Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Holes to Heaven

“There were so many fewer questions…when stars were still just the holes to heaven” – Jack Johnson

Being out of the collective Tribe loop this past weekend while visiting the in-laws in Wisconsin, I succeeded (somewhat) in removing myself from the day-to-day minutiae of the Indians. Sure, I caught the highlights of each game on TV and pounded out a Lazy Sunday; but for the most part, I just enjoyed the sunshine and the company in Milwaukee – happy to hear the news that the Indians won, but by no means searching out the game recaps or the box scores much more than giving them a cursory look in the morning.

You know what?
It was pretty fun, just to see that the Indians were winning games from afar and not worrying too much about the absurdity of Jamey Carroll playing RF or getting worked up over a lack of command from Justin Masterson…remember, I said I was “somewhat” successful.

Realizing this, it brought me to an interesting thought on a NINE-hour ride back to Cleveland on Monday (it normally takes 6 ½ hours) and that is – is relative ignorance bliss when it comes to following a baseball team or does reveling in the details through total immersion increase a fan’s overall enjoyment?

Obviously, if you’re talking about following a bad and frustrating baseball team like the Indians this year and last, merely catching the scores from a distance (which is what most fans do once NFL Training Camp opens if the Indians are out of it in mid-June) is a pretty easy answer. But when a team gels at the right time and makes that run, like the Indians did in 2007, does taking that longer ride through the ups and downs of the coaster mean that you’re any more invested than someone who just enjoys baseball for just the entertainment aspect of it, hopping on the bandwagon at the appropriate time?

It’s a question that we ask ourselves as fans at the beginning of each season – how emotionally invested to this team am I going to be?

Is it better to have a working knowledge of Trevor Crowe’s track record in the Minors and realize that he doesn’t project as much more than Ben Francisco, or is it preferable to watch him “swing a hot bat” for a couple of weeks and irrationally inflate hope?

Is it more satisfying to simply get miffed about an inane aspect of the game, like the lack of bunting from an Eric Wedge team or is anything greater gained (other than increasing frustration levels) by knowing about Wedge’s underperformance from Pythagorean expectation, his inability to translate a good second half to a hot start, or his obtuseness in terms of playing time (or lack thereof) for particular players?

Which is more fun to know about Alex White – that he’s a “top-5 talent” who just got $2.25M from the Indians with an arm to dream on and leaving it at that or searching out this scouting report on him, which states that White is an extremely risky pick by the Indians, with a big league arm, but with control issues and mechanical shortcomings?

What maximizes enjoyment in this realm of fandom?
I think back to the “Era of Champions” in the mid-1990’s, which represented the first taste that most Indians’ fans got of winning and of winning consistently and how fun that ride was. While it was happening, I’m sure that people were likely more rabid in terms of their fanhood, if only because it was so wildly enjoyable to watch one of the greatest lineups in recent memory fight off the losses with such regularity. But I know that I didn’t sit and worry about Kenny Lofton’s service time or anybody’s options getting unnecessarily vested, or what the Indians were going to do with their pitching rotation two years down the line with the farm system devoid of quality starters ready to step into the Tribe’s five.

In hindsight, I just sat back and enjoyed the ride – maybe because I was a high-school kid more interested in other things – but also because the wealth of information that now exists at my fingertips was simply not there. I watched the games and read the paper and consumed everything that I thought existed having to do with the Indians, and it was a blast.

Now, in this age of instant access and analysis, with information coming out of our ears in terms of baseball statistics and opinion, one doesn’t have to work real hard to become a better informed fan by going above and beyond those tools that we all used to ride that mid-90’s train. But getting elbow deep in the stuff reveals the dichotomy of being a fan in terms of being entertained by a diversion for enjoyment while attempting to know as much as possible about that entertainment.

By no means am I suggesting that people who know what Zach Putnam’s K/9 rate in Akron is makes them any more of a fan than the person who goes to every game and dons the uniform of their favorite player, sticking with the team through thick and thin. The two methods get to the same destination, cheering for the team you’ve always loved in the hopes that the players that they’ve cast their lot with succeed to the point of perennial contention. But it gets back to the fundamental question, which is whether the enjoyment of a sport or of a team is raised exponentially through increased knowledge and analysis.

If you’re reading this, you likely know where I ultimately stand on this…and again, if you’re reading this, you’re probably standing right next to me. To me, I like to see the logic (or lack thereof) behind a move or a decision made by the Indians and analyze it to the point that I can come to grips with at least the thought process behind the move, coming to a conclusion after looking at the different aspects.

Ultimately, the Indians remain enjoyable to me, something that interests me and entertains me and while my thirst for more information, more knowledge, and more educated opinion on the Indians remains generally unquenched, it never removes that unbridled joy that I felt in the mid-90s or in 2007, it only enhances it…it just makes waiting for that unbridled joy to occur again a little more painful.


Elia said...

Ah... to be a Yankee fan. Ignorance is bliss.

But, alas, my parents raised me to be an Indians fan.

I think it's part of the punishment of being raised in or near Cleveland... teams that suck and, on occasion, good enough to fall just short.

I'm 36 this year and figure I've lost at least two or three of those following the Tribe!

milwaukeeTribe said...

Standing right there next to you, I'd offer another theory, or perhaps contributing factor (in addition to the information access we enjoy today).

