Baseball and Joy in Late Capitalism

Success on the field, like Ichiro’s, can make baseball enjoyable. But there are other ways to enjoy a baseball game. (via Keith Allison)

Why do we watch baseball? It’s a tedious, useless question—and yet it’s also the question. 

There’s no one answer, not even for any one person. To say we watch for our team (or a team) to win is obviously not quite right. To watch your team win, whether in a winning season or a losing season, is an undeniable joy. But winning is not enough. It can’t be. If winning were enough, would we be forever satisfied after a World Series championship? Would we have zero interest in a losing team? Generally, winning is the essential ingredient, and losing teams are less popular. And yet, they’re not completely without popularity. The Astros, presently baseball’s best-run franchise, averaged only 19,000 fans in 2012 at the lowest depths of their tanking. Relatively speaking, 19,000 is not a fantastic number of fans to have at your game. And yet, if 19,000 people read this article, it would be incredible. If 19,000 people gathered in a public space almost any other reason, it would be national news. Why were all those people at those games? Why did they watch baseball? Hot dogs? Ballpark sounds? Smells? Nostalgia? 

If you are reading this, you know that certain something that baseball provides. Its absence in the long dark of winter. The smell of dirt and grass from childhood. Running your fingers across the stitches on a baseball. Rising out of your seat in surprise—out of joy—as a ball sails, unexpectedly, out of the yard. What is it, exactly? And why is it so goddamn important?

***

It can be complicated to be a baseball fan. You grow fond of certain players, and then they succeed or fail—they all fail, eventually, disappearing from view as shadows of their former selves. Some grow monstrous, do and say terrible, unforgivable things—Josh Hader’s tweets, John Rocker’s racial slurs, Aroldis Chapman and others suspended for acts of domestic violence.

Then there are the larger, systemic issues surrounding baseball. While we have the rags-to-riches stories of many Latin American players, there are their foils in deaths in team academies, the shortage of food in Venezuela. Wilson Ramos was once kidnapped during the offseason. There are team-specific issues, too: the Cubs’ ownership fundraising for Donald Trump, widespread predatory misogyny in the Mariners’ organization, the Dodgers’ possible role in human trafficking.We can often feel the ways in which baseball, our refuge, rubs against and participates in the problems of our world.

What do you do with this stuff as a fan? Probably nothing. Probably, we move on, despite our best intentions. It’s not Robinson Canó’s fault the Mariners have a toxic work environment. But he’s probably at fault for not paying child support

So.

***

We live in Late Capitalism, or so some would say. The phrase can be defined variously, and depending on the context, it might be damning, or it might be optimistic. We, as Americans, live in a largely free-market system in which most systemic injustice is largely ignored. We can choose our own paths, is the thinking.

Bear with me.

As baseball fans, we too can choose our own paths. You saw the proliferation of Cubs hats circa 2016. You, too, have likely felt the pull of a bandwagon, have seen your team eliminated and chosen—almost arbitrarily—a new team to root for, to place your hope in. 

We are all born into certain circumstances. We have rich families, or poor families, or families that fall somewhere in the middle; we live in warm places, or cold places, or places that veer wildly from warm to cold. We might be born in a city with a baseball team—I was born in Seattle. We might be born in a place remote enough that one’s rooting interest could be justifiably placed all willy-nilly—you grow up liking Jeter, you grow up a Yankees fan, in Montana. One’s baseball life is forever influenced by circumstances totally out of one’s control: your geographic location, whether the M’s decide to draft Troy Tulowitzki or Jeff Clement. You might grow frustrated with your team; you might take some time off, watch the NBA playoffs, take up golf. But, if you’re anything like me, you feel this sinuous connection to a franchise, through thick and thin, good and bad, one that at times you’d like to be able to shed completely.

As a Mariners fan, I, personally, am not really in it for the winning. I want them to be good, but I don’t expect it. I don’t pin the conditions of my own joy on their success. Instead, I’ve found nuances that I can lean into—Dee Gordon tripping on the warning track, Jesus Montero falling down fielding a grounder at first in spring training. These things give me joy. So does success, admittedly—I remember Ichiro, Griffey, Randy. Young Félix. But there’s more than one way to enjoy a baseball game. 

