Ya Gotta Believe

I have written about baseball for nearly four decades now. At first I sat in the stands, looking down at the field and writing about what I saw. Then I began to wonder about what might really be going on, hidden from sight yet discernible from the game’s statistical residue. Over time, as the fascination of numbers waned, I gravitated to the game’s largely unvisited necropolis of ancient worthies and uncharted exploits, the men who grew up with the game in the years before league play.

And there I settled in, hanging out a shingle as baseball historian despite its queasy echoes of real-estate novelist, only to have that title made official this year. I investigated how far back this children’s romp with bat and ball really went, how it came to be Our Game, and why so many have registered claims to paternity.

Lately, however, I have begun to think that instead of surveying the fields of play for the Great Story of Baseball I might better have looked at the individuals surrounding me in the stands, and their antecedents, the ones who more than any ingenious lad made baseball the national pastime. It was the spectator—not a Doubleday or a Cartwright, neither a Chadwick nor a Spalding—who transformed baseball from a boys’ game into a nation’s sport.

Around the time of the Civil War, members of the press used to call the strangely ardent spectators enthusiasts or thirty-third-degree experts concerning the game of ball. (They used to call some of them pickpockets and drunks and rowdies, too.) By the early 1880s the baseball-mad were commonly called cranks or bugs, both terms intended to reference chronic and incurable illness, with more than a dash of lunacy. In the St. Louis Post-Dispatch of April 18, 1884 an ex-Governor of Maryland noted:

“There is a man in the Government Hospital for the Insane who is perfectly sane on every subject except base ball. He knows more about base ball than any other man in America. The authorities have humored him so that he has been able to cover the walls of his large room with intricate schedules of games played since base ball began its career. He has the record of every important club and the individual record of every important player…. He has figured it all out. His sense has gone with it. He is the typical base ball crank.”

On the other hand, baseball had also been recognized as an aid to the “moral management of the insane” at the McLean Asylum—then located in Charlestown, Massachusetts, not too far from Fenway Park—as noted one year before Doubleday’s purported invention of the game (in The Friend; a Religious and Literary Journal, June 23, 1838). When it comes to baseball, evidently, there ain’t no sanity clause.

Where the term fan came from has long been in dispute, with some saying it was short for fanatic—which would be in line with crank and bug—while others have seen in it a truncation of the eighteenth-century term “the fancy,” a flock of aristocratic fops who enjoyed slumming with the rabble at boxing matches. I am persuaded, however, by Peter Morris’s interpretation that fan was a term players worked up to deride their bleacher nemeses, and that it was a trope for the endlessly flapping motion of all those cognitively detached tongues.

Rooter was not exactly a term of endearment, either. Today we may imagine that rooting has something to do with attachment to our team and the nourishment taken from its native soil … but in truth it derives from the bellowing of cattle, the undifferentiated herd to which otherwise rational individuals willingly surrender their good sense at a ball game.

Whatever one calls the baseball devotee—seam head, stat freak, nerd, and geek are but a few of the recent coinages—the object of the epithet is nonplussed and, knowing that his detractors simply do not understand, he tends to wear the epithet as a badge of honor. For some fans social maladjustment is indeed a lifelong affliction, meriting empathy and respect, yet for most it is temporary and elective: a rented costume and mask, a three-hour license to act badly and get sloshed before the seventh-inning shutdown of the taps. To these revelers the game is irrelevant and the honorable term fan does not describe them.

Rooting is all about vicarious experience, surrogacy, sublimation, and emulation. When we cheer for our favorites or implore them to win we are doing many other things as well: reenacting archaic rites, reliving past glories, transferring powers from our heroes to ourselves and, by emulating warfare rather than engaging in it, ensuring the future of the world. In sharing an experience that, like faith, insists upon no generational divide, boys learn what it is like to be men and men recall what it was like to be boys. The ballpark, even when visited through electronic media, forms a magic circle in which all this metaphysical swirl underlies not a staged drama or religious rite, with their preordained outcomes, but a real life struggle in which risk is everywhere present.

This is what fans do: they congregate (yes, even when alone in front of the television) to invite change, risk, uncertainty into their lives, confronting danger and loss yet emerging to face another day. Spectating is, at a sublimated level, of course, akin to the experience of gambling or mountain climbing—that is, flirting with suicide. Besides the vicarious thrill of an uncertain outcome, fans build belief in themselves for the more significant contests ahead in their own lives. Baseball in America is a sort of faith for the faithless, and its seven virtues are the same as those of religion—faith, hope, charity, fortitude, justice, prudence, and moderation. All these are traits that might sustain a man or a fan.

