A Rebuilding Year: My Way Back to Baseball

Jameson Taillon is going to be a key part to the Pirates’ rebuilding efforts. (via Editosaurus)

Scattered throughout my apartment are pages of handwritten notes, in notebooks and on index cards, about baseball players. Before the 2015 season, I pulled together major sites’ fantasy rankings, combed through FanGraphs, and compiled rough positional rankings of my own for my upcoming Yahoo draft. (I had won the league the year before, but my analysis was still quite fallible; most notably, I remained unconvinced by Jake Arrieta’s promising 2014.)

This took days – and still fell short, I’m sure, of the time some of my friends put into their fantasy teams. But it felt like work only in the best way: like if I put in enough effort, I would get something worthwhile for it. Watching baseball often felt like this, and there really was a payoff (even outside of fantasy, where I stood to win actual money). I enjoyed watching pitchers more when I knew their repertoires, and noticed them using their breaking ball more often the second time through the order. The more I knew about my team, the more secure I felt, fandom giving me authority and stability – something to come home to, regardless of how the rest of the day went.

I’ve always built these fortresses of details for myself. In October 2007, I copied down the Pittsburgh Penguins’ lines as they flashed on the screen one night (expecting, in my innocence, that they would stay roughly the same for a while, like the lines on my own travel hockey team). In my journal, I recounted Jordan Staal’s triumphs as enthusiastically as I did my own during that junior year of high school. When the Penguins lost in the Stanley Cup Finals that season, I wrote them a four-and-a-half page eulogy.

Clearly, I was practicing to be a sportswriter. I had no idea that I was doing it, of course – not even when I got to college and immediately joined the sports section of my school paper. Even two years in, covering Boston University women’s hockey team that reached the national championship (still perhaps my favorite beat), I figured that I would eventually wander out of that world about as purposefully as I had wandered in. College was like this: Big Life Choices loomed so often that you lost sight of how momentous they could be, almost forgot you were making a choice that could stick.

I wanted to say that the first time I gave something up for it – thereby committing to it, choosing it over something else – was later in college. I spent over half the Friday and Saturday nights of my junior and senior years covering the men’s hockey team for the paper. I am told that most people went to parties on those nights, or to bars; I was in Durham, New Hampshire and Orono, Maine and Grand Forks, North Dakota, rink after rink. The people who took those trips with me became some of my best friends, and I wouldn’t trade the experiences. But sometimes I am tempted to frame it the other way, to wonder about the nights I missed.

That was not, however, the first time. The first time was freshman year of college, when I said I’d come meet the other girls from my floor later, and they went to watch a movie together, and I stayed in my room to watch the Penguins play the Rangers, or maybe the Flyers. I didn’t make a single lasting friendship on my freshman floor, and it wasn’t Sidney Crosby’s fault. But I was clearly willing to dodge the nerve-wracking (for me) business of trying to make new friends, in favor of watching my old pals from the safety of my desk.

But then you blink, and you’re celebrating your 23rd birthday in Montreal. You’re in Montreal because you are honest-to-God getting paid to cover the NHL playoffs, and the city is all yours in the evenings when the Bruins and Canadiens are off. You will do this forever, you think; what better omen than being here already, just one year out of college? It certainly doesn’t feel like you’ve given anything up, not when you can feel the stories you’re writing getting better and better, and you’re flying out of Montreal at six in the morning, giddy about the OT game-winner you saw the night before. Torey Krug is your favorite Bruin, for the same reason Gregory Polanco will capture your heart a few months later. You think about everything in sporting terms, and so you see yourself reflected in them: like you, they’re turning 23 in the big leagues, the path ahead bright and clear.

I am one of those people who will avoid conflict until the last possible moment. It’s good and bad: I don’t start needless fights, but I delay conversations that I really should have. Often I’m too quick to declare a dispute resolved, to announce that everything is fine and change the subject.

When I retreat from these and other moments, I retreat into the things that make me happy: whatever music or TV show or team I love most at the moment. This isn’t unusual, and sports offer a unique solution. They simulate our most intense emotions, allowing us to experience joy and frustration, anger and hope, while keeping the real-life stakes low. It can be easy to feel – if you fall as deeply into your sad-sack baseball team as I have – that you are in touch with your emotions. After all, you’re smitten with Jameson Taillon and shouting heartfelt insults at Matt Carpenter. You often think of the 2015 Pittsburgh Pirates with a wistfulness it seems absurd to feel for a group of professional athletes. A group of strangers! You’re infuriated sometimes, disappointed sometimes – but while the happiness can be real, the sadness (at least for me) rarely plumbs the depths that non-sports sadness does.

However it looks from the outside, this kind of fandom can be crucial in hard times. It has been, many times, for me. It can get people out of bed in the morning, sometimes literally keep people alive. I am in awe of this: not necessarily of baseball itself, or any particular object of our affections – but of the affection itself, its power. Given the chance at a career fueled in part by that emotion, I saw no reason not to take it.

But I was using it wrong; I was hiding in it. It’s not as though I consciously thought that as long as I knew the National League standings and kept up with my fantasy team, the world couldn’t spiral too far out of control. But on some level, I felt safe as long as I could come home to a Pirates game, as long as I could give over a significant portion of my thoughts to baseball. I could imagine many acceptable ways my life might go, but all were limited by a certain loyalty to the choices I’d already made. And to make the changes I needed – to engage with the hard parts of the world around me, do the work I wanted to do – I had to stop feeling that kind of safe.