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As a Mariners fan, I have lower expectations. This makes sense. The Mariners haven’t made the playoffs since 2001 and don’t look like they will anytime soon. The Mariners have never won a World Series. The Mariners have never been to a World Series. In the same way I feel in my bones that I am a Mariners fan, I also feel they truly will never make one. Not ever. I am okay with this. 

There is a kind of smug satisfaction I feel from being a Mariners’ fan, something repulsive, borderline despicable that might best be described by an anecdote. I spent a long while in Los Angeles and once, at a Dodgers-Mariners game at Chavez Ravine, my friend spotted a Mariners fan and insisted I talk to the guy. I didn’t want to. So my friend, a Dodgers fan, started chatting him up and then passed the baton. It turned out the M’s fan and I had a lot in common. We were both from Seattle, both taught middle school in Los Angeles. We both had beards and guts, too. I hated him, instinctively. I asked him, suddenly, how many current Mariner relievers he could name. He knew Tom Wilhelmsen and that was it—no Danny Farquhar, no Carson Smith, etc., etc. None of the endless parade of near-replacement-level unfortunates. I felt vindicated, and also like an asshole. 

This is the sort of joy afforded to one who chooses, in spite of it all, to root for the pitiful. I could, in theory, take up a different flag at any time. But I don’t. Instead, what baseball allows for me is a poetry of Marxist alienation.

***

There are haves and have-nots in baseball. Dodgers, Red Sox, Yankees; Mariners, Orioles, Marlins. In the modern baseball era, we have the story of Moneyball, which has created a very American, bootstrapsy baseball mythology. It is, in a sense, true that an unheralded underdog team might be able to smart its way to success. The A’s, and now the Rays, have found a workaround. They have pulled themselves up from the gutter of anonymity with pure smarts. 

But, also, it’s not so simple. Despite their successes, neither the A’s nor the Rays have ever actually won a title with sabermetrics. And the big guys use sabermetrics now, too. The big guys might even use it better

What it comes down to, then, is a duality in fandom born of nihilism: a faith, or anti-faith, in inevitable failure, and that certain something about baseball—the whatness that puts 19,000 butts in seats at the worst of Astros times. It’s the thing that Tobias Wolff conjures at the end of his story “Bullet in the Brain,” when a man, shot in the head and dying in a bank, thinks about baseball:

Heat. A baseball field. Yellow grass, the whirr of insects, himself leaning against a tree as the boys of the neighborhood gather for a pickup game. He looks on as the others argue the relative genius of Mantle and Mays. They have been worrying this subject all summer, and it has become tedious to Anders: an oppression, like the heat. Then the last two boys arrive, Coyle and a cousin of his from Mississippi. Anders has never met Coyle’s cousin before and will never see him again. He says hi with the rest but takes no further notice of him until they’ve chosen sides and someone asks the cousin what position he wants to play. “Shortstop,” the boy says. “Short’s the best position they is.” Anders turns and looks at him. He wants to hear Coyle’s cousin repeat what he’s just said, but he knows better than to ask. The others will think he’s being a jerk, ragging the kid for his grammar. But that isn’t it, not at all – it’s that Anders is strangely roused, elated, by those final two words, their pure unexpectedness and their music. He takes the field in a trance, repeating them to himself.

The bullet is already in the brain; it won’t be outrun forever, or charmed to a halt. In the end it will do its work and leave the troubled skull behind, dragging its comet’s tail of memory and hope and talent and love into the marble hall of commerce. That can’t be helped. But for now Anders can still make time. Time for the shadows to lengthen on the grass, time for the tethered dog to bark at the flying ball, time for the boy in right field to smack his sweat-blackened mitt and softly chant, They is, they is, they is.

They is. That’s why we all watch baseball—an incantation, untouchable by the gears of power. It’s what keeps us coming back, despite the circumstances of a given moment.

And yet, the circumstances exist. Assuming a culturally relativist perspective, we might say that our every very experience is, to quote James Berlin, “imbricated in ideology.” Reality is shaped by the circumstances. Reality is circumstances. It’s hard to approach the pure truthiness of baseball without all the other bullshit—ten-dollar beers, racist and abusive players, the Capital thing—the way your investment, even if only in time on MLB At Bat with a borrowed password, fuels the machine with advertising dollars. We keep it moving. 

