A Different Kind of Baseball Fandom

Welcome to BFN, denizen of British baseball’s worst podcast, Jon Mackenzie

Hello. My name is Jon and I have embarked on a late-night love affair with thirty-something-year-old thicc men.

It’s 1:34 in the morning and I’m watching Daniel Descalso on my computer screen. Two months ago, I didn’t know who Daniel Descalso was. Now, I find my mind habitually wandering to him in idle moments during the day. Descalso is almost entirely unremarkable. He’s 32. He’s 5’10. He’s 86kg. And he looks like that mate of a mate who you met once and always see around but you never really knew him well enough to engage with him beyond the pleasantries. He looks permanently tired. He has crow’s feet that bleed out of his eyes. There are flecks of grey in his otherwise raven hair and beard. He could me a minor character in Game of Thrones.

It’s now 1:47 in the morning and I’m watching Ben Zobrist on my computer screen. I’m infatuated with Ben Zobrist. Sometimes this fixation sends me off into the warren of YouTube: I find myself watching this 37-year-old, 6’3, 95kg crag of a man sat on a chair next to his wife on the stage of a convocation of university students talking about his faith. I don’t even know why I am doing this. But I am. As Zobrist has gotten older, his hair has decolourised. With each passing day, he has started to look more and more like a sepia photograph of himself; like some sort of in-real-life Picture of Dorian Gray. But his eyes never change. They pierce as eyes do. But not in the way blue eyes pierce. His are greenish-grey.

Sometimes I feel as though I’m living in a shadow world; another place which, as soon as the sun drops below the horizon, I enter Narnia-like. Except the portal through which I enter this place is not a fur-lined wardrobe. It’s an app on my computer. None of my friends understand. I want to talk to them about Daniel Descalso and Ben Zobrist. They stare back at me with blank faces. ‘Look,’ I want to say, ‘I know they’re not exactly having great seasons so far… I know they’re both posting negative WAR figures at the moment… but I love these bit-part lead-off guys who can get on base like we’re still in the heady era of small ball baseball.’ Nothing. I might as well be talking a different language.

It’s now 2:52 in the morning and a game that started over five hours ago has just come to an end in the fifteenth inning. Ben Zobrist—who had approached his manager before the game to suggest he be dropped in favour of an in-form teammate when he saw his own name on the team sheet—has come into the game, hit a triple and won it for his team. My heart soars. Not only can I now go to sleep three hours later than I had anticipated. But it was Ben, my Ben, who had managed what no one else could and turned the game.

My name is Jon and I have embarked on a late-night love affair with thirty-something-year-old thicc men. This is what being a baseball fan in Britain looks like.

*           *           *

It’s 2009. I’ve just taken up a part-time lecturing position at a British university. I’m not, you might be surprised to learn, being paid enough to live. Looking back now, the solution was less than ideal: sub-letting a room from a friend. Put like that, it sounds moderately acceptable. But I wasn’t sub-letting a spare room. I was sub-letting his room. He had a big bed and we kept roughly different schedules… Welcome to post-crash Britain.

We were young. We were fool-hard. And we had baseball. My bedfellow was a Cubs fan and so, as logic dictates, I was also a Cubs fan. I would wake up in the night to see him watching a game, his face shimmering blue in the soft polarised emission of his laptop screen. Lying there next to one another, he inducted me into the world of baseball. I learned what a double play was, a grand slam, a line out. I got excited by stolen bases or nearly stolen bases. I marvelled at the capacity for these players to throw a ball—not just the pitchers but the fielders too. And I fell in love with the names. Carlos Marmol. Kosuke Fukudome. Aramis Ramirez. Ryan Theriot. There are always good names in baseball.

I wouldn’t say I understood the finer points of the game. I couldn’t tell you why sometimes the runner was out just by the fielding player touching the bag but sometimes he had to land a tag. I couldn’t tell you why sometimes the catcher charged after a hitter to tag them out. I couldn’t tell you why sometimes the hitter was called out even if the ball wasn’t caught. But I understood enough to enjoy it.

Then I was gone. I went off to continue graduate studies elsewhere and that was that for baseball and me for nearly a decade. But then it was 2016 and the Cubs were in the World Series and attempting to break the curse. I couldn’t let that pass, could I?

It was very late when Game 7 started. It went into extra innings. There was a rain delay. I remember the full gamut of emotions: the elation of the early lead, the slump of the late tie-up from Cleveland, the rain delay, the extra innings, that RBI double from—who else—Ben Zobrist, a one-run ball game again but then Mike Montgomery saving the day… Or was it the night…? Or the morning…? Or the next day…? It was very late.

And then the baseball sort of stuck. It was there in the background. I kept an eye on it. It percolated. And now I think about it every day.

*           *           *

I have never been to America. I have never heard the crack—is that what they do?—of bat on ball or the slap of ball on glove except relayed to me through other media. I still don’t really understand what crackerjack is. I have only watched the game from a narrow vantage point: from behind the pitcher’s shoulder often with a strike zone interpolated into the scene through the magic of information technology. I have never sat in the bleachers and eaten anything so saturated in fat that I can feel it osmosing into my body through my fingertips. I have never heard the organ or awkwardly joined in the singing of ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame’.

