13.7: Cosmos And Culture
10:50 am
Fri August 22, 2014

An Attempt To Explain The Magic Of The Ballpark

Originally published on Fri August 22, 2014 1:44 pm

No doubt some of the autograph seekers leaning across the fence straining for the baseball players' attention were in it for the money.

I suppose a baseball signed by the right person is worth something. Others were collectors working to complete their sets.

But most of us clumped up along the side of the dugout were fans — and our motives were of an entirely different nature.

Well, to be accurate, I wasn't begging for autographs. My kids were. I was there as a chaperone.

But I'd be lying if I pretended that I didn't feel the same jittery delight that my kids experienced when the players sauntered over to talk to us and sign hats and balls Wednesday night.

After the Mets defeated the A's in Oakland, Mets third-baseman David Wright strode up to where my kids were standing near the dugout, and he tossed them his batting gloves and wrist sweatband.

How can I begin to describe the joy and excitement that rained down on us? Let us sing the song of David! Let us count his excellences! Let us rejoice in the blessing!

Those of you who are not fans may snigger. But that, finally, brings me to today's question: What is this thing called fandom? What is it that motivates the fan to meet players, or get their autographs? What explains that distinct, inextinguishable magic of the ballpark?

I think I get the cynical line on all this. We spent a fair bit of money to manage to be in a spot where David could flip us his branded merchandise. And, for all I know, his action may have been scripted by the manufacturers, or by MLB, or by David's own PR staff. Seems like good business. Our continued loyalty as customers has been assured.

But maybe David's action stemmed from something more like love — for the game and for the larger community of people who love the game. Love is a good word to use to describe how we feel toward David Wright.

There are things in life that are very hard to understand. The mentality of a fan may be one of those things. Even people who work in sports sometimes get it wrong.

Not too long ago, Kevin Burkhardt, an on-air personality for the New York Mets, tweeted angrily: Why do guys jump in front of kids to catch a ball thrown over by a player? Even if you give it to the kid, you ruined the thrill you idiot.

Ouch.

Burkhardt's tweet prompted a Twitter outpouring of scorn for guys who kill the thrill for kids.

But Burkhardt and his co-tweeters got it wrong. The reason guys jump in front of kids to catch balls meant for the kids is that, well, when it comes to baseball, they are still kids.

Sure, if you're Burkhardt, or some other professional who works on the other side of the fence, the stadium loses its magic. But for most people who were baseball fans as kids, the spell has never been broken. The magic is still there. And a trip to the ballpark is a kind of regression. You don't ruin the thrill for the kids by leaping for the ball. You participate in it.

And then you remember yourself. And give the kid his ball.

It is just this childish spirit, unshackled by adult scruples but armed with credit cards — that pays for everything at the ballpark, including Burkhardt's salary.

But we still need an explanation, or even just a better description, of that distinctive attitude of interest and longing, of pleasant anticipation, that marks us when we are fans.


You can keep up with more of what Alva Noë is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.