In a way, then, the sneering superiority of enjoying being a fan devoid of team success might be a sort of bandage, a sour antidote to that bitter reality. We cannot escape the machine, but we might take joy in triviality of the moment of failure, in the poetry of alienation—Justin Smoak, circa 2012, hopelessly swinging through a curveball that bounced in the dirt, telling reporters after the game that the fences are just too far, that he can’t hit it hard enough. 

For me, that is baseball. Maybe the opposite of the Cardinal Way. No faith, no divinity, just the joy of lumber being swung around aimlessly. The fumbling panic of an error. Lowering your expectations just enough to be—every once in a while—caught up in the joyous moment of surprise. 


Matt Greene teaches writing in Appalachia. Other sports bickering can be found in the Pacific Northwest Inlander, and his fiction has recently appeared in or is forthcoming from DIAGRAM, Moss, Santa Monica Review, and Spillway.
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bohknowsbmore
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bohknowsbmore

“While we have the rags-to-riches stories of many Latin American players, there are their foils in deaths in team academies, the shortage of food in Venezuela. Wilson Ramos was once kidnapped during the offseason. There are team-specific issues, too: the Cubs’ ownership fundraising for Donald Trump, widespread predatory misogyny in the Mariners’ organization, the Dodgers’ possible role in human trafficking.”

Ah, the ownership group of a team fundraising for a presidential candidate from one of the two primary political parties in the US is similar to these other things.

Pwn Shop
Member
Pwn Shop

If 19,000 people read this article it would be a travesty.

stockhfcrx2
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Member
stockhfcrx2

It’s worse, the world is burning while you kiss the rings of rich assholes who couldn’t care if you live or die. Go to Espn.com and leave this site for people who have a soul.

ryanredsox
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ryanredsox

Wouldn’t quite put Hader in the same category with Rocker and Chapman. Racist tweets from a dumb 15 year old seems a little more forgivable than discharging a firearm at your significant other as a grown man.

gavinrendar
Member
gavinrendar

But not when you factor in the intersectionality bonuses and handicaps it isn’t! 😉

GreekGodofGreek
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GreekGodofGreek

Damn, Matt. This is bleak. Maybe you should take the Marx/Engels reader to a local used book store with intent to sell, and see if they have like a Peanuts strip?

tramps like us
Member
tramps like us

You’re absolutely right about the mentality of a long-suffering fan of a loser. But every now and then….I ‘ve been a Giants fan since 1965 and had long before accepted my fate that my team would never win. But then…..

3cardmonty
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3cardmonty

At least it’s not the NFL?

gavinrendar
Member
gavinrendar

Someone fundraised for Donald Trump!!?!?

The horror!!!! The horror!!!!

gavinrendar
Member
gavinrendar

Bader’s tweets unforgivable? Cmon man haha. Don’t put that up there with violent crimes. My goodness.

This article pretends to be about baseball but is really just a piece that makes a ton of political assumptions with no argument. Would get destroyed in a high school debate class.

gavinrendar
Member
gavinrendar

Thing is, I don’t even think the author thinks he’s making assumptions or stating controversial opinions. I genuinely think he thinks these are consensus evident facts.

This is why we need to get out of our echo chambers. This is beyond pretentious and beyond parody. I’m saving this when I need an example of self-unaware confirmation bias.

Serious question, is this a hoax article?

halcyondubz
Member

Clown article

Yehoshua Friedman
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Yehoshua Friedman

I can take or leave all the pontification on Late Capitalism, but as an expatriate (in Israel) long-suffering Indians fan (at the ’48 WS in utero), I certainly empathize with the dude from Seattle. Of course for ages before Seattle was just a PCL city, which is a horse of another color. Someone could write about the effect of expansion on the American consciousness. See John Grisham’s The Painted House for the phenomenon of the pre-expansion great expanse of the south and west who were Cardinals’ fans connected to St. Louis by clear-channel KMOX. Have a great day, Matt.

Robert J. Baumann
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Member
Robert J. Baumann

Instantly one of my favorite baseball pieces ever.