My baseball fandom is as thin as it gets. As narrow as it comes. It lacks depth. And yet it is still my fandom.

Soccer is my primary sport—although even saying that, I’m not entirely sure what it is I mean. I cannot remember a time before soccer was. I have spent innumerable hours playing the game. I have spent innumerable hours watching the game. I have watched it through a screen. I have watched it live from every conceivable angle. I have reported on it. I have written about it. I have thought about it and argued about it and learned about it. But is it any more mine than baseball is?

It’s easy to become possessive about a sport. Having spent much of my life in and around universities, I have experienced the converse of my baseball fandom: Americans taking up soccer. It jars. It’s not the terminological acrobatics. Language is wonderfully pliant and I enjoy hearing people express the game for themselves. It’s the inefficiency of it all. I have become fluent in the art of football. I know where to look. I can concentrate my attention resourcefully so that I am able to watch the game in the most proficient way. The observation of a soccer match has become second nature to me.

If soccer has taught me economy, though, baseball has taught me otherwise. It has taught me that there is a place for genuine surprise within fandom. That the possibility of being hit askance by an event offers the potential for enjoyment. It has taught me that inexperience in fandom is no bad thing—that, in fact, it offers a space within which new forms of support can emerge. It has reminded me about all those things that you forget as your own experiences as a supporter become crystalised after years of fandom.

*           *           *

The fact of the matter is this: we learn how to be fans. For me, an Atlantic Ocean away from the land of the Major League, there is no sense in which my own fandom will be the same as that of someone who regularly attends Phillies games at Citizens Bank Park or someone who umps in the Little League in Kansas City or someone who watches the Minor Leagues on television from their condo in Los Angeles.

As a result of this, I’m not going to worry about doing things ‘the right way’ when it comes to baseball. Baseball is what it is for me. And that ‘what it is’ has defied easy classification.

As I have learned to be a baseball fan, I have learned to be a baseball fan in a way that you have not. I have learned how to watch the game without ever having played the game. I have learned how to manage my time, deciding which games are worth staying up late for and which games are worth watching on repeat the following day. I have learned how to distinguish a slider from a cutter by trawling through Wikipedia and YouTube videos. I have learned to love Ben Zobrist and Daniel Descalso.

Of course, we are all learning to watch the same game. There will be overlap. The game is a rich tapestry which allows for a number of points of views: you from your vantage in the nosebleeds; me from behind the pitcher’s arm through a computer screen; the umpire from behind home plate. This capacity for diversity is probably why the game continues to be perennially enjoyed.

In June, I will go to my first baseball game. It will feature the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Socks. But it will be played in London. The experience will be instructive for me. It will help thicken out my previously thin fandom. I will learn how to watch a game from a different perspective. I will hear the sounds and smell the smells and eat the eats. But it won’t mean my fandom is any better. It’ll just be different.

*           *           *

This notion of a ‘different fandom’ is important to me. Why? Can I be honest with you? I sometimes wonder whether or not I should like baseball at all. It seems as though there is a shadow side to the whole proceeding. When I hear people discussing what it is that attracts them to baseball aesthetically, one word that crops up almost constantly is ‘nostalgia’. The word chills me to the bone.

Take this quote from Hayley Glatter’s article ‘The Healthy Nostalgia of Derek Jeter’ which appeared in The Atlantic in 2017: ‘[W]hat separates nostalgia from derivative feelings like romanticism or homesickness is that it’s bittersweet—juxtaposing the comfort of the past with the sad acknowledgment that time marches on.’ In the piece itself, Glatter—citing Dr. Krystine Batcho, a psychology professor at Le Moyne College—argues that nostalgia is a predominantly progressive phenomenon, emphasising its capacity to help individuals accept the passage of time over against any feelings of comfort they might have regarding the past.

This may be all well and good when the past in question is the career of Derek Jeter. But when it comes to baseball’s wider history, the past is somewhat more chequered. Do we really want to suggest that baseball is evocative to us because it allows us to hold together feelings of comfort towards a world in which segregation was a reality, for example, along with the ‘sad acknowledgement that time marches on’? What is progressive about this? However you struggle to redeem it, this account of nostalgia seems necessarily tied up with an attitude towards the past which is regressive. And that is something that I can’t live with.

So when the baseball comes to London in a few months’ time, I will be holding on to the idea that my fandom can be different. For it is not borne of any sense of fondness towards an earlier age but looks forward, excited by the possibilities available to it. I have no stake in baseball’s past. But I do have a stake in its future.

The MLB’s London Series is an exercise in marketing. We all know this. They are attempting to extend the sport into Europe and the wider world. The temptation for them is to go with what they know and try to map the structures of American baseball fandom onto the countries that they’re trying to conquer. But perhaps, rather than squeezing us into a one-size-fits-all model of fandom, they should think about what it is that attracts British fans to baseball and ask how they can facilitate the game to us. Who knows—maybe they’ll learn something about baseball in the process they didn’t already know?

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