Bronx Banter Book Excerpt
By Emma Span
Many studies over the last decade or so, of varying reliability and scientific soundness, have attempted to find out just who baseball fans are. One found that 37 percent of American women identify themselves as baseball fans (compared to 49 percent of men); another poll had it at 44 percent to 66 percent but included those who said they “somewhat” followed baseball, which could mean just about anything, including vaguely noting the back- page headline of the New York Post on the subway each morning. Yet another study showed 51 percent of women calling themselves fans. Even if we assume for the sake of argument that the lower number is closer to the truth, 37 percent is nothing to sneeze at.
Meanwhile, a Scarborough Research report back in 2004 found that 42 percent of all baseball fans are women. And a 2002 Gallup poll found that while the percentage of men who call themselves baseball fans has been decreasing for decades, the percentage of women who say the same is holding steady. So yes, there are certainly more male than female baseball fans, but the chasm isn’t as wide as it’s usually represented to be.
You can tell a lot about what kind of audience a given TV show expects by paying attention to the commercials. I’ve spent thousands of hours watching baseball, which means I’ve sat through countless thirty- second spots for razors, hair regrowth serum, erectile-dysfunction pills, and beer ads showing guys choosing Coors Light over women. There must be nearly an hour of ads during a typical Mets or Yankees broadcast, if not more, and often not a single spot is targeted at me. I used to get a small pseudo- subversive kick out of how I was throwing a wrench into all these marketing strategies—Ha! I am immune to your marketing efforts, motherfuckers! I will not ask my doctor about prostate enlargement!—but then I just bought a TiVo, which is better.
Lest you think I’m being too hard on the Savvy Girls and their pink-splashed Guide to Understanding and Enjoying Baseball, it’s indeed occurred to me that maybe men and women do tend to watch the game a bit differently. For one thing, I’ve never played baseball, not even softball. So I don’t have that kind of connection to the game, which many guys I know seem to feel, even if they never got past Little League. And I’ve become plenty interested in statistics, but there’s no pretending that was any large part of what drew me to the game initially, or that it has much to do with why I keep watching (though the same could be said of plenty of men). I do accumulate baseball numbers in my brain, like most fans, and I enjoy doing so. I have a recurring fantasy in which someone desperately needs to know, say, the modern record for most wins by a pitcher in a single season, he’s absolutely frantic about it, and I get to finally use the information that’s been rattling around in my head for years and years: I turn to the guy and calmly inform him it was 41 Ws, Happy Jack Chesbro, 1904. (It’s going to happen any day now.) But no, numbers aren’t what sucked me in and they’re not what keep me here.
When I first got interested in baseball, and stopped treating it as background noise and actually focused on it, it was the characters that drew me in, the personalities, and the drama, more than any inherent beauty of the game. I didn’t really care what kind of pitch someone threw or whether a batter had shortened his swing; I just wanted to see if Paul O’Neill was going to be beating himself up all night, cursing his perceived failures in the dugout, terrorizing innocent water coolers. I wanted to see how the rookie replacing Tony Fernandez might overcome what I assumed had to be a bad case of nerves and succeed in the big leagues. I wanted Bernie Williams to do well because I wanted a shy, awkward dude with glasses to win one for shy, awkward people with glasses everywhere.
Jerry Seinfeld famously said that rooting for a sports team in the modern era is “rooting for laundry”—players come and go so frequently, and are so often mercenary dicks while they’re here, that we end up just cheering for the team as an entity, as embodied by whoever happens to be wearing its uniform at the time. It’s hard to argue with the basic truth of that (Johnny Damon in a red and white jersey is loathed; six months later he puts on a blue and white shirt and is hailed as a hero). But for me, especially in the beginning, it wasn’t the case. I was very much rooting for the individuals.
Maybe it’s easier for kids to do that because they aren’t yet fully aware of the transience and foibles of professional athletes. I don’t remember any disillusioning moment in particular—no single arrest or defection or painfully incoherent interview that made me realize these guys aren’t capital-H heroes off the field and it’s pointless and foolish to look at them that way. Certainly it became clear over time, the more I read and watched, that many players were people I would not have much in common with. But you know, even after all this time, with countless DUIs and lakes of steroids in the rearview mirror, it doesn’t really matter. It’s still the drama and the personalities that draw me to the game, and just because players don’t always display winning personalities, that doesn’t make them less interesting. And I know full well by now that those personalities are mostly just a fan and/or media projection, but that doesn’t seem to make much difference, either. I know a soap opera isn’t real, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to find out what happens when Erica’s evil twin sleeps with her ex-husband.
Whether or not there’s anything inherently female about this perspective, a lot of mainstream male sportswriters (at least a lot of my favorites) tend to eschew this kind of stuff. They try to rise above the tabloid fray and don’t spend much time on character or colorful shenanigans, taking the view that what’s measurable on the field is all that deserves our attention. Intellectually, I can’t disagree, especially because if you’re a journalist you want to try to stick to the facts, and your own take on the people involved is too much a constructed story line. Still, those story lines are what I find most fascinating, which is why I’d rather watch a meaningless, sloppy game involving a team I know well than a well- played high-stakes match between two teams I rarely watch. I certainly find baseball interesting in and of itself, but if I’m not familiar with the people involved, however inaccu¬rate that perceived familiarity might be, it becomes a bit of an empty exercise.
I’m not so sure this is a gender issue. Take A- Rod (please). There’s plenty to watch and analyze and discuss in his game: his power, his batting eye, his fielding, his baserunning, all the skills responsible for his iconic status. But there’s no way he’d be taking up literally hun¬dreds of tabloid front and back pages a year if baseball fans—or really, human beings in general—didn’t love amateur psychoanalysis.
I’ve seen plenty of burly fortysomething men launch into an ex¬amination of the intricate emotional ties, betrayals, and day- by- day minutiae in the relationship between Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez with a depth that would make fifteen- year- old girls blush. I don’t want to read too much into lowest- common- denominator sports talk radio, where that kind of conversation is especially prevalent, but lots of baseball discussion is, at base, gossip. “I hear that Joe Torre said that A- Rod said…and Delgado never liked Willie Randolph…and, oh my God, did you hear about Carl Pavano and his girlfriend?”
“Yeah, and did you see that photo, A- Rod’s lips, are like purple!”
“I think he wears lip gloss!”
“Ew! And that stripper said he likes butch chicks . . .”
I guess it’s a fine line between the character- based stuff I find in¬teresting and conversations that sound like those at an especially nasty middle school cafeteria table. I’m sure I go over that line myself sometimes. But sports give adults, and maybe men in particular, liscense to behave in ways that are usually off-limits, and might even seem kinda girly.
Excerpted from 90% of the Game is Half Mental by Emma Span. Copyright © 2010 by Emma Span. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.