Who We Are When We’re Being Watched

Who we choose to be when we know someone else is watching is very revealing. It isn’t necessarily who we actually are; researchers have long fretted over the corrupting influence of observed observation. People pick their noses in their cars alone; they remember Kleenex when Grandma is near. But who we decide to be when we can feel another person’s gaze does tell us something about who we think we should be, or perhaps who we wish we were. Someone who sat up straighter, or who knew the right, snappy thing to say. Someone who was kinder. Someone like ourselves, only different. A not-a-nose-picker.

Most people go through life without inspiring much sustained notice, save for the odd grocery-store lurker. But a funny thing happens during October baseball, when the stakes are high and we all find ourselves watching the same games. The drama in front of us serves to make us aware of strangers’ keen notice.

And so I thought we might look back on a few moments from the playoffs thus far, when we saw people seeing us, so as to learn who it is they are when they know we’re watching.

Ryan Braun Enters the Panopticon

It’s a small moment. With Travis Shaw up to bat in the third inning of Game One of the NLDS, the broadcast pans over the Brewers dugout. Ryan Braun is putting away his batting helmet and gloves (he has just struck out), and makes ever-so-brief eye contact with the camera. He notices us noticing him and shouts, “GO TRAV!”

It’s as if a subroutine in his brain has kicked in reminding him that he is supposed to be supportive of his teammates. And not just be supportive. Perhaps he is supportive in his heart already. He and Shaw might be best friends, and it is his most sincere wish that Travis get a hit. Not because it would advance the Brewers’ cause, but because it would advance Travis’, good ol’ Trav, his friend whom he loves. But it isn’t enough just to be supportive, even if he is. He has to look supportive.

He has to be obvious in his support. We can’t see into his heart, after all. He has to show us.

Fans get annoyed when players strike out, as Braun just had, but they feel less annoyed when they think, “Well shucks, he isn’t so bad. He’s a good hang! Look at him being nice to his pals.” We forgive people we like all sorts of things. Braun especially might want to be known as a good hang, having been so notoriously a bad hang in the past.

When discussing the corrosive effects of the panopticon and its pervasive surveillance in Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault tell us that, “He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself… he becomes the principle of his own subjection.”

He thought we would bow to societal pressure not just when we know we are seen, but when we worry we might be. I think Foucault was right to be concerned; modern life is a raw deal, full of red-light cameras and fretting. But sometimes I think it’s okay. There are worse things than deciding what you ought to be when the cameras are on is a nice pal.

Free to Be You and Me

Let us spend a moment on fans. Fans are, by definition, secondary characters in any sporting drama. We do not do the sporting. We are not the baseball guys. We are spectators, paying to watch, rather than being paid to do. And yet fans are such good TV. Broadcast cameras find us because we make funny faces, in contrast to literal game faces. We feel so many feelings, and those feelings are right there for the world to see. And sometimes, while we are having our feelings, we are also wearing something odd, or lack a shirt, or else have our faces painted.

And we are much more relatable proxies for the folks at home than the players are. I will never quite know how it feels to be Jose Altuve, thinking he’s hit a home run but actually getting called out for fan interference.

His gesture is familiar; I’ve been cut off in traffic before. But that’s where it ends. What I do know is how it feels to be this guy, feeling thumbs-down-grumpy about it.

Yeah, buddy.

These sad Astros fans? I get what they’re about.




Even these two, who are making a number of choices that aren’t relatable to me, are presumably relatable to someone. A lot of people live in Texas.

Some fans attract the internet’s notice through no fault of their own (sorry!), but others clearly yearn for our attention. Let’s get to know a few of the latter sort.

The Reality TV Stars

There is an entire subset of the population whose greatest wish is to be on television. Some of those people do the weather on the local news; some go on The Bachelor, only to lose and spend time endorsing sunglasses on Instagram (#ad). And some attend the NLDS. Like these guys.

The fan in the blue t-shirt on the far right, who appears to have caught a foul ball, notices the broadcast camera and, boy, is he excited! This is his moment, the moment he has been most waiting for.

And how does he respond? Well, generally by being a goofus. His family, too.

There is something profoundly human about looking forward to something for a good long time, like Christmas or falling in love on national TV, and then fouling it up. Not that you necessarily embarrass yourself, though you do sometimes embarrass yourself. (Drinking isn’t good for Rose Ceremonies or unexpected low-pressure systems.) Rather, you come to realize that, despite the anticipation, despite a perhaps years-long longing, you’ve only thought about the moment’s arrival, and not what comes after. You’ve failed to consider the next moment, another moment in which we’ll all be watching. It is then, lacking a plan but possessing a platform, that we come to understand our natural state. Namely, to HEY! WOOO, YELL, OH YEAH, wave, vigorously point. You know, human stuff.

Upset Yankees Guy

I’m not much of a poker player. Games of chance have never thrilled me. I’ll admit I sometimes lose track of the rules. But mostly, I don’t play poker because I have a very expressive face. I can’t help but give my hand away. It’s the same reason, apart from the expense, I don’t sit in the first row at sporting events. You might not be waving and hollering at the camera, but the odds are good that you’ll appear over a player’s shoulder, and we’ve already established that broadcasts seek out the expressive. It’s an assumed risk.

