You'll Never Walk Alone
Issue #35, November 1997
I was alone at the ballpark with 60,000 other Giants fans.
The Giants, picked by many to finish in last place, had occupied first place for much of the season. But a recent slump had placed them two games behind the hated Dodgers with only a handful of games to be played. The enemy came to town for two games; if the Giants could win those games, the teams would be tied for first place, while two losses would effectively end the Giants' chances of finishing first. They won the first game, setting up the all-important second game, which is why I was sitting at Candlestick Park on a Thursday afternoon in mid-September watching the Giants and Dodgers continue their rivalry.
I was alone because everyone I knew had somewhere else they had to be. Which made sense; most people are busy on Thursday afternoons. But there was only one place I had to be that day, and I was there, alone with my 60,000 friends.
An epic battle ensued between the rivals, one of the greatest in their long history. After the regulation nine innings the teams were tied, and into extra innings they went, with the evil Dodgers mounting one attack after another and the local heroes diffusing each of them in turn. And on and on it went, until the bottom of the twelfth inning, when a catcher named Brian Johnson, who had only recently joined the Giants, came to the plate and hit the first pitch a very long way.
The ball soared through the air towards the centerfield fence, as 60,000 fans leapt from their seats in anticipation. Onwards it flew, the defender in pursuit, all the way to the fence, and then ... OVER! Home run! The ballgame was over, the Giants had won.
60,000 people cheered and screamed and yelled and whooped. Tears filled my eyes as I clapped, and I wanted to scream with joy, scream as loud as I could, but a part of me held back, thinking I would appear foolish screaming in public. Then I realized everyone else was already screaming, so no one would hear me even if I did scream. Then I realized I'd been screaming all along.
Roger Angell, writing about one of the most famous game-winning homeruns of all time (Carlton Fisk's blast in Game Six of the 1975 World Series), says it comes down to caring. "It is foolish and childish, on the face of it, to affiliate ourselves with anything so insignificant and patently contrived and commercially exploitative as a professional sports team," he states, knowing that for many the story ends right there. But Angell is concerned that the capacity for caring may be disappearing from our lives, and wonders if perhaps "it no longer matters so much what the caring is about ... as long as the feeling itself can be saved." In answer to the scorn of the non-fan, he writes: "Naivete — the infantile and ignoble joy that sends a grown man or woman to dancing and shouting with joy in the middle of the night over the haphazardous flight of a distant ball — seems a small price to pay for such a gift."
How small is that price? The gift can be large. But is naivete a reasonable price to pay? Is naivete the proper word to describe the acceptance of contrived exploitation? Does our joy matter when the cause is "something so insignificant?" I don't consider myself a particularly naive sports fan; I spend far too much of my time exercising my brain on the analysis of the various sports that occupy a special place in my heart for me to embrace the naive approach. But I doubt my brain was working very hard when Brian Johnson's ball cleared the fence. I gave myself over to joy, and that joy was as great as it was because I cared. Angell wants to recapture the capacity for caring in the society of the spectacle, but caring is not the goal. The goal is joy. It is joy that we want to recapture when we go to the ballpark. We care because we believe in some part of our hearts that if we care long enough, joy will come. We keep caring because we know the longer we care, the greater the joy.
This Wembley win belonged to me every bit as much as it belonged to Charlie Nicholas or George Graham ... and I worked every bit as hard for it as they did. The only difference between me and them is that I have put in more hours, more years, more decades than them, and so had a better understanding of the afternoon, a sweeter appreciation of why the sun still shines when I remember it.
— Nick Hornby, Fever Pitch
I have been a fan of the San Francisco Giants baseball team for 40 years. The greatest Giant of them all, Willie Mays, was only a Giant for 21 years; others spent far shorter periods with the team. Some remained with the club after their retirement from the playing field, in front office positions or as coaches or managers. But as a player ... there has never been a player who performed on the field for the same team for 40 consecutive years. And I'm not retired; I hope to spend another 40 years doing the same damn thing.
Perhaps the players should be rooting for us fans, since we're the ones who transcend the seasons, the pennant races, the faces that come and go over the years.
I think that's what Nick Hornby is talking about.
What does it mean to be the spectator at a spectator sport? What does the spectator get out of spectating? What effect does our spectating have on the "real," non-spectacular world? Are spectator sports merely another opiate of the masses? The story is likely apocryphal, and I don't recall any longer which 60s revolutionary was involved, although I believe it was a guy in the Weather Underground. Anyway, this guy reportedly once said that he couldn't fully give himself over to the revolution until Willie Mays retired, because until then, a part of him still loved a part of Amerika. Did that make him a bad revolutionary?