Adults who come to the game late tend to make rational decisions about which team to embrace, as a forty-year-old might choose a marriage partner; it can be a cold and dispiriting business. A boy, however, selects his team for a range of reasons he only dimly understands at the time, with a cheerful obliviousness about who is choosing whom. It would not be too much to say that reason does not enter into his choice; it is almost entirely a matter of faith. [This applies to girls, too; I talk about boys and men and their pronouns for efficacies of style and because I never understood girls or women.] What must be comprehended at the outset, by even the youngest fan, is that a rooting interest is not to be reversed lightly. A youngster who wavers in his allegiance may not amount to much. If his team loses today or tomorrow, or doesn’t finish first this year or next, it is a challenge to his faith and endurance, but it must be borne.

A fan’s hope is the unreasoning, inexplicable love of Krazy Kat for Ignatz: each blow to the head is merely a love tap, binding the victim ever more closely to the assailant. (Some call it hope; others will call it neurosis.) Maintaining faith, an ongoing, in-the-moment process, can be a struggle in the face of misfortune and injustice (“we wuz robbed!”). But hope is forward-looking and, thanks especially to spring training, is cyclically renewable.

Charity enables the fan to appreciate the human frailty of the players. A child may regard these rented champions for our shires as heroes but a grownup fan may not. Disbelief may be suspended, especially in April, but a real baseball fan embraces reality before the end of October forces it upon him. Closers blow saves; infielders make errors on routine plays at awful times; cleanup hitters strike out with men on base. Yes, playing the scapegoat is part of the tribal role for which players sign on. Yes, this is the game you played when you were young … and from a distance it still looks easy. But No, you would not have done better in their place. As an attitude borne in silence, charity is commendable; voiced in defense of a player sorely abused in your presence—now that is a true virtue.

Fortitude is staying until the game is over, even when your team trails by ten and has lost every game for a week straight and the traffic going home will be murder. In the same summer of 1973 that the Mets’ Tug McGraw declared, “Ya gotta believe,” Yogi Berra famously added, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” Less familiar is the knowledge that he left early in Game 3 of the 1951 National League playoff and thus missed Bobby Thomson’s home run. Fortitude need not be exercised solo; rally caps, crossed fingers, thunder sticks, whatever fetishes you need to get you through the game, they’re all okay. Sure the players are important, but the outcome of the game depends upon you. Remember that.

Justice is being fair with others, even talk-radio callers, even fantasy baseball bores, even Yankees fans. Look upon these benighted souls with bemusement. Winning isn’t everything, and debilitates character. Let them pursue victory heedless of the ruin that awaits them in the next life. Can they gnash their teeth as you can? Certainly not. Right conduct and proper belief, even in the face of provocation, will get you somewhere, though not with girls. As Mark Twain said, “Always do right; this will gratify some people and astonish the rest.”

Exercising prudence helps one to avoid excesses of optimism. When Tuffy Rhodes hit three home runs on Opening Day of 1994, he did not go on to hit 486 for the season. Don’t extrapolate from today’s good fortune. Don’t bet on the law of averages. Think twice about getting that tattoo of today’s hero. Don’t lead cheers from the stands; in primitive societies the Carnival King dies at revel’s end. Be calm and serene even when your insides are jumping with joy as your team has come back from three down in the ninth. This will deter gloating by others when your team blows that three-run lead in the ninth.

Okay, just kidding on that last virtue. Ya gotta enjoy. And ya gotta suffer. That’s the human condition, not simply the arm’s-length world of fandom.

So to toll the seventh of fandom’s virtues: employ moderation in all things, including moderation. You know that you are not playing shortstop for the Red Sox, though your emotions are racing as if you were. But face facts—there’s no stopping that rush of testosterone or fancied pheromones when your team improbably snatches victory at the last. Winning has its rewards; enjoy them, even while knowing, at the back of your mind somewhere, if you can recall where your mind went to, that losing is the superior instructor.

For this old boy, with more years behind than ahead, baseball is still at life’s core. Not in the same dizzying way as when I was ten years old and my beloved Brooklyn Dodgers left town and, more pointedly, me; not in the same way that the Mets swept to implausible glory in 1969, filling my heart with joy and my mind with the certainty that anything, yes, anything could happen. No longer in the same warming way as seeing my sons become first players and then fans for life. They are grown now, scattered, yet baseball remains a link for all of us. The game is what we talk about when we want to connect not only with each other but with our shared past.

Sport replaces faith for some while enhancing it for others. More importantly for Americans, and more specifically when it comes to baseball, sport constitutes family for the lonely among us and enlarges it for all of us. Albert Pujols and Ted Williams, Pedro Martinez and Tom Seaver form extended family at dinner tables; ballgames of days gone by are stored like holiday snapshots.

Still baseball, after all these years.


Love the post.
I read a lot of Boston blogs to stay up-to-date since I’m so far from Fenway… and the most enjoyable blogs to me are the personal ones. The ones that just reek of nostalgia. The ones about how their Red Sox traditions started. It’s fascinating how it becomes a part of a family’s culture.

A fantastic (pun intended) piece. Baseball is indeed a game of faith and therefore, a religious exercise. As you also say, it is a time machine in which old men can close their eyes and when they open them they are 10 years old again. Well done!!

Thank you for this inspiring piece, John.

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