When I got home the other night I found a big envelope with my name on it leaning up against the mailbox. I was not expecting anything from anybody, much less from my friend Will who lives in Hollywood. There was no note inside or explanation of any kind. Instead there were three newspapers: the Los Angeles Times, the Daily News, and La Opinion. All from the day after the Los Angeles Kings lifted the Stanley Cup for the first time.
Will could not have intended this, but his sending those newspapers was more than a thoughtful no-need-to-explain act of friendship. It was the catalyst for a sentence that as soon as he reads, will surely cause him to regret that friendship completely: I think have arrived at my personal theory of sports fandom. This theory is so basic and so broad that it actually encapsulates every half-assed theory that Bill Simmons has ever written without proving or disproving any of them. I've been working on it, completely unwittingly, for about three years – or since I started writing about baseball and putting that writing on the internet.
But first, another Will. The other day, in his reflection on the worst baseball article ever written, my friend and colleague David Roth touched on him: the conservative pundit, international man of mystery, and leading baseball nostalgist George Will. David said that George Will “has had a nice sideline slotting baseball and various baseball types into his fusty, antique vision of The Rich Tapestry of American Life.” This got me thinking that in baseball terms, I sort of like George Will. His vision of the game may indeed be fusty and antique, but it is also informed and, by all appearances, borne of genuine enthusiasm. Nostalgia is not a crime.
I've been sitting on another bit of baseball nostalgia for a few months now. It's a book called High Fives, Pennant Drives, and Fernandomania written by a television producer named Paul Haddad. As a book, High Fives has, for whatever reason, proven difficult for me to review. It's a history of the Dodgers from 1977 to 1981, which in itself is only a moderately interesting topic – even to a fan like me with a borderline unhealthy Fernando Valenzuela obsession. But High Fives is also a memoir written by a person who spent his early teenage years recording hours upon hours of Dodgers radio broadcasts, and even creating his own DIY highlight tapes. As a monument to this project, and to the exuberance which which it was carried out, High Fives is a huge success. Those Dodger teams were watched and loved and hated by millions of people. But nobody watched or loved those teams like Paul Haddad.
Exuberance. Love. These are the entirety of my theory, which can be reduced to the simple notion that for sports writing to be interesting, it must come from a place of giving a shit and on some level of love. This sounds cheesy and basic because on some level it is both of those things. But it is not to say that I, or anybody, wants to be force-fed peons to green grass and the smell of leather in the summertime. Nor is to say that good sports writing need say something nice. Most of the best does not do so, and tough love is often the best kind. A perfect example is the recent throwdown between Dave Zirin and our Kate Perkins on NBA rooting interests and social responsibility; it was weighty and passionate but it was also decidedly not a series of sonnets about the gorgeous arc of a Kevin Durant jumpshot.
A couple months ago, I wrote the following sentences:
“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.”
What I’m realizing now is just that the emphasis should be on appreciating. Appreciating is a good thing. There is some discomfort to be found in the inherently passive nature of spectating, and even more in the gray area between regular fandom and creepy obsession, explored in books like Eric Rolfe Greenberg’s The Celebrant and Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes. However, you can’t get to those places without thinking deep about this stuff; without feeling deep about it. Those books started with the same spark that led my friend to send me the newspapers, and led Paul Haddad to record Vin Scully and led George Will to do his George Will thing. It’s the one you don’t hear in Joe Buck’s voice but oddly do in Tim McCarver's; the one this whole business demands.