Just what should I have been doing with my life the last 40 years, anyway?
If there is something universal in this, something that reaches beyond sport fandom and into other kinds of fandom, it would seem to be obsession. I am talking about obsessive people here, not casual fans who take in the occasional game and know the proper answer to "how 'bout those Niners?" Obsessive behavior is something people of diverse interests can appreciate. Helen Fielding, a British writer, wrote a novel, Bridget Jones's Diary, that earned a cover blurb from Nick Hornby himself, it was so Hornbyish in its chronicling of obsessions, but Bridget Jones didn't care a whit about sports. She obsessed about calories, and male fuckwittage, and alcohol units. But her detailed record-keeping, her ability to recall exactly what she ate on a particular evening, her OBSESSION with categorizing her behavior, mark her as the kind of sports fan known in baseball circles as a "stathead" (SDCN, Stat-Drunk Computer Nerd, a pejorative reclaimed by statheads as a laudatory term).
Much of the writing about popular culture that has appeared in Bad Subjects over the years has been inspired by obsession. We try to work out our personal obsessions in writing about them; we obsess about our obsessions, and sometimes we might even conquer the obsession, only to become obsessed with the writing that conquers obsession. Writing is the methadone to the heroin of our obsessions, one addiction replacing another. Or we write about the obsessions of others, an approach which allows for more distance, and distance is good, some of the best writing in Bad Subjects comes when a writer uses distance to illuminate common cultural obsessions.
And I am one king-hell obsessive when it comes to baseball. Baseball is a sport that encourages obsessions. Its history is minutely chronicled; I can pick up a book lying on the floor next to my computer as I type this and find out that my boyhood hero, Orlando Cepeda, who began his major-league career in 1958, the year the Giants came to San Francisco from New York, was 20 years old in 1958, that he batted 603 times in 148 games, that he got 188 hits, 25 of them home runs, that he played firstbase in 147 of those 148 games. The same page tells me that one reason Orlando got a chance that season is because another firstbaseman on the team, Bill White, suffered a broken bone in his shoulder (as did teammate Jackie Brandt ... apparently there was an outbreak of broken shoulders that year). Baseball encourages obsessions.
Such obsessions force me to use my brain. It's rare that I experience baseball without my brain being engaged. It's a spectator sport that demands brain power of its spectators. It can get tiring over the course of a game, a season, a decade, 40 years. Which perhaps explains the irony of the baseball obsessive: we care because we want joy to come. Because I know what Orlando Cepeda did in 1958, I am better prepared to appreciate Brian Johnson's home run in 1997. But when the ball leaves the ballpark, I am overwhelmed with joy, my brain quits working, I forget to be an obsessive. Alone, I join my 60,000 friends in screaming.
There is an underside to the action I've described, where tens of thousands of people scream in brain-dead delight. Our craving for joy and our need to quit thinking in order to experience that joy certainly might lend itself to more desperate matters than "mere" sport. Large crowds of like-minded people emoting as one ... I respond in this instance to a ball crossing over a fence, but we are all aware of the ugly power of similar crowds when our passions are stirred, not by a ball but by a leader. I've long felt that the documentary Gimme Shelter, which chronicled the events leading up to the Altamont murder at a Rolling Stones concert, would be effectively double-billed with Triumph of the Will. Even as we marvel at the ability of a Mick Jagger or a Tina Turner to wield magic power over an audience, the movie draws us into the fascist impulses underlying the crowd's joy. I'm hard-pressed to imagine a baseball version of these movies; when fans go mad in baseball films, they are almost always psychotic individuals, and the baseball movies which are commonly thought of as the best deal with the mythic aspects of the game as experienced by individual fans rather than its effect on crowds of rabid seekers of joy. (This mythic shit gets so tiresome after awhile, which is why the baseball scenes in The Naked Gun are so welcome in their idiocy.)