We all hate, rightly, the Real Fan Tests: “Oh, you like the Red Sox? Name the Opening Day lineup from 2009. Where were you for Game Three of the 2013 ALCS? Where was Mookie Betts born, and what’s his career OBP?”

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

These questions are silly at best, sexist gatekeeping at worst – questions almost always asked of women, by men. And yet there is a kernel of something I understand, within the deeply problematic practice of evaluating someone else’s fandom. If you love something, a team or a band or whatever it might be, it’s exciting to meet someone else who feels as strongly as you do. You want to geek out with them; you want to have heard all the same songs, or watched the same Jon Lester starts, so that you might connect. (This is the flip side of that instinct to hide in the things you love: when you meet someone similarly inclined, sometimes the urge to run and hide fades.)

When I left my sports writing job, I cut that connection. I keep conflating my fandom and my work when I try to talk about them now, in part because the former led directly into the latter. So I should clarify that I had a host of reasons for quitting – personal, logistical, existential – and losing that fannish solace was way down on the list. But it’s true that by the end, just watching ball games began to feel like work, and no longer in the good way. I saw only a few Pirates games in September, didn’t read much of anything about the final month of the season. When my old favorite Charlie Morton earned a World Series start, news of that fact only reached me as Game Four was ending.

This was unsettling at first. Baseball attracts people like me who want to know everything, to stack box scores and prospect rankings and transaction logs a little higher around themselves each year. It was a big personal development step to admit to myself that while I recognized their utility, I would probably never remember what differentiates UZR from DRS, or care much about spin rate.

But I let my head fill up with other things, from the fall into the winter. And before long, things that should have been obvious began to occur to me: other jobs I could do, places I could live, stories I could write. For all my mid-20s fatalism (I seemed to have absorbed the scouting notion that 26-year-olds are well over the hill and, inexplicably, applied it to non-baseball life), it turned out that I could still change my mind.

At 16, I came to the Penguins in search of a country. I knew I would be leaving home for college, and I suddenly felt I had nothing unique to show for my time in western Pennsylvania. It seemed as though I could have grown up 45 minutes from Minneapolis or Baltimore or Seattle and had roughly the same experiences of rural-suburban America. I chose the Penguins, and then rekindled my childhood Pirates fandom, to tie me to home. (The ways in which I was already, inevitably of my home only became evident later.)

Identity’s a strange thing. We’ll twist and turn ourselves all sorts of ways to maintain one – especially when we are young and the musicians, writers, athletes we love do the work of explaining us to the world. But I suspect there is a way to follow baseball without needing to be an expert, without expecting myself to have a comment ready on each free agent signing. I’m told that adults have hobbies, things they do for fun without even needing to write about them (though the existence of this essay suggests that I just may not be wired that way).

When I went to bed before Game Seven of the World Series ended, I thought I might be done for real. But in February, I started paging through the new Baseball Prospectus Annual, thinking of spring training with a giddy, deeply familiar hope. I’m excited about something – though certainly no rational person would be excited about the Pirates, who seem determined to spend the foreseeable future in fourth place. I might be a generalist by midseason, watching other teams just to remember why anyone likes baseball.

But this feels like a fine approach, as does any way you feel like watching, or not watching, baseball. And since moving and beginning a new job, I’ve been reminded often that I did not, in fact, leave my essential character in my old apartment, scattered on pages of handwritten notes. That I can reimagine myself, follow previously unthinkable ambitions and throw out the things that aren’t working anymore; but that some things – and not always the ones you expect – will mean enough to endure.

Annie Maroon is a writer and photographer based in Pittsburgh. She has covered sports for MassLive and written for outlets including ESPNW, The Classical and Matador Network. She occasionally tweets at @annie_maroon.
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4 years ago

WOW…what a well written article. I’m sure most of us that read and pay attention to what you are feeling will be able to feel your love and emotion.

Mark Davidson
4 years ago

Wow. I’m 32 and i feel like you just described me to the world. Beautiful truths in here, Annie, thank you.

4 years ago

Amazingly self-indulgent.

Yehoshua Friedman
4 years ago
Reply to  Johnston

Give people a chance to be human instead of totally stat-nerds. Even behind the tortoise shell of an introverted nerd lies a person with desires and fears. That kind of a response drives people further into their shells. Lay off.

4 years ago

Wonderful piece, thank you for writing. Baseball attracts people for all sorts of reasons, but we all hide in it/connect to each other because of it. Our relationship to sports, and ourselves, is always changing. You said it beautifully

4 years ago

There are fans of teams and then there are fans of the game. The latter keep watching when their team is out of contention. And they’re the ones who discover how beautiful the game is.

There was a time when we expected sports writers to be in the latter category: “No cheering in the press box.” Those times seem largely to be gone, and we are poorer for it.

Annie, you seem to be on that path, ironically at the same time you have left the profession. Our loss. I hope you’ll keep on writing.

Yehoshua Friedman
4 years ago

Annie, I profoundly wish you a good life, both in work and in real relationships. I really appreciate the limited space and time in which we live that forces us all to make choices by decision or indecision. The generation and its social media and all the rest make it harder than it ever was to have meaningful relationships rather than the illusion of them. Hang in there. Life is both long and short, depending how you look at it.

4 years ago

Thank you Annie for your extremely thoughtful, eloquent, consideration of what the complicated nature of being a “fan” means in the span of a person’s life: how such a relationship to a game, with its statistical measures, and seasons, and places, and memories, can wax and wane in light of the passage of time, and during the inevitability of personal change.
Really terrific!