I think it's ultimately about believing in your team.

In the 90s, it was easy to believe, because you could see it...right there, every night. (Or in my case, being out of state, clicking "refresh" every 30 seconds to follow the text-based play by play that used to be on the indians web page back then, sitting in a college computer lab). You didn't need to care about anything else.

Today, it is necessary to search for deeper meaning to believe, because you don't see the miracles on the field every night. So you analyze the front office thought process, the manager's lineup "strategy" (I'm feeling nice tonight), to bookmark Lastoria's blog, and click
refresh on his twitter page every 30 seconds until 12:15 AM ET on the night of the draft pick signing deadline, etc.

And I believe that, although it may not raise the enjoyment along the way, when we finally win another world series, that moment will be more enjoyable, more personally satisfying, for having invested emotional and intellectual capacity in the endeavor.

Jason said...

Personally, I've always wanted to know as much as I could about any hobby I pursued. I think it's fun to play GM or field manager along with the big boys. I don't think I ever want to get to the place of the folks who are agonizing over their second and third watching of the Browns' first preseason game, but I do like knowing as much as I can about the organization.

A lot of us seem to be hardwired for analysis. It just makes the game more fun.

However, I also think it's important to enjoy the little things too. I remember seeing a game at Fenway with a coworker on a business trip and he was amazed that I got so much enjoyment out of looking down the right field line or watching Nomar's strange arm whip as he flung the ball to first. I enjoyed seeing Albert Belle's intensity at the plate just as much as I enjoyed looking at all the big numbers he put up. I shook my head at Kenny Lofton's arrogant bat toss when he thought he got a walk, but enjoyed the attitude behind it that made him so good.

I love that we can be Sabermetricians and just enjoy the simple pleasures of watching a game. It's a both/and instead of an either/or.

Oh, and I've long believed that the thrill of victory is directly proportional to the amount of emotion invested in a team up front. It's no different than gambling at a casino. You have to bet big to win big.

Paul Cousineau said...

I can't tell you how dead-on all of these thoughts are.

We all find ourselves in the same boat, searching for answers when obvious ones do not always reveal themselves, going all in with this team regardless of what we've seen the last year and a half.

Not to go all Norman Dale on this...but I love you guys.
Thanks for standing right there with me in my madness.

Elia said...

Happy to. Don't know what I'd do otherwise!

Paul Cousineau said...

I have to share this e-mail that I got as a response to this piece from a fan named Paul Evans:
I guess you figured out what you wanted to write about, and it couldn't have been more dead on. I am standing (well, I am usually sitting) right next to ya. And I would be remiss if I didn't mention that I feel like this piece is even more appropriate for this season. There is something about this year, more than I can remember in the past, that has affected me to the point I've thought about my investment in the team, and the depths of minutia I dig around in. I even took a couple weeks off from the day-to-day, and wondered if I would be better off not...caring. But, in the end, I love baseball and I love the Indians and I get a lot out of the information and analysis and dissection. It doesn't make me a better fan, it's just what floats my boat.

Baseball has always been my favorite sport (except for my brief basketball fixation in Jr. High and High School). I enjoyed playing it and watching it as a kid, but certainly didn't get out of it what I do now. For me, there was a prefect confluence of entering my 40s, reaching a place where I had the time and desire to really absorb the game, and the sudden availability of tons of info and analysis and fantasy baseball, etc. I sort of equate it to discovering fly fishing. I didn't have the patience at first, but then suddenly a time came when it all just came together and became the hobby to end all hobbies. So it was with baseball. I watch the game differently now. I think about the game differently. I thoroughly enjoy studying and analyzing the game.

All that to say I agree with your point about the 90s and being in high school and having other distractions. Those were fun rides, but (as you raised the fundamental question) I can't help but feel like if it happened now, it would be enhanced or mean more in some way because I'm so invested and involved.

To me, there is the surface of it. It is is a diversion. The majority of fans root for the home team and take interest when they are winning and cracks jokes at the water cooler when they suck. That's it. It's a game. It's a social conversation point. It's not a tangible part of their everyday life. But for me, it's a passion. I love the sport, I love the game, and I love the Indians. It goes back to my caring comment. I care. I feel like I am part of something. I ride the emotional rollercoaster of wins, losses, decisions, players coming and going, lineups, stats, etc. I take something meaningful from that part of it. And I don't think it's a "for better or worse" scenario. In the worst of times, my investment in the team allows me to enjoy baseball and the Indians and feeling a part of something and analyzing how they are going to fix things when the games don't matter.

Do I spend way more time and energy and emotion than I should on baseball and the Indians? I don't know. Is it silly or a negative that I yell or scream or get frustrated or mad about a game or a sports team? I don't know. I do know that my life is enriched by baseball and the Indians. Like you, I still really enjoy it. And I know having a distraction from life that can serve as an emotional outlet is not a bad thing either.

There is a lot about baseball that is hard to explain to the casual or non-fan. I have had countless conversations/arguments over the years about why baseball is a great game and why I love it and it's hard to put into words, frankly. At least words that would convince someone who's eyes are glazing over and suddenly looking past you. But I realized that it's not my job to convert someone to baseball. You'll like it or you won't. You'll get into it at whatever level you want. You can jump on or off the bandwagon anytime. At the end of the day, we are all just fans.

This is me pulling up my chair next to yours...with a cold one.