We Built This City

Why, and how, baseball fans live in the future.
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When Prince Fielder signed with Detroit this week, he reduced an entire city to rubble. That city was constructed from a patchwork of rumors, wild-eyed speculations, semi-informed projections, and whorish desperate lies—all transmitted over every medium known to man. It was a shadowy place, and in Prince’s case poorly constructed and laid out, but we built it. We do that a lot.

Baseball has always been obsessed with its own past. In no other sport are stories and storytelling—and their grandiose cousin mythmaking—so highly valued. No other sport could lay claim, for example, could make a definitive figure of a documentary filmmaker. We attempt feats of time travel just for the sake of comparing players from one era to players from another. We read—or at least I read—kitschy ghost-written memoirs like they are Dead Sea scrolls and expend absurd amounts of energy arguing about a made-up thing called the Hall of Fame.

But baseball is also obsessed with what has yet to happen. As much as any Ken Burns anecdote, the cities we build in advance of major transactions like the Prince Fielder signing are territories in what the poet Donald Hall called “The Country of Baseball.” Rumors, even and perhaps especially false ones, are as much a part of the game as heavyset soon-to-be designated hitters. More and more, when we talk about baseball we are not talking about the sport as it has existed or does exist in the precise moment. We are talking about baseball as it will exist. Future baseball as opposed to present baseball; projection as opposed to analysis.

The offseason, with its dramatic tension and spectacular transactions (think not just Fielder but Darvish, Pujols, Cespedes) is a grandiose feast for Future Baseball types. With no games being played, there is no tangible present in which to immerse ourselves. So we gorge ourselves on empty-calorie speculation. This baseball media was especially gluttonous in the case of Fielder, grasping at every potential clue, heroically stretching their intellects beyond coherence in an attempt to make preemptive sense of what was yet to happen. (The archive of Prince Fielder-tagged posts at MLBTradeRumors.com makes for a fascinating look back through the vortex.) Fans, for our part, were happy to pick up what the baseball media kept on putting down. We even leaped, without looking all that closely, at Twitter rumors put forth by attention-seeking phonies like @JohnHeymanCBS (the real Heyman spells Jon without the h) and @MLBInsideNews.

Then, when Fielder finally signed his nine-year, $214 million contract with Detroit, a team about whom few rumors were mongered, we welcomed the news not by asking why but by  immediately asking what would come next. The end of one speculative cycle only begat more speculation. With Prince Fielder on the Tigers, does Miguel Cabrera move to third base? Will he actually be able to play there? Can Detroit eventually accommodate all three of Fielder, Cabrera, and the injured Victor Martinez? New cities are every day founded.

This is not merely a phenomenon for blogs and social media sites. Sports radio has thrived for as long as it has existed on “Why don’t the Red Sox sign Ted Williams’ head to play left field?” and “The Dodgers really ought to look at trading Juan Uribe for Hanley Ramirez.” Before that, albeit with different acronyms and less knowledge of the lower reaches of the home team’s farm system, fans spoke at barbershops or soda fountains or wherever else people congregated. Trade rumors have been around as long as trades. Speculation, hinged and un-, is a human thing, not just a baseball fan thing. 

But the Future Baseball mindset has become institutionalized enough to become a commodity in its own right. Major League Baseball guards its past like an unusually litigious dragon before a tower full of game footage, old photographs, and radio broadcasts. At the same time, it shills the future on MLB.com where you can find an officially sanctioned rumor blog, extensive prospects coverage, and various fantasy games. You can also read Peter Gammons (when he was at ESPN, Gammons was the first writer I read with anticipation of juicy trade gossip). Or watch MLB Network, where the real, no-H Heyman and any number of reporters in shiny suits speculate on what might happen. MLB sells the future as ferociously as it protects its past.

It makes sense, too, since the two activities feed one another. Our extensive statistical and anecdotal documentation of the past is the basis for how we see the future; then, in an instant, that future-obsession becomes the past. Not just in the sense that time progresses and history swallows up everything before it, but in the sense that our compulsion to look forward changes the way decisions are made in the media, in front offices, even on the field.

The future obsession has broadened the way we consume baseball. The sports within the sport—feeling for the ceilings of highly touted prospects, wondering which second baseman might stumble into 25 home runs for your fantasy team, hanging onto every last detail about which superstar free agent might sign where—take on nearly as much meaning as what happens when the players put their uniforms on. The cities we build and ruin are in some ways strange places. But they sure as hell make for exciting places to live.

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Everyone wants to be an expert on something, people like to be heard, they like to feel like they belong to something and they like to win, preferably with as little effort as possible. To serve these needs, baseball is conveniently ambiguous, and presents simplistic allegiances with minimal barriers to entry. These effects are enhanced by an association with nationalism and morality, executed with ruthless precision.