Confessions Of A Life-Long Fan
Let’s just get this out of the way.
I am one of those 38-year Blue Jays fans. My parents even let me come home from school at lunch one cold day in April, 1977 so that I could watch that snowy Home Opener.
And when the highly hyped and equally disappointing Bill Singer let loose with that first pitch, called by the late Don Chevrier and Hall of Famer Whitey Ford (who was pinch-hitting for soon-to-be regular analyst Tony Kubek), I was at one with the world. Or as at one as any baseball-mad teenager could be.
My love for the game developed years before, helped by the Montreal Expos, my father, brother, and uncle, all of whom loved the game and shared it with me. I watched it (only twice a week in those pre-all sports cable station days), listened to it, read about it (Jim Bouton‘s iconic Ball Four – which my parents thought they had forbidden me from reading, was the first book I ever read cover-to-cover), played it, and rolled the dice thousands of times playing Strat-o-Matic baseball.
I suffered through the early 100-loss seasons. When the team became mildly competitive in the early 80s and I was a starving university student in Toronto, my buddies and I would buy nose bleed seats down the right field line in Exhibition Stadium when we returned to school in September. With the team out of contention by the middle of the month, it was easy to sidle down to the home plate seats by the second inning.
1983 saw an end to the losing ways, and even though it took two more years for the team to break through and win its first pennant, this fan was elated, and Blue Jays fever swept the city. I suffered through Jim Sundberg‘s wind-aided triple in 85, the epic collapse of 87, and was really starting to wonder as the 80s gave way to the 90s if, like the Expos, this was going to be one of the best teams to never win it all. 1992 and 1993 saw me married and starting a family with my wife in our tidy three-bedroom backsplit. The night Joe Carter hit his famous Home Run in 1993, I was watching in bed, just having put my 1 year old down, and trying hard not to yell while my wife, pregnant with child #2, slept beside me. The 1 year old, by the way, is now a grad student, and the other is in his fourth year of university.
That’s how long it’s been since Joe’s blast.
Then came more down years, as Labatt’s, as good an owner as ever existed, was taken over by a Belgian brewing conglomerate in a corporate takeover. The brewing giant had no interest in owning a baseball team, and acted in a manner in accordance with that. Overlapping the end of the Interbrew era and the beginning of Rogers’ was GM J.P. Ricciardi, who was lauded as a talent evaluator, but proved to have his hands tied before the sale, and was in over his head afterwards.
Alex Anthopoulos has paradoxically built the club both slowly and quickly: his scouting department has found hidden gems, players with high upsides and risk profiles of equal extremes, and patiently developed them. But with his willingness to pull the trigger on prospects-for-established player deals, he has also created a new roster construction paradigm, one that turned a .500 club into a pennant winner in two months.
As Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley said in his acceptance speech, I live, sleep, eat, and breathe baseball. My wife, a patient sort, married me despite having no interest in the game – we met in a course, where I told everyone in the introductions that I liked to read baseball statistics in my spare time. I read about the game, write about the game, and think a lot about it. I grew up playing the game for real and on a tabletop simulation game, and I was constantly throwing things: rocks, rolled up socks in my bedroom, and hour after hour with a tennis ball against the side wall of my parents’ house. I suspect that in the final hours of my life, when I’m down to my last strike, I will probably (if I’m capable) have thoughts about baseball.
How do I feel about the sudden overload of fans onto the Blue Jays bandwagon? Admittedly, my feelings are mixed.
On the one hand, I’m glad that people are flocking to the game I’ve loved my whole life, and the team that I’ve followed for well over half of it. I truly hope some of them will stick around, regardless of how the season ends.
On the other hand, I have a bit of trouble with fans who can’t cope with the failure that’s inherent in baseball. Even the best teams lose the equivalent of losing every day for two straight months over the course of a season. As so many have said, baseball is a game of failure. As the great Earl Weaver, one of the most brilliant baseball minds of any era said, if he brought in Tippy Martinez to get Graig Nettles out, and he didn’t, it wasn’t a mistake – it was a plan that didn’t work out (and if you don’t know who either of those two players were, please look them up). Many, many new fans don’t seem to be able to cope with losing, and look for scapegoats – usually the manager – and that just gets tiresome. If baseball was not a game that was played every day, maybe managerial strategy would be worth putting under a powerful microscope. But it is, and the law of averages, or central tendency theory, or whatever you want to call it, is a major force. When fans get their shorts in a knot over a loss, I want to remind them that if a team wins one more game than it loses every week, that translates to 90 wins, and puts the team on the cusp of a playoff berth.
I think that I’ve learned a lot from my years of studying this game, including:
-the game you see on TV is not the one you grew up playing. The players are bigger, faster, stronger, and because they play every day, have a skill level far higher than you and I. Some people like to say they played at a “high level,” but unless you played pro ball, or at least major college ball, you did not play at a high level. There’s a reason why baseball has the most extensive player development program in all of professional sports – the gap between established players and those just coming into the game are canyonesque. When managers don’t manage like your youth coach did (ie, bunting almost anytime there’s a runner at first), it’s because outs are precious, and unlike the team you played for, everyone in a major league batting order can hit.
-Managers have far more access to information than you and I. They know who is hurting, who is working on some things, how hitters have fared against certain pitchers, and vice-versa. Their decisions are the product of all that information, and when we don’t understand why they made a certain move, it’s usually not because of incompetence; it’s a product of all that information we don’t know.
-while baseball is a team game, it comes down to the essential battle between hitter and pitcher. Hitters are looking for a pitch they can barrel up; pitchers are looking to avoid areas where bat barrels live, either by command, or by deception caused by releasing their secondary pitches with the same arm slot and speed as their fastball. They’re not always necessarily after a swing-and-miss; weak contact will do quite nicely, thanks. It keeps the pitch count down, and enhances the possibility of double plays. Even though it has changed tremendously since the birth of the pro game in the 1870s, this battle is still at the heart of it.
-there has been an explosion of data in the game in the past decade. Cameras and computer technology can calculate everything from the amount of movement and rotation of a pitched ball to how fast a batted ball leaves a hitter’s bat, or how fast an outfielder travelled to track down a fly ball, and how efficient the route he took to the ball was. The result of this has been the growth of analytics, which used to be utilized to determine player value, but now is even used to determine the most effective methods of playing the game. I, for one, have fully embraced it – teams would be foolish not to. Analytics have been used very effectively in soccer and basketball, and are slowly becoming a presence in hockey. Quite simply, they’ve revolutionized the game, and they’re here to stay.
-tomorrow is another day, and another game. Baseball players know this better than anyone, which is why they can put failure quickly behind them. David Price seemed to be on the edge of tears as he faced the media after his disappointing Game 1 start against the Rangers, but he made no excuses, and took the blame for his lack of sharpness. I’m sure he didn’t start dancing in the clubhouse after that, but I’m also certain that he was up early this morning, ready to prepare himself for his next start, having already gotten over his last one.
As Bouton himself put it, it seems like you’ve been gripping a baseball your whole life, when it turns out it was the other way around.