What does it mean to be a baseball fan? To exchange high fives with complete strangers utterly swept away with the exhilaration of a win? To sit in your car, despondent, after a devastating loss? What is the fan’s connection to this game—billed as America’s pastime?
Before delving into this post, it’s only fair to report that I myself am a fan. So this is in part a self-reflexive exercise to investigate some of my own responses to the team I follow. Consequently, I can’t guarantee an objective perspective here, but it will be honest. And I’m interested in learning if these ideas can be applied to sports in other places—so feel free to chime in at the end.
The New York Mets have a history of being underdogs. They lost their first official game to the St. Louis Cardinals on April 11, 1962; they lost their first game at the Polo Grounds, their first home, to the Pirates on April 13, 1962; they lost their first game at the fondly missed Shea Stadium to the Pirates again on April 17, 1964; and they lost the first game at their beautiful new ballpark Citi Field to the Padres on April 13, 2009. There have been few highlights—only two World Series wins in 1969 against the Orioles and in 1986 against the Red Sox—to counter the many heartbreaks with this team, particularly those in recent memory—they lost the NLCS in 2006 to the Cardinals; destroyed a seven game lead with a heart crushing series of losses in 2007; and repeated this performance in 2008, losing a 3 ½ game lead over 17 games, capping off the year by losing the last game at Shea to the much despised Marlins.
But the fans persist. Season after season, Mets fans don their blue and orange t-shirts, buy tickets, they wear the hats—aren’t they disappointed? Well, they are, but bearing disappointment is a responsibility for the fan. After the 2007 season, I hung a photo from the NY Post at my desk from the last game of the season. It featured a kid who had been caught mid-bawl, and honestly, I think that more than a few of us had wanted to cry on that day. No words were necessary to accompany the photo; the crying kid said it all. Researchers Rainey et. al. (2009) have investigated disappointment in baseball fans, and found that while heavily invested fans were more likely to feel more disappointment, they were also more likely to defend their team and stick with them. They defined disappointment as a combination of surprise and sorrow following an unexpected negative event (e.g., “I'm sad because I expected my team to win, but they lost the championship”) (Rainey et. al. 2009: 341). They differentiated this feeling from discouragement, which they defined as a loss of courage or desire to go on (i.e., disappointment that results in giving up completely). Disappointment is more common than discouragement because many fans do not stop supporting teams, despite recurring losses. [Right: Back page of the © NYPost]
Fan involvement is related to disappointment: the more an individual identifies with a team, the more likely he or she is to feel disappointment, but highly identified fans have a greater resilience despite reporting significantly greater increases in hostility, sadness, irritation, anger, frustration, and discouragement after a loss than did lowly identified fans (Rainey et. al. 2009: 342). Additional studies referenced by Rainey et. al. indicate:
- highly identified fans have more objective knowledge about their teams than lowly identified fans (Wann & Branscombe, 1995),
- that highly identified fans reported more willingness to anonymously harm an opposing player or coach than lowly identified fans (Wann, Peterson, Cothran, & Dykes, 1999),
- that highly identified fans are more likely than lowly identified fans to describe themselves as fans to other people (Wann, Royalty, & Roberts, 2000),
- and that highly identified fans are more likely to report than lowly identified fans that they would be willing to anonymously assist their team by engaging in illegal or immoral behaviors (Wann, Hunter, Ryan, & Wright, 2001).
For highly identified fans, knowledge and dedication seem to be markers of pride. It's possible that this bears them through disappointment. To give up on the team after a loss, or devastating series of losses, means minimizing one’s status as a fan. After all, players are to some extent representative of the people. We align ourselves with teams and players because they are the manifestation of some personal belief—whether that notion is sportsmanship or work ethic, they represent us on some level. So to give up is to give up on ourselves, which is why fans continue to wear the shirts, buy the tickets, yell at the television, and do other strange things. It’s a ridiculously emotional connection, but it’s there.
Faith and Fear in Flushing provides some great examples of this connection. They express the expectations and disappointments of the highly identified fan excellently. For example, they capture the meaning of the sport, touching upon the emotional quality of the relationship perfectly:
Baseball is the quiet frustration of Jason Bay. The mile-wide grin of Jeff Francoeur. The second-guessing applied to Jerry Manuel. It’s the wind current that blows to right at Great American Ball Park, a breeze that draws everybody’s attention until the game-deciding home run clanks off the left field foul pole.
Baseball does indeed mean all these things to a highly identified fan. Fans feel the frustration of Bay and the exhilaration of Francoeur as if those emotions were their own. Faith and Fear then turns around and addresses their disappointment with the team—not over a loss, but over the way the team connects with the fans of late, particularly by handing out plastic cups:
I don’t collect plastic Mets cups. Nobody collects plastic Mets cups. We collect stuff with Mets logos, sure. And we keep our cups because they have Mets logos, but it’s not a hobby or a passion or an obsession, not one I’ve encountered in my Met travels … You wind up with the cup because you bought the soda. Or you wind up with the cup because somebody else bought the soda and you’re not too proud to scoop it up when that person doesn’t care enough to take it home. It’s not why you went to the game. It’s just what you wound up with when you left.
I think this is part of the script between the highly identified fan and the team. Franklin (1985) talked about the "baseball ethos": the cultural understanding and the spirit of baseball that participants and spectators bring to the game (284). Fans have an understanding of what the game will entail, and they hope for a win, but know it could very well be a loss. The fans who hang in there, through the disappointments, may do so in the spirit of community because as strange as this may sound, that disappointment actually binds them to the team.
Okay, fans, your turn. Why do you hang in there?
Karl J. Franklin (1985). Componential Analysis and the Game of Baseball Anthropological Linguistics, 27 (3), 281-301
David W. Rainey, Janet Larsen, and John H. Yost. (2009). Disappointment theory and disappointment among baseball fans. Journal of Sports Behavior, 32 (3)