Thursday, September 2, 2010

Baseball Fans Behaving Badly

So it's done. I've accepted it. There will be no playoff entry for the Mets this year—something that was evident earlier in the year, but the motto of this team is "Ya gotta believe." So you know, I had to believe. Am I disappointed? Yes. What fan wouldn't be? Am I surprised? No. What Mets fan would be? Does it mean that I won't be there come spring anxiously awaiting the crack of the bat? Absolutely not. Because being a fan means being a member of the team—yes, an actual member (sans the paycheck). Fans may not get time at bat, but being a fan creates a connection that goes beyond selecting a team that will represent you publicly—participation in fandom links you to wins and losses as strongly as the actual players themselves and fan response is as important to the reputation of the team as the players' own behavior. But does the nature of successful teams lend itself to unruly fan behavior?

A short discussion paper based on a presentation given at the Millennium Festival of Medicine suggests that a successful team requires a delicate mix of selfishness, individuality, and pushiness. Michael Brearley (2000) likens baseball to cricket: he calls them lonely sports, each characterized by "a series of individual contests within a team context" (1141). In cricket it is the batsman and the bowler, and in baseball it is the batter and the pitcher who face off in contests of skills. He argues that in these situations the idea of uniformity within a team is wrong. Uniformity results in a "repressed, grey team, a team without desires, passions, jealousies" (Brearley 2000: 1141). While the absence of passions and jealousies may sounds good, Brearley argues that teams should want to harness these instances of individuality:
The healthy individual does not see himself as uniform or lacking on conflict but can give houseroom to his full range of characteristics (both those that he is well acquainted with, and those that feel more foreign), without losing too much catastrophically or permanently a manageable degree of cohesion. Similarly, the aim of a team is not to remove individuality but to harness it in the interests of the whole. Middlesex, the [cricket] team I captained for  12 years, was a team of players who differed in many ways—in skills, character, style, race, and class—yet at their best their potential for destructive sarcasm and selfishness was outweighed by mutual respect and humour" (1141).
Brearly sums this up as "creative tension." That is, you allow passions to guide players, and under the strong leadership of a team captain (or manager) guide those players as necessary. In this model, outbursts from players—such as when Baltimore Oriole Robbie Alomar spit on an umpire, when Carlos Perez of the Dodgers attacked a water cooler, and when Roger Clemens threw a broken bat at Mike Piazza in the 2000 World Series—while not fully condoned, are somewhat accepted as a part of players' personalities and as evidence of their spirit and involvement in the game.   But what kinds of messages do these acts send to fans? Do they see these types of actions, from individuals in positions of success, individuals who represent them on some level, and think they can be emulated? Are they moved to defend their side by attacking other representatives of that team in that stand? Are grievances accumulated and paid back?

Jump to about 2:25 to see the confrontation between Clemens and Piazza.

A few weeks ago, S and I and some friends went to see the Mets play in Philadelphia against our rivals, the Phillies.  The rivalry is an intense one, and knowing that we would be verbally (though hopefully not physically) abused, we still chose to wear our team's gear. Cause we're fans, and that's what fans do. Shirts, hats, and other team paraphernalia have the effect of not only demonstrating support for a team, but also symbolically connecting fans to the action on the field. Anyway, long story short: On that beautiful Sunday afternoon, several horrible errors later, the Mets lost. And considering the way Mets fans treat visitors from Philly with the temerity to visit Citi Field, I have to say we got off pretty lightly.

A Mets fan watches the game at
Citizens Bank Park. Aug 2010.
Yes, we were taunted. Yes, there were several drunk fans who made it a point to scream in our faces. One particularly bold female asked S to take a picture with her—he declined. Through it all though we were moving with the same group of people toward the exit. When we were nearly there, someone jumped in front of me and screamed in my face, "You f*&%en suck!" I stuck my thumb in the air as he moved away from me. The gesture was meant to say, "Good job for pointing out the obvious." (Yes, okay. Our record has not been stellar.) And a few Philly fans around me got it. They chuckled, and one guy called after the instigator, "Knock it off, ya jerk!" He then turned to us and apologized on behalf of Philadelphia. He said, "Not all Philly fans are like that. You guys took your knocks well. It's part of the game. We can respect that." Several people around him nodded.

There's been a lot of coverage in the press lately about fan behavior. Earlier this year, there was the Phillies fan who got tasered. There was also the Phillies fan who vomited on a young girl after he and her father exchanged words. (He's serving at least 30 days in jail.) But these reports are not new—and they're not limited to the Phillies. John Gonzalez of the Philly Inquirer composed a handy list in defense of Phillies fans and the city itself:
  • On opening day at Dodger Stadium this year, 132 people were arrested for various infractions.
  • Last season in Chicago, a Cubs fan dumped a beer on Shane Victorino as the Phillies outfielder tracked down a fly ball.
  • In 2005, the wife of then- Houston Astros infielder Craig Biggio was slapped in the face by a male fan during a game against the White Sox in Chicago
  • In 2003, then-Texas Rangers outfielder Carl Everett was hit in the head with a cell phone hurled from the stands during a game in Oakland.
  • In 1999, Broncos fans pelted the visiting Oakland Raiders with snowballs. According to some reports, a few of the projectiles were packed with batteries.
Some like Wrigleyville23 have called for a crackdown on fan behavior, blaming unchecked alcohol consumption as well irresponsible media coverage that incites fans. The Wrigleyville23 blog says:
The the day in, day out feeding of the meme that Milton Bradley, Carlos Zambrano, Roger Clemens or any other player is the personification of evil is an enabling factor in the burgeoning nuttery of fans.

By demonizing or dehumanizing the object of resentments or obsessions, it makes any behaviors toward that person acceptable.
It also makes behaviors against representatives of that object acceptable. But alcohol and the media aside, do clubs and players have a role to play also?

Brearly maintains that it is the team leader's responsibility to gauge self interest versus the interests of the group, and be able to take "strong decisive action" or hand people their heads as needed. A good leader allows others to step forward and assume leadership as necessary, but also has the ability to cut people who lose their connection to the team in moments of passion. And in all fairness, the ball clubs to which the players mentioned above did respond because reputation matters. And fans, to their credit, also spoke out against these actions. Fans can recognize unsportsmanlike conduct in players, and perhaps in other fans, but in themselves?

Above: Views of enemy territory. Mets v Phillies, Aug. 2010.

Passion is important to baseball. Fans demand it when an umpire makes the wrong call and the manager sits in the dugout. Fans themselves are passionate in their chants and cheers and taunts. But fans don't have a team captain or manager to restrain them or kick them out of the club. Fandom allows you to be a part of something larger than yourself, but is there also a gauge measuring "successful" fans? One that encourages them to exhibit passions, jealousies, desires, and frustrations the way that Brearley suggests successful teams do? Is there more that ballparks should or could be doing to help change the fan experience and minimize loudmouths?

Photo by Tim Gouw from Pexels

ResearchBlogging.orgBrearley M (2000). Teams: lessons from the world of sport. BMJ (Clinical research ed.), 321 (7269), 1141-3 PMID: 11061741

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