The Baseball Desert

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Love Me Do

If you've been reading The Baseball Desert for any length of time, you'll know that if I never see Barry Bonds play baseball ever again, it will be too soon. It will therefore come as no surprise that Jim Caple's latest article got a rise out of me quicker than you can say "steroid allegations".

The content of the article itself is a no-brainer for me. Athough it will be hard to ignore the media circus that it going to surround Bonds' pursuit of Hank Aaron's record, that is exactly what I will be trying to do over the coming season. And since I'm a fan of an American League team on the East Coast, it shouldn't actually be that hard to ignore a player playing for a National League team on the other side of the country.

Caple, however, raises a far more interesting general point, one that has been running through my brain ever since:
Fans always root for the hometown player. As long as the player continues to produce on the field, no one cares what he does off the field.
My initial reaction on reading that particular line was that he's right, but the fact that he wrote the line in a piece on Bonds got me thinking. When the Red Sox make a signing that is not what I would like or expect, I'm prepared to go with the flow, knowing that I will end up 'rooting for the laundry'. But what would happen if one day, in some bizarre parallel universe, the Red Sox and the Giants traded, say, enigmatic left fielders and Bonds came to play in Fenway Park? When push comes to shove - i.e. when a guy you detest ends up wearing the home whites - can you put all the rest aside and cheer him on in the name of the team?

I know that this is a hypothetical question, since there is no scenario on earth that would bring Barry Bonds to the Boston Red Sox, but it's nonetheless an interesting philospohical exercise, baseball's equivalent of Plato's dialogues. The more I think about the question, the more I move away from the notion of just rooting for a team and the more I question the reasons why I love the game of baseball. If the most obnoxious player in baseball comes to play for your team, can you abandon the team on 'moral' grounds? And if so, what kind of fan would that make you?

I haven't yet been confronted with this kind of situation, but it's interesting to think about where you draw the line. How important is the team, not only in your own day-to-day existence, but in relation to the game of baseball itself. On other occasions I've argued that it's all about what happens between the foul lines. If I maintain that position, then surely I should be able to ignore what Bonds says and does off the field and appreciate what he does on it?

Well, yes and no. My love-affair with baseball began with the visual thrill - it was a sport quite unlike anything I'd ever seen before. But no sport, not even baseball, exists in an aesthetic vacuum, and it is impossible to separate the sport from the people who play it. On the whole, I'm quite happy to be accidentally or wilfully ignorant of players' lives outside the baseball diamond. It really is none of my business what the players think, say or do when they are not wearing the uniform - all I ask is that they give 100% when they are on the field. But in Bonds' case, there is just something about him that would prevent me from ever rooting for him. My all-time baseball hero is Cal Ripken, Jr., who in many ways is the anti-Bonds, the ultimate blue-collar baseball player, who will forever be remembered for a feat that was both unbelievable and ordinary at the same time - all he did was turn up for work every day. he just happened to do it for 16 years, without ever missing a game. And despite that, he had this to say in 2001: "I've been asked this question a lot, "How do you want to be remembered?" and my response to that question has been, "To be remembered at all is pretty special.""

There is an old cliché which says that what is important is not whether you win or lose, but how you played the game, and as cheesy as that may sound, it is something I believe in profoundly. I want to root for a team, to feel that I belong, but what I am rooting for needs to be worth my time and effort. I'm not talking about individual athletic ability or team success, I'm talking about the way those individuals and teams go about their business. If I'm going to spend an unreasonable portion of my life following the fortunes of a sports team, I want to feel that I am getting the genuine article. With Bonds, I don't know where the natural ability ends and the enhanced performance begins, and off the field, the boundaries between public persona and private personality are so blurred or complicated that I end up believing that he really is as big an asshole as he is made out to be.

The legendary Bill Shankly once said: "Some people believe that football is a matter of life and death. I am very disappointed with that attitude, it is much, much more important than that!" It's a great sound bite, from a man who was a master of the killer quote, and although it comes across as ridiculously over-the-top, there is a sense in which it is true. As someone who comes from a region that has been hard-hit by unemployment over the years I have come across people for whom Saturday afternoon football matches were literally the only thing they had going for them. With no job and no real prospects of getting one, it is easy to see how life can revolve around the local sports team, and in that context, Bill Shankly's quote suddenly seems less ridiculous.

However, I can't claim to be in such a situation, and for all my talk of living and dying with the Red Sox, baseball is still just a game. There is a huge hole in my life when it's not around, but it's still just a game. There have been times when baseball - and prior to that, football - has indeed seemed more important than life or death, but even in the most uplifting or soul-destroying moments it will never be anything more than a diversion. At the end of the day it is not important, in the greater scheme of things, whether the Boston Red Sox win the World Series. But it is important, if we are going to allow the fortunes of a bunch of millionaires we've never met actually mean something in our lives, to feel that we're getting the real deal. If I can look my team in the eyes - figuratively - and know that I wasn't cheated, that they played the game right, both on and off the field, then I will be happy with whatever the result is.