I might as well out myself right now: I’m an Atlanta Braves fan. Yes, it’s a serious relationship. Yes, it’s also a long distance one.
And yes, as a native New Englander, I did forego my birthright of automatic membership into Red Sox Nation. I shunned other local favorites, namely the Yankees, and to a lesser extent the Mets (and to a much lesser extent, the Expos, then of Montreal). All to cast my lot with a team who plays their home games over 1,000 miles away in a place they call Hotlanta.
Needless to say, I have become accustomed to the funny looks I get when someone finds out that a lifelong Vermonter roots for a team from the dirty south. I have explained the roots of my fandom so many times that the speech has become rote memory, along with the detailed spelling of my name (“T as in Thomas, R, O, M as in Michael…”) and the lyrics to Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “definitely not written for white middle schoolers in Vermont” anthem Baby Got Back. It goes something like this:
“Well, when I started watching baseball in 1995, Ted Turner owned both the Braves and TBS. Their home games were broadcast nationally with regularity, meaning they were one of the few teams I could see play on any kind of nightly basis. Plus, the Braves were electric in 1995, with an all-time great pitching rotation and an energetic rookie named Chipper Jones. They won the World Series that year, looked poised for several more, and I was hooked.”
Sometimes, if I have an engaged audience, I talk about how my Dad was a Giants fan growing up, but had lost touch with baseball in recent decades and was looking for a way to reconnect to the game with his son. A transplant from the West Coast, he had no allegiance to the Red Sox, making that indoctrination a little less pre-determined.
Sometimes, if I’m feeling lazy, it becomes, “They were on TV a lot when I was a kid.”
(Brief aside: my relationship with the regional teams is not neutral, since it’s not really possible to follow baseball in New England without picking a side in the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry. I fall squarely in the Sox camp here, although it really has less to do with any special affection for them than a deep-in-my-bones hatred of the Yankees. Ruining the Braves’ run at a repeat in 1996, then besting them again in 1998, was not a good start for our relationship. Treating small-market MLB teams like their personal farm system didn’t help their cause.)
But this isn’t a piece about my relationship with the Braves over the years. As much fun as I would have writing that column, I’m not sure that anyone would enjoy reading it. Rather, I’ve found it interesting to use my long-distance fandom as a lens through which to answer the question that I have found increasingly more fascinating in recent years: Why do we like sports?
As a self-professed diehard sports fan (not just baseball, but football, hockey and basketball—in that order—plus, right now, any random Olympic event that happens to be on), I occasionally find myself defending my fandom to non-sports fans who have difficulty understanding the depth of investment we fans put in the successes and failures of our rooting interests.
What I have come to realize after many of these interactions—after many failed attempts to convince someone that they do, in fact, care deeply and passionately about the fates of professional sports teams—is that non-fans actually have the right of it. As Bill Simmons recently wrote in his excellent July 27 Olympics preview, “We shouldn't care about sports this much … but we do, and that's just the way it is.” For whatever reason—be it our need for entertainment and distraction, the competitiveness rooted deeply in human nature, or, perhaps more poetically, the beauty of the games themselves—there are certain games which have captured our hearts to such an extent that they have transcended “games” and become “sports.”
There are times when, feeling cynical, I wonder why we commit so much time and money to following the movements of people who are exceptionally talented at throwing, catching and hitting a ball (no doubt my non-fan counterparts are familiar with this query). Even as someone on “the inside” of sports, it strikes me that there are myriad other facets of life on which our time and money could be better spent. Certainly the pain and suffering that millions of humans endure because of the wealth imbalance in the world (and our country) is something I think about anytime I read about the latest multi-million dollar contract being signed.
One explanation for the massive popularity of sports that I’ve heard with some frequency has to do with being proud of where you’re from. Rarely is one’s town, city or state nothing more than the zip code your mail is sent to. Where we live is part of who we are, so by proxy, the local sports team represents who we are on a national stage. They are extensions of ourselves—a deep, integral part of our identity.
That explanation is poetic, but leaves something to be desired. After all, the players on your team might have your city stitched across their chest, but they don’t represent your hometown any more than Jeff Gordon works for DuPont. With a few notable exceptions, most players will cut and run for a bigger paycheck at the first chance they get, with team loyalty becoming about as common in baseball as a Kansas City Royals playoff berth.
Plus, where does that explanation leave me and my beloved Bravos? Because Vermont’s population is apparently only large enough to support a single-A minor league team (go Lake Monsters!), I had to choose a surrogate team to integrate with my identity. As is so often the case with budding sports fans, I chose this team before my identity had really started to take shape. But I grew up with the Braves, and they are a part of me now. My distance from them doesn’t change the pride I feel when they win, nor does it mitigate my despair and frustration when they choke away an all-but-locked-up playoff spot.
I am a Braves fan who has never lived—and never really plans on living—anywhere remotely close to the city they call home. But I am a Braves fan nonetheless, and proud of it.
So what is it, then, that makes our hearts tick in time with the play clock or the pitch count? Why do we make signs, paint our faces and cheer like fools? Why do we spend hours tinkering with our fantasy rosters and reading page upon page of analysis looking for that small edge? Why do we care who our favorite celebrities root for, or who our president has going all the way in his March Madness bracket?
These are not questions that I can, or even want, to answer on my own. Rather, they—and this column—are meant to spur a discussion that I hope to have both with myself and with others—fans and non-fans alike—throughout the rest of my relationship with sports, ‘til death do us part.