In Game Four of the ALDS, Aaron Hicks hit a ball deep to center field that was caught at the track. Simultaneous to that event, we learned what it might look like for a gentleman’s soul to leave his body. Consider the gentleman, specifically, in the half-zip sweater.

It resembles Edvard Munch’s The Scream or else a slow-motion sneeze or perhaps the moment from 1999’s classic film The Mummy when a mostly restored Imhotep opens his mouth to spit bugs at our heros. Anck Su Namun won’t love you enough in the end, Imho buddy.

It is an expression that indicates profound disappointment and also that Sweater Guy should avoid these seats and seven-card stud.

Good Helpers

To be a fan is to be a member of a community. A weird, sometimes-drunken, often-shouty community, but a community nonetheless. We often mistake the bounds of our communities; we might think, for instance, that Aaron Judge is part of our circle just like our friend Aaron from high school, when he isn’t really. We don’t know Aaron Judge; we do not exchange holiday sentiments. But in the throes of a playoff game, a little drunk and very shouty, we forget that the Aaron over there isn’t the same as the Aaron over here. Understood this way, it is easy to see why fans so often cause a ruckus. They aren’t being ruffians; they’re being good helpers!

They are engaged in service, eager to do their part for one of their own. Also, to bruise their hands in a way by which they’ll pretend to be embarrassed but will actually be quite proud of when they tell the story.

Marlins Man

Here we are, observing the action during Game One of the NLDS in Milwaukee. Pretty usual stuff, really. Normal center-field camera angle. We see those who are going about their baseball jobs. We see an assortment of Brewer fan types. Above the second “t” in the At Bat banner, we see a blonde Midwestern woman in a sensible, Midwestern sweater, talking to her sensibly dressed family. Guess who’s gonna be comfortable when it gets chilly later? That gal.

Indeed, the only thing we don’t see that we might have expected to, what with it being the playoffs, is Marlins Man. Maybe he isn’t there? Wait…

[Antonio Senzatela wild pitch]

[Camera zooms out]

… there he is!

The fan indicated by the arrow represents the edge of the usual broadcast frame, three-and-a-half people widths from Marlins Man.

I wonder if he has ever felt angrier in all of his days.

I don’t know Marlins Man personally; perhaps, despite his antics over the years, he is a quiet sort. The kind of shy, retiring gentleman who, in a Jane Austen novel, lacks a profession but has a large library, to which he is always exasperatedly endeavoring to return. I suppose I must concede the possibility that this has all been some terrible misunderstanding.

But I also feel confident in saying that one does not wear a bright orange jersey and visor, team colors or no, if one doesn’t want to be noticed, and one certainly doesn’t bring props.

Traffic cones are conspicuous by design, after all.

Kate Upton

I’ve remarked on it before, but one of the oddest things about baseball as a profession is the expectation that your friends and family will be there to watch you do your job. It’s nice, I suppose; it’s good to show support for loved ones. Baseball is hard and tense and often defined by failure. In tense moments, when we fail at hard things, it’s handy to have a hug so close.

But that’s at the end, when the failure is done. The proximity of hugs works differently in process. They aren’t what you need while you’re a professional baseball player, doing your failing. You can’t look to the stands and begin to be comforted. To be comforted is to consider the case closed, the failure permanent, an artifact of history. No, you must believe, into the tips of your toes, that you will find your way through, that you were failing but have not yet failed. That your hugs will instead be happy.

Which I think explains why Justin Verlander’s wife Kate Upton was visible behind home plate in Game Four of the ALCS…

… but was seated elsewhere during Verlander’s start in Game Five.

She’s being supportive both times. She just knows how hugs work.

Joc Pederson Is Cold

As I see it, there are three possible explanations for Joc Pederson’s decision to wear this getup on a 47-degree night.

The first possibility is that Joc is keenly aware that he plays for the Los Angeles Dodgers, based in the famously warm Los Angeles, and is trying to do a funny.

The second possibility is that Joc is secure in himself. He will ask for help. He will wear too-thick mittens, and also a hat, and maybe a long-sleeve shirt. A sport long-sleeve shirt, the kind that wicks away sweat, because oh, he will sweat. He is way overdressed. It is not that cold. But that’s okay. It’ll be a secure sweat. Joc knows he looks goofy, but he knows being cold unnecessarily actually is goofy, and so he does what he needs to.

The third possibility is that Joc is a little macho, albeit in a specific way. “You think Imma be cold? Me?! I’ll show you, weather!” I would say men don’t engage in this sort of behavior, donning unnecessary costumes in service of some vague bit of posture, but a lot of men wear cargo shorts. Also, they carry Swiss Army knives in an earnest way when they work in an office. We don’t need your weird little scissors here, Kyle, we have normal sized ones.

Of course, Pederson would shed his mittens when he pinch-hit in the eighth inning against Nathan Eovaldi.

Oh sure, now you turn up the heat.

The World Series travels to Dodger Stadium for Game Three tomorrow. We’ll have to wait and see which faces we get to see.

Meg is the managing editor of FanGraphs and the co-host of Effectively Wild. Prior to joining FanGraphs, her work appeared at Baseball Prospectus, Lookout Landing, and Just A Bit Outside. You can follow her on twitter @megrowler.

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Great stuff.