Among the Cave Dwellers

The MLB Fan Cave promotes a terrible, terrible version of fandom
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The vacant fan cave

Vacant Fan Cave photo by Pete Beatty

Just a few weeks ago, the Manhattan storefront that doubles as the MLB Fan Cave was a sad and vacant and lonely and empty and despairing place. Now it has a slide, a pool table, a wall made of “1,300 baseball skins from Rawlings,” thousands of inches of high definition television screen space, and nine residents competing in a vague reality show that nobody knows the rules to or the benefits of winning. What we do know is that eight of those nine residents (the MLB-approved term for them is Cave Dwellers™) will be eliminated over the course of the season, leaving one fan champion.

What made last year’s two-person Fan Cave experiment so interesting was the pure endurance and loneliness of it. The very concept of a dude and his friend sitting in a storefront watching every single baseball game had an Alfred Hitchcock Presents feeling about it. It was an unlikely blend of creepy voyeurism and Veeckian publicity stunt. Sure, all they did was watch baseball in a lavish room with all kinds of unnecessary amenities, but there was something impressive about the singular focus of a life spent  doing so at the expense of everything else.

This year’s competitive version of the Fan Cave is just a cumbersome attempt to further commercialize last year’s Fan Cave, which was obviously already a plenty commercial endeavor. The nine fans are mostly loud, amateur-comedian types who wear a lot—a lot—of MLB merchandise. “Rep your team” seems to be the guiding principle, supported by a regimen of heavy-handed joke-telling, crazed gesticulations, and uncommonly aggressive demonstrations of pride. Pride itself is a big deal, especially in each competitor’s team and own level of fandom. In one clip on, a Cave Dweller™ even brags about being the first fan shown in an MLB commercial campaign about superfans.

The Fan Cave’s attempt at bottling this fervor in a single room is its greatest failure. Full, 24/7 immersion, despite MLB’s insistence otherwise, is not the only way into baseball. Insufficient schwag and insufficient technology do not lead to insufficient fandom. With its sponsored sections (e.g. “Pepsi Porch” and “State Farm Rooftop”), its giant scoreboard, its Times Square-sized wall of televisions, the Fan Cave feels like a not-so-subtle jab at the relative puniness of the laptop on which I watch games, not to mention the world’s rabbit-eared garage television sets and portable radios. But puniness is okay, and so is stepping away every once in a while. Most people don’t want to be fully immersed. If they are like me (and here I state unabashedly that I love baseball a lot), they find the fetishization of superfans and obsessives to be a little off-putting and creepy. (I’m reminded of ESPN’s Stump the Schwab, possibly the most frightening television show of all time to a young sports fan who recognizes a sliver of his own nerdy curiosity in the Schwab’s menacing intonations.)

In their quest to stave off elimination, the Cave Dwellers™ become the players in a competition far less interesting than baseball (less interesting, even, than Stump the Schwab). The problem with this—beyond the fact that it’s a competition one step removed from the actual competition—is that fandom should not be a prescriptive act. There is no right or wrong way to appreciate baseball, just as there is no right or wrong way to appreciate a painting. To fetishize a certain type of fandom is to do so at the expense of every other type of fandom.

The Fan Cave also furthers a bunch of stupid myths about fandom at large. The first one is that there is something inherently productive about rooting for a team. It’s nice that Johnny from Belleville, Illinois really wanted the Cardinals to win the World Series and cheered really hard and wore a Yadier Molina jersey every day in October, but it’s not why the Cardinals won. Teams do benefit from a good fanbase in the collective sense, but as individuals our agency is limited. We’re not on the field.

The second myth is that individual fandom is measurable in the volume of cheers, the number of caps owned, the amount of trivia spouted off, or the total hours spent at the ballpark. This line of thinking is antithetical to the nature of enjoying something. Tabulating acts of devotion negates the creative expression of those acts and the people who perform them: the ones crafting signs, wearing costumes, and starting blogs. It also feeds into the endless and pointless debate over whether a city has good or bad fans, whether it has fair-weather fans, whether its fans appreciate certain players to a sufficient degree etc.

The third myth is that fandom is noble. The MLB Fan Cave concept props up its nine Dwellers™ as aspirational figures, the types of fans that a guy like me or a girl like you should strive to be. They are not fans, but corporately validated superfans. According to MLB, they take the game (a game!) more seriously than we do, express themselves more furiously, and engage in their teams and in baseball on a more awesome level. But fandom is not a moral act. Rooting for a specific team is not staking a moral position any more than is being born in a particular city, liking a band, or wearing a striped shirt. Cubs fans might be long-suffering, but they are not exactly suffering.

Fandom is just fandom. If you go to ballgames alone, sit quietly, keep score with diligence, and then go home, that’s great. If you pore over fantasy baseball minutiae for hours each day, that’s great too. If you write treatises on labor politics in 1870s baseball, that’s also great. There are infinite versions of the great baseball fan. There are infinite ways in and out of your own personal fan cave.

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Great take on the fandom aspect of it. Unfortunately I don't have anything to add there, but I can leave you with some fun facts gathered through a couple friends that worked in the Fan Cave last year:

- The "take home" from MLB for each of the guys last year was HUGE... I would guess well over 100 jerseys and hats each, stuff from the sponsors, bands and players dropping by everyday and tons and tons of memorabilia. Would be a really fun score for any kind of baseball fan.

- There's a "lounge" type area in the basement w/ full bar for corporate events, etc. I'm sure a substantial amount of the budget last year came from groups of NYC's big swinging dicks who wanted a night hanging out in that place with their bros.

- I was there for the All Star game last year (the principals were all in AZ), and even by then the scuttlebutt was that the two dwellers were pretty fed up w/ being around each other - and the 20+ staff members - constantly. With 9 people, could be interesting to watch for simmering tension in the otherwise ultra-cheery web pieces.

- Most of the players involved were good guys who did their piece and left. But only one hung out all night and pounded beers, then showed up unannounced a few other times to hang out and pound beers. Hint: Former Yankee reliever with a moustache, named Jeff Nelson

That Jeff Nelson anecdote is basically enough for me to completely rethink/take back the entire essay. I want to pound beers and hang out with him every night.

Very very true about the different merits of fandom. Sometimes as someone who is, for better or worse, very invested in my teams I sometimes forget that not everyone is keeping score and tracking a pitch count and thinking about matchups in the next inning. Anyone that is willing to spend their hard earned money at the ballpark to root for a team should be allowed to watch the game however they want. Though if they are disturbing other people's experience then I start to have a problem.

That being said, I would gladly have all expenses paid to just watch nothing but baseball for a summer rather than look for a job in a year and a half when I get out of college. But I am a Mets fan, so I can probably handle the masochist nature of it!