Monday, May 01, 2006

Fair-Weather Fans

The Wife and I had the chance this weekend to partake in one of life’s great pleasures: first-row seats at a minor-league baseball game.

Minor-league baseball is sheer glory. It has all the poetry of the majors, but you can get good seats, the prices won’t kill you, people bring their kids, the players are human-sized, and the teams go out of their way to entertain you between innings. (The mascot races are always good, and I like the t-shirt cannon, but our favorite is the dizzy bat race, in which two large men put their heads down on bats and spin around quickly several times before racing each other down a baseline. For some reason, the sight of beer-bellied men falling dizzily to the ground always amuses both of us.)

The beauty of seats right off the field is that you can play aristocrat for the evening. When we sat down after the anthem, I waved to the players and, in my best faux-European accent, allowed that “you may now play for my amusement.” Not bad for twelve bucks.

One of the few consolations of growing up in Northern Town was a damn fine minor league baseball tradition. Sure, the old stadium was a dump that eventually had to be razed because the pigeon droppings on patrons got to be excessive, but it was cool. A few of the players I saw as a kid in Northern Town went on to substantial major league careers, earning me the right to say to other baseball fans “I saw him when.”

We’re planning to take The Boy to his first game this summer. The stadium has a grassy knoll off right field that it calls the turf club – five bucks a ticket, bring your own blanket. Kids like to roll down the hill, chase each other all over, etc., while parents watch the game. During the sixth inning, the p.a. played “cotton-eyed joe,” and all the kids on the hill started dancing jigs. It was laugh-out-loud funny, and very sweet. I think TB is ready.

The only flaw in the evening, and it was a major one, was that it was unspeakably cold. Indecently cold. What Lewis Black calls can’t-finish-a-sentence cold (“The runner is JESUS CHRIST IT'S COLD”). The wind whipped in from center field as if we owed it money. We actually passed on the seventh-inning stretch, since the idea of standing up and absorbing more wind was just too painful to contemplate. We spent most of the fifth inning in the gift shop, just to get out of the wind. Ordinarily, prying my butt out of a first-row box seat at a ballgame for anything other than a snack run would require either a medical emergency or the 82nd Airborne. Not this time.

Now that we’ve thawed out, I’ve given some thought to the ‘fair-weather fans’ tag. True Fans like to disparage fair-weather fans. True Fans, who show up to games no matter the weather or the state of the team, like to believe that their faith redeems them in the eyes of the team. True Fans believe that fair-weather fans, who only show up on nice days or when the team is actually good, are johnny-come-latelies, prostitutes rather than lovers.

Horseshit. True Fans are morons.

I say this, not merely because it was unfit for man or beast that night. I say this as a trained social scientist.

Take the Chicago Cubs. (Please!) The Cubs have a great many True Fans, fanatics who show up at Wrigley on pain of unemployment, divorce, and even watching the Cubs actually play. As a result, the team makes money whether it’s any good or not. Which is why the last time the Cubs won the Series, the wind that whipped in from center field came off a glacier. If the owners don’t have to pay extra to field a good team, they won’t. (Until, in a rare moment of lucidity, the Red Sox hired Theo Epstein, they suffered from the same syndrome.)

Team owners will pony up for winners when there’s a reason to, like increased attendance when the team is good. Fair-weather fans provide the incentive for a team to actually get good. If not for the fair-weather fans, the suffering of the True Fans might never be redeemed. We’re the reward for excellence. We’re the reason not to get complacent.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. We’ll pick a nice day for the next game, and feel no shame at all. And I’d like The Boy’s first game to be a win. After all, it’s best for the team.