The Royals just defeated the Mets in the World Series, and as a native New Englander and lifelong Red Sox fan, I had no dog in the fight. Sure, the Mets beat the Sox in the ’86 Series, but with the three subsequent Red Sox’s Series wins, any sense of rivalry has dissipated.
Yet even without rivalry, I did care who won. It had to be the Royals. And it was.
I was listening to the game on the radio (my preferred method of digesting baseball—who can beat the deliciousness of crowd noise as communicated through the AM bandwidth?), carrying it around the house. As the Royals scored the tying run on a fielder’s choice in the top of the 9th inning, with my wife and children long since gone to bed, I somehow refrained from cheering out loud.
How did this happen? How did I end up caring about a team I have no real connection to? Fundamentally, the story of the World Series captures me, just as the stories of the NBA playoffs, the Olympics, or the Tour de France hook me. Like most sports fans, I am enticed by the drama of a contest, though I never know until the end whether I’m watching a comedy or a tragedy. When I turn on a game, I often discover an exciting story, a true cliffhanger, with a rising action and thrilling climax—14 innings! The last pitcher in the bullpen! And I will stay up until the early morning seeking the denouement.
The sports-media industry most clearly reveals how fundamental sports-as-narrative is to sports’ popularity, as their function is to provide character development and plot analysis (not to mention to debate ethical questions about bat-flipping and calls). The media helps us interpret games and stories often in terms of traditional archetypes, even if they have to simplify a complex contest: LeBron (the last man standing) vs. Golden State (the blitzkrieging army); Luck (the young gun) vs. Manning (the old guard); Red Sox (good) vs. Yankees (evil).
Even in sports, too much narrative simplification is like having a library only made up of Grisham and Sparks and Steele—it lacks nuance or subtlety. Yet not all sports media simplifies contests; some writers see Joycean possibilities in sports. If you read any Brian Phillips of the now deceased Grantland, you begin to recognize the plot of sports contains intricacies and intrigue; you notice the weight of underlying symbolism. In Phillips’s world, Serena Williams is a symbol of freedom, “a special version of freedom, not just through her physical talent but through her marvelous spontaneous performance of her own personality.” In this world you realize Russell Westbrook’s “function is to implode your entire idea of genre.” And Kevin Durant’s scooter, necessary after his foot surgery, is not only “a scooter of mortality, not triumph” but ultimately, and tragically, because “this is Kevin Durant we’re talking about here—it’s a scooter of actual scooting.” Reading Phillips so enamors me with sports’ possibilities that when I watch a game, I don’t want to be left out. I want to be involved in it, to participate in its drama.
In the most basic sense fans lie outside the action, no matter how much athletes praise the crowd as the “sixth man.” Yet our emotional investment reveals how we make ourselves part of the drama. Isn’t this why diehard fans often slip into first person when referencing their favorite teams? They didn’t lose, we lost.
Yet even if I can refrain from the illusion of direct involvement when the Red Sox lose—say, when Aaron Boone hits a home run off Tim Wakefield to lose the ALCS, to name a wound that may never heal—I am devastated by the tragic ending. Though I am not a character, it is still my story, and the hero of my tale has died. The dragon has burned the prince and flown away with the princess. I am crushed. I may wear black the next day.
Doris Kearns Goodwin captures this experience most beautifully in her essay, “Fan,” written as a contribution to Geoffrey Ward and Ken Burns’ Baseball: An Illustrated History. Born a Brooklyn Dodgers fan, Goodwin describes when Bobby Thompson hit a home run to defeat the Dodgers and clinch the 1951 pennant for the New York Giants. Goodwin’s sister, Charlotte, had predicted the shot, and when she saw the ball fly over the left field fence, Goodwin writes that she “thought for a moment my sister had made it happen and I hated her with all my heart.” A non-fan might call Goodwin’s phrasing hyperbole; anyone who has truly rooted for a home team knows better. “With all my heart” is the only way to root for our team.
Experiences like this capture the delicious beauty of tragedy. Though before 2004 Red Sox fans would not have admitted it, it was special growing up under the grip of The Curse. Bill Buckner’s error was a story no other fan could tell. It was like having your king kill his father and marry his mother, the kind of story that goes down in history. And when you’re a tried-and-true fan, it’s your history.
This might be why for fans the ultimate transgression in sport is for an athlete to cheat, to fix the contest, because this means we were not part of something genuine. We’ll look the other way if football players use steroids, because instead of robbing us of the story, they amplify the conflict. We were willing to look the other way for a while with baseball, but then we realized steroids diminished the game’s epic heroes. How could we have allowed a handful of bionic creations to steal Roger Maris’ magic record of 61 home runs?
This is what makes the Black Sox and Lance Armstrong so terrible and still so intriguing. We discovered those stories were manipulations, that the hero was actually the villain, and that we were the victims. So we keep writing about Lance and making movies about him, because now he is the greatest villain imaginable. He tried to deceive us! He wants to draw us in again! We won’t be fooled, however, and will refuse to listen to his wizard-talk and will cast him out of our friendly shire.
Now I’m talking like a fantasy fan, which raises Phillips’ sense of symbolism and story anew. If we are too involved, doesn’t that make us the child who may be a bit too into the story that is not actually his or her own? Too into Gandalf and Dungeons and Dragons? Sometimes we describe the passionate fan with admiration. We picture young Doris Kearns Goodwin finally celebrating her Dodgers’ World Series victory, creating “one of the happiest moments of my life.” But at other times, with Phillips, we
“…meet someone who actually cares whether the Cowboys win on Sunday, not ‘cares’ in the way you care about something you’ve semi-arbitrarily decided to invest emotional energy in to make your life more exciting, but actually cares in the way you care whether your family is fed and the war is postponed till next week. At those times, I feel despair.
Phillips’ despair is real; it’s the despair that arises when a fellow fan threatens the life of a kicker who fumbled away a victory. Yet this wild involvement is a risk we have always been willing to take when we invest in a narrative. A few delusional readers will think of themselves as wizards or princesses, and a few delusional fans will think their lives really are over when a tragic season or career ends.
To respond to the risk of delusional involvement by withdrawing our passions, by remaining aloof for fear that would transform us into one of those people who care more for Peyton Manning than our Uncle Bill, is to lose the heart of the narrative. It leaves us where Goodwin found herself after the Brooklyn Dodgers abandoned her for Los Angeles: withdrawn from the game, “without a team to root for, my emotions became detached; my heart wasn’t in it anymore.”
I want my heart to be in it, so each year I find a reason to root for a side in the World Series. This year, I sided with the Royals. I’m not sure why exactly. Maybe it is because my college buddy from Kansas City swayed my thinking, or my love of George Brett’s iconic baseball tantrum, or because San Francisco Giant’s pitcher Madison Bumgarner dominated them in the 2014 World Series. It doesn’t matter. What really matters is that I choose a team and commit to rooting for someone, because that is how I become part of the story.