What it means to be a fan

For the most part, I like ESPN’s The Sports Guy. His writing is entertaining, even if he doesn’t always know what he’s talking about (though I will say I trust his NBA analysis much more than any other sport). He claims to write from the “fan’s perspective” which is accurate, even if it is an excuse in some ways, because as we all know, most fans are idiots. So when in 2005 he says things like “Keith Foulke has replaced Mariano Rivera as the premier clutch closer in baseball,” he has a built in defense for such a dumb assertion: he’s a Red Sox fan.

Here is his latest offering (for both ESPN the magazine and espn.com).

The first half is a tremendous story that describes what is great about being a sports fan. He recounts his experience watching Roger Clemens strike out 20 batters during the Rocket’s last season as a member of the Red Sox. It shows the passion we develop for players and teams and the way it unites us as a fan base. Clemens striking out 20 isn’t just a great accomplishment for Clemens: it’s a great accomplishment for every fan who cheers him on. That’s why we say things like “I’m so glad I lived to see that.” We feel like that moment is ours. We helped do that. And really, we did. Like most things, these occurrences only have meaning because we collectively think they do.

The Sports Guy then moves onto his feelings when Clemens was accused of steroid use:

The stunning turn of events didn’t leave me as satisfied as I thought it would. Whenever people write about the Steroids Era, they always focus on numbers. After all, the combination of numbers and history makes baseball unique. We crunch them, compare them, memorize them, and eventually they become living, breathing entities. The Steroids Era has made it impossible to say which numbers are genuine, so fans worry that we can’t compare generations anymore. I’d argue that every generation has mitigating factors that affect the numbers, and in time we’ll learn how to weigh those factors from the past 15 years. We just need time.

This is a great point and one that can be taken even further. Numbers do have their own life, but even if we exclude the steroid era, we know that players can statistically only be compared to their peers. Hank Aaron did not become a better home run hitter than Babe Ruth when he swatted 715, much like pitchers of the dead ball era were likely not the grestest pitchers.

Also, it is important to think about those other “mitigating” factors. If steroids were the root of the increased offense of the 90’s, why didn’t the pitchers taking steroids counterbalance this effect? We know that at least as many pitchers were users as were hitters. Perhaps steroids help hitters more: after all, they go out there day-to-day. But if that’s the case, then just the general increase in athletic ability in society would also account for an increase in offensive numbers. And of course, there’s still expansion, smaller ballparks, and shrinking strike zones to deal with. Look at football: throwing for 40 TDs or more would have been thought unheard of years ago. Now we have Brady throwing 50 TDs just a few years removed from Manning throwing 49. Sports evolve.

Anyways, the eventual conclusion of the Sports Guy’s article is that his memories are what’s tainted, not the numbers:

Before the Mitchell report, when I thought back to that night at Sully’s, it was always a happy blur of strikeouts and phone calls and cigarettes and drinks and high fives. Now there’s a shadow of a syringe, and it won’t really go away. We think the damage from the Steroids Era is about numbers, but it’s really about memories — the way we used to remember things and the way we remember them now. Every baseball fan may have been delighted by different moments from the past decade, but the shadow lingering over many of those memories will always look the same.

I have an issue with this premise because it denies what the article had previously proven: that sports, and baseball in particular, is entertainment unlike any other. We watch sports for a variety of reasons, but it all boils down to entertainment: the drama, the failure, the success, the comraderie, the aesthetic value, the analysis, and everything else. But steroids, despite what we want to believe, do not truly change any of that. Hitting or throwing a baseball can never not be genuine. It happened and will continue to happen. The game, as it is perceived by fans, is always the same. Sure, sometimes players break records and accomplish remarkable things. But they’ve always done that. What difference does it make to us how they accomplished it?

What, ultimately, as fans are we so upset about? That some players may have had differing levels of advantages because of performance enhancing drugs? We don’t worry about Stallone pumping steroids to make himself a more believable action star because we don’t consider him to be a competitor, simply an entertainer. But he is a competitor as well – he is competing against every other actor who wants to be successful. And every baseball player is an entertainer. They put out a product that we either like or don’t. How they produce it is negligible to how we experience it.

I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating: those who should be upset about steroids are the players themselves. They are the ones who are pressured into doing something illegal to compete. I am not losing out on millions because juiced players are taking my spot on the field. I am not making millions, but sacrificing my health. I am just watching on TV or sitting in the stands and appreciating the game I love. And those things we all love about baseball never change, even if the people who play it do.

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