Like most Americans of my age, I came to soccer later in life. I don't "know" it the way I know baseball, certainly don't know it the way fans in other more soccer-obsessed countries know soccer. I can analyze it all day long, but it remains maddenly resistant to such analysis. In this, soccer is the opposite of baseball, and perhaps that is what I love about it. By the time Brian Johnson hit his home run, I had calculated 13,230 facts in my mind, had mulled over every possible outcome of his appearance. At the soccer game, though, there is no time for such calculations, and even if there was, I wouldn't know where to start. The essence of soccer is the essence of the joy we spoke of earlier. It is entirely appropriate that the most common thing most Americans recognize about soccer is the orgasmic cry of "GOOOOOOOOOOOOLLL!" that emerges from the Spanish-language announcers at the appropriate moment. Soccer at its best is close to pure joy.
(Andres Cantor, the great soccer announcer who is currently the most well-known orgasmic crier, tells the following anecdote about the magnificent goal scored by Maradona in the 1986 World Cup, mentioned elsewhere in this issue in David Hawkes' essay. Cantor, like Maradona from Argentina, was enthralled as all fans were by Maradona's goal, considered by many to be the greatest goal scored in the history of soccer. But at the time, Cantor was a print journalist, not an announcer. So he had to write the story of that goal, rather than broadcast it. Now, says Cantor, "when I look at soccer stars for the joy of soccer and do not find it, I load up the VCR [with a tape of Maradona's goal] and do a play-by-play alone in front of the screen. After I shout my longest and most beautiful "goooal," I have the same feeling I had when I saw it years ago.")
I am not exactly a fan of the United States of America. You could say I am a fan of things American, but that's not really the same thing. I believe that many bad things have been done in the name of the United States of America. I believe that nationalistic fervor, enlivened by the Powers That Be, can be used to support the most nefarious of governmental deeds.
When I attend soccer matches of the national team, I bring an American flag with me and wave it gleefully.
More than one player has stated that when they play for the national team, they love to see a crowd full of fans waving their flags, the fans make the players feel special, make them ready to give their all for their fans. And once you've seen the outlandish brilliance of Mia Hamm, America's greatest soccer player (and coincidentally a woman), you're ready to do pretty much whatever she tells you if it will make her happy.
Does this make me, like the above-mentioned Weatherman, a bad revolutionary? Have I been co-opted? When I wave my flag, have I given naivete the upperhand?
Of course, in this country, there is something appealingly non-mainstream about being a soccer fan. Americans don't like to watch soccer; I know, people tell me that all the time. When I wave my flag, I am not honoring the United States of America as much as I am honoring Americans like Hamm or Eric Wynalda. And, since soccer-as-spectator-sport seems to be the anti-America of team sports, perhaps I could claim that it is I who am co-opting them, rather than the reverse.
The San Jose Clash, our local professional team, features a Nigerian, a Hungarian, a Salvadoran, a Honduran, a Brazilian, and Eric Wynalda. When Ronald Cerritos of El Salvador, the team's best player last season, scores a goal, he races over to the group of fans carrying huge El Salvador flags and celebrates with them. Meanwhile, the club's front office works overtime trying to sign a good Mexican player, because, as one Chicano said on a gigantic banner he brought to the team's first-ever match, "Sign a Mexican, we'll be back!" Last year they succeeded in bringing Missael Espinoza to the club. The first time he scored a goal, he ran to the corner where Mexican fans were gathered and did a somersault of happiness. The fans poured out of the stands carrying a humungous Mexican flag, under which they buried their beloved Missael.
Who are we rooting for here? Are we naive? Co-opted? Is this merely contrived exploitation?
Ultimately, I go to the ballpark because it is there that I feel at home. I know that place, I've been there so many times, in concrete reality and in my mind's eye during the long off-seasons when all that remains are memories. Roger Angell says it is about caring, about preserving that one particular emotional response to life in the midst of a world of irony. But it is also about home. Being rooted, not necessarily to a place, but to an obsession. Being able to counter the restless changeability of postmodern life with a connection to things that happened before and will happen again. I go to the park, I scream with joy, I am alone with my 60,000 companions, at home with my obsessions.
One thing I know for sure about being a fan is this: it is not a vicarious pleasure, despite all appearances to the contrary, and those who say that they would rather do than watch are missing the point.... When there is some kind of triumph, the pleasure does not radiate from the players outwards until it reaches the likes of us at the back of the terraces in a pale and diminished form; our fun is not a watery version of the team's fun ... The joy we feel on occasions like this is not a celebration of others' good fortune, but a celebration of our own; and when there is a disastrous defeat the sorrow that engulfs us is, in effect, self-pity, and anyone who wishes to understand how football is consumed must realise this above all things....
— Nick Hornby