Friday, May 28, 2010

A Fan's Picaresque

I'm inspired by Josh Wilker's fascinating and affecting book, Cardboard Gods, to write a bit more about my own fandom. Wilker's book is a must for anyone who collected baseball cards to the point of distraction as a child, especially in the 1970s, but it's very well done as a memoir in its own right. In revisiting and recollecting his relationship with his cards, Wilker finds both refuge from and evidence of the plain cultural weirdness of the '70s.

I grew up one small state over from Wilker, in the same period. and like his, my interest in baseball has varied over the years. I was into the Red Sox as a seven-year-old, certainly, as every seven-year-old in New Hampshire was. And it was pretty exciting when my family lived in Bill "Spaceman" Lee's neighborhood in Belmont, Massachusetts, for a year when I was ten. (Wilker recounts a recent meeting with Lee here.) I collected huge numbers of cards over five years or so, each year organizing them by a different principle—the most confusing of which was "first pro team played for." This did give me insight into the roster turmoil the Cubs went through in the early 1970s, but it made it impossible to find any player without using a concordance—which, true to my largely benign quasi-Asperger's, I created.

But I lost interest over my teenage and college years—in part because I went to college halfway across the country from Boston, in a pre-Internet era when out-of-town coverage was relatively hard to come by. By the time I moved to New York in 1994, I'd followed the Twins a little and the Phillies a little, and I barely knew who any of the players on the Red Sox were. But I did know that that robotic sex-maniac scourge of chicken Wade Boggs had moved on to the Yankees, so I bought what seemed to be an extravagant top-price ($17!) ticket to a sunny Yankees game that spring.

The team was just then emerging from the desert of the 1980s, and they seemed like a young, exciting, not-evil group. Yes, I sold my birthright for a mess o' pottage and became a Yankees fan.

This lasted till the Jason Giambi signing after the 2001 season, which is also about when I left New York the first time. So it might be an illusion that that's when the Yankees turned evil again—with their skyrocketing prices, preposterous payroll, and overwrought patriotism—but it was enough for me to turn my affections back to the contraction-bound, Pohlad-crippled, Metrodome-stank Twins. Despite the horror that was the Metrodome, the Twins were a fun team to follow then: always the low-market Cinderella, never the AL champions.

My essential fecklessness* and geographical opportunism were about to get worse. First, I took up fantasy baseball, success at which requires casting aside local allegiances and scoping the entire league every night for the next breakout player to shore up your roster. (In a backhanded tip to the Yankees, I chose the name Dion James Abstract for my ever-evolving group of sabermetrically underpowered scrubs.)

Second, the project that became Baseball Byways came to life. Our first minor-league trip was 2002, and, despite many changes in my life since then, it has become a summer staple. But it, too, deracinates the typical fan: although this has changed a bit in recent years, teams typically have had their affiliates scattered far and wide. When you get sent down by the Blue Jays, the next stop is three time zones away.

I returned to New York in 2007 but didn't return to the Yankees, who had become the antithesis of everything I love about baseball, especially the minor-league variety. I went to the (old) stadium twice, and found it crammed with bombastic drunkards who hollered at every Yankees bloop single like it was a game-winning home run. Also, eleven bucks for a Beck's? Seriously.

This is a long way to set up the fact that Watson and I (who have lived in Chicago for two years now) walked to the Cubs/Dodgers game yesterday and saw a corker. Ted Lilly and Dodgers rookie Joe Ely each pitched gems into the eighth, when the Cubs finally broke it open with a triple from Mike Fontenot (one of Wednesday's goats) that soon led to the one and only run of the game. Our man Starlin Castro didn't do much one way or the other, but we did learn that his first name is apparently pronounced "Star-LEAN" (though that's not how the WGN-TV guys say it). Also, the new bison dogs are pretty tasty.

Watson doesn't have the same history with baseball that I do, but something must have rubbed off, since on an outside third strike from Lilly that was unaccountably called a ball, she stood and barked, "That's a bullshit call!" Spoken like a true fan.***

*"Feckless" is a great word, but it seems to be sort of like "overweening"—no one is ever called "underweening" or "feckful," are they?**

**The structure of this sentence is an example of chiasmus. Chiasmus is not a Greek cousin of Brad Ausmus.

***As I type this, Watson is on the couch next to me wearing her rally cap. (The Cardinals are spanking the Cubs 7-1 in the ninth.) "Why do I even know what a rally cap is??" she asks. My bad.

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