On the Nature of Writing and Fandom

On Friday, in the midst of a fifth losing season in the last seven years, the Mariners fired general manager Jack Zduriencik. In the few hours that followed that announcement, I got a series of texts and emails from friends and acquaintances, all with the same general theme: “Congratulations, your team now has a chance to be decent again!”

And changing leadership probably will help the Mariners — though if the lingering Kenny Williams rumor proves true, this change could prove less like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic and more like using those deck chairs to puncture all the remaining life rafts — given the struggles the team has had during Zduriencik’s tenure at the helm. But despite that fact, I didn’t react to the news with celebration, or even any kind of relief. Instead, my reaction to Zduriencik’s dismissal was pretty much the same one I had when the Brewers fired Doug Melvin.

While I generally prefer to write about baseball rather than provide commentary about myself or the nature of baseball commentary as a profession, this news provides an opportunity to write something I probably should have written a few years ago. Because the Mariners haven’t been “my team” for a while now. I haven’t written a post at USSMariner in 18 months. I probably haven’t watched more than 20 or 30 innings of the Mariners games this year. Over the last five or so years, my fandom has waned, and now it’s probably at the point of dormancy.

I will note that this wasn’t really a conscious decision. While I’ve long been aware of the traditional “no cheering in the press box” rule, I don’t spend much time in press boxes, and I didn’t choose to renounce allegiance to a specific team in order to try and appear more objective. It just kind of happened. And as it was happening, I’ve spent some time thinking about why we become fans, and why I’ve been unbecoming one.

Growing up, I long believed that fandom was my irrational outlet, offsetting my need to find utility and reason in nearly every other aspect of my life. You’ve heard the “rooting for laundry” bit, and when put in that context, fandom does seem like a particularly strange endeavor. We spend a lot of emotional currency hoping that people we don’t know will achieve an outcome we have no control over. We let the performances of others affect our personal happiness, and many times, the difference between our joy and sadness isn’t even decided by which team has better players; we’re often rooting for our preferred group of jerseys to be the recipients of good fortune.

But even with that, I think the decision to be a fan is actually entirely rational. We choose to be fans of sports teams because it makes us part of a community, and most of us are communal beings. Even those who aren’t drawn to sports find other points of interest to gravitate around: music, food, art, religion, politics, animals, or nature, among others. In life, we’re drawn to find commonalities with others, and then share our experiences with them, allowing us to feel connected to others in a way that doing things by ourselves simply doesn’t fulfill. As human beings, we tend to find people whose interests align with ours, and then collectively root for the outcomes that make us — and those we’ve surrounded ourselves with — happy.

Growing up in Seattle, I fell in love with baseball by watching the late-80s Mariners. Yeah, they were terrible, but I made friends by talking with other people who also loved this same terrible team. That terrible baseball team gave us something in common, even if watching them play didn’t give us tangible happiness. And then, in the mid-90s, they finally put a good team together, and that good team had one of the most remarkable comebacks in baseball history. And as a 14 year old, I watched a city become one large community, and it was remarkable.

Those are the moments that make the entire act of being a fan perfectly rational. People who aren’t even into sports get interested when a city galvanizes around a team, because the allure of being part of something communal is so alluring. That commonality, feeling connected to others; that’s why being a sports fan is so great. We don’t root for laundry; we root for shared experiences with our family, friends, and neighbors, and the laundry is just the vehicle that gets us there.

In 1999, I moved from Seattle to North Carolina, and with just a one year interlude back in the northwest in 2001, I’ve been here ever since. Being a fan of a west coast team while living on the east coast isn’t easy, but I made it work. Helping run USSM allowed me to remain connected to a group of people with the same shared interest, and the advent of MLB.tv meant that I could still watch the games; technology diminished the geographical nature of fandom, and allowed me to maintain that connection with people 3,000 miles away. And so, I spent roughly a decade detached from living near people with aligned interests, but still able to feel connected to the community, so even in the face of 10 pm start times and more terrible teams, my fandom remained in place.

But then, in 2008, writing about baseball became my primary source of income. And that changed things, probably in ways that I didn’t realize at the time. When baseball writing was a hobby — a thing I did partly to stay connected to a specific community — it was easy to identify the preferred outcome. When it became a job, though, the preferred outcomes became a bit blurrier, especially when your expectation no longer aligns with what that community is hoping for. Those of us who are paid to have opinions for a living have a pretty significant incentive to have those results play out as we expected; the internet is very good at remembering every example when things don’t go as public talking heads say they will, and then beating us over the heads with them for years on end.

So as I became a guy who made his living by offering up analysis and opinions, I found myself with a shrinking community of people whose interests aligned with my own. As I began to make friends with people in the game — people who didn’t work for the Mariners — I started rooting for their success. And, so, I started having less in common with the community to which I’d been a part of, and developing something of a new baseball community; one not centered around a specific franchise. Our commonality wasn’t our fandom, but instead, a shared experienced working in or around baseball.

And so, that original link to the Mariners began to wane. And I don’t think there’s any question that people reading my writings at USSM noticed; questioning the quality of my fandom became a regular critique of my work over there, while the criticism here was that I remained a biased Mariners fan whose opinions were driven solely by my connection to one specific franchise. For fans of the Mariners, I wasn’t enough of a Seattle fan; for fans of the other 29 teams, I was too much of one.

Before I became a full-time baseball writer, being a fan was clearly beneficial, connecting me to people I wouldn’t otherwise know, and allowing me to be a part of a community. But once this became my job, the calculation changed, and remaining a fan became something of a liability. And so, the rational part of my being took over, and as far as I can tell, it evicted the remaining fandom, leaving me disconnected from that community but no longer conflicted about which outcomes to root for.

Clearly, not everyone has this same struggle, or they don’t react to this push-and-pull the same way. Bill Simmons is probably the most popular sportswriter in America, and at least outwardly, it does not appear that his Boston-based fandom has waned at all, even as he moved to Los Angeles and built a national empire around his particular brand of commentary. I won’t suggest that my particular path is the same one that every writer travels down, or that the dormancy of my childhood fandom is even the best outcome. In some years, I may look back and regret the way the self-interested part evicted the community-interested part. There may very well be a better way to handle all this.

But on Friday, the Mariners fired their GM, and I wrote a few hundred words about it on InstaGraphs, then went on to spend the rest of the afternoon taking care of my eight month old son. Tomorrow, the wife and I are flying to Seattle so that he can spend time with his grandparents, so this will be the only piece I publish here at FanGraphs this week. Even just a few years ago, nearly every trip to Seattle involved hosting some kind of get together for Mariners fans; this time, I didn’t even check to see if the team was in town before booking the flights.

For better or worse, I’ve found that being a baseball writer makes being a fan of a particular team more difficult. Eventually, I probably won’t be a baseball writer, and perhaps at that point, my fandom will come rushing back. But for now, I haven’t figured out how to make this profession and team-specific fandom coexist, so when the Mariners make a sweeping organizational change, it didn’t conjure up any more emotion than when the Brewers made a similar announcement.

Maybe I’ll see this differently in some years, but right now, it seems to me like we become fans because it makes our own lives better, but being a fan of a team doesn’t make a baseball writer’s life better. Perhaps, in the end, the “no cheering in the press box” mantra is less about the perception of objectivity and more a rational choice of self-preservation when two competing interests conflict.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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Shirtless Johan Santa
7 years ago

Two ways to ruin one’s fandom:

1. Become a full-time sportswriter
2. Become a full-time fantasy-sports player.

Baron Samedi
7 years ago

Only one of those is a thing.