we did in April. But it does remind me that what is left is a false closeness, artificial in its orchestration, never quite complete. We’ll never be big leaguers. We can only watch the show. We won’t know the experience, not really, no matter how many trinkets or stats we have at our disposal, like some emotional asymptote. We long for experiences we can’t know, to hold parts of fandom together that are diametrically opposed, to the resolve tensions that remain intractable. To be close to the game, and close to those who play it, and all at the same time.
There’s nothing particularly wrong with that; baseball still happens. It’s still often great. I plan on attending the Mariners FanFest. I love baseball, and despite the assurances I have received that it will be cold in Safeco in January, I’d rather be cold in proximity to baseball than warm without it. But I wonder if it will make me feel much of anything genuine, apart from relief at the closeness of real baseball, when I can watch a game instead, and call players nicknames without fear of being overheard. When I can put on my talismans and exchange knowing smiles and cheer and dance. When I can be with others comfortable existing in this weirdness, and begin to long for the next piece that is missing.