A Meditation on the Nature of Baseball Fandom

There are a lot of people who like baseball. Almost 74 million people attended an MLB game last year, and a 2006 Gallup poll estimated that 47% of Americans identify as a baseball fan. Almost every one of those fans can be more precisely described as a fan of a team rather than the sport itself. FanGraphs readers certainly lie on the less casual end of the spectrum, and that seems to lead to a broader appreciation of baseball in general, but that’s not the case for the vast majority of the baseball-loving populace. Even those who have grown into sport-wide interest didn’t start that way, and probably maintain a preference for one team over all others.

The fan-team relationship, in many ways, is at the heart of baseball. There are easier ways to generate numbers at random, but preference for one outcome over another is what provides a narrative. To be sure, there are lots of ways to enjoy the sport. There is significant pleasure to be had from detailed analysis, or moments of physical grace and power, and everyone is free to enjoy baseball in whatever way they see fit. Rooting, however, is what turns baseball from a hobby into a sport.

What are fans rooting for when they root for a team? Teams today are thoroughly modern organizations, exceedingly large and multifaceted and difficult to grasp entirely. Fans are like the proverbial blind people around an elephant, who comprehend only what they immediately perceive. For most, that’s the laundry, as Jerry Seinfeld famously described it. Everything about a team changes but their name, and sometimes even that changes, but fans remain loyal to the concept of the team, to the history and experiences and hopes they share with other fans. But the second-most enduring aspect of most teams is the owner, far surpassing almost every player, despite being virtually ignored by most fans. Owners are also the ones that benefit most when a team succeeds, and so rooting for a team is in many ways closer to rooting for its owner than rooting for its players.

There have been a few events in the news recently that have prompted thoughts on this topic from several people. The two major ones were Kris Bryant’s demotion by the Cubs, for reasons connected to his arbitration clock rather than his performance, and the comments made by Angels owner Arte Moreno about Josh Hamilton’s drug problem. These are both conflicts between people who are part of the same team, and from a team-oriented viewpoint, should have the same goals but clearly don’t. The question becomes who is “right”, from the viewpoint of the fan. Lots of people have written some excellent things about these conflicts, but my favorite is by Jason Wojciechowski, found here, writing about the paradigm we view these sorts of disagreements from. The whole piece is well worth a read, but the relevant part for this discussion is in the last paragraph:

“A notion of ethics or even morals is something I think we ought to promote in business rather than celebrating the pure concept of moneymaking… We’ve created a political-legal-social scheme that allows firms to exist (thrive!) because we’ve judged the firm a useful construct. Where we go from that starting point… is up to us…. I would like us not to say ‘baseball teams are businesses and so they should be applauded for demoting Kris Bryant’ as our starting point. That’s not our starting point. That’s a moral/ethical choice that has been made from an earlier starting point. Recognition that there are other choices is the first step to reform.”

I don’t think there can be much disagreement with Jason’s point, and I think it’s critical to this discussion. In every aspect of baseball, the viewpoint and goals are decisively pro-team, but that is a starting point. I think it’s time for fans to take a different, pro-player, view as our starting point.

This can be traced back to analytics and the rise of sabermetrics, which have blurred the line between fans and observers of baseball from the outside and professionals from the inside. Anyone who demonstrates their ability to find useful information for a team has the potential to be richly rewarded, and as a result, analytics has one motivating goal in almost every case: to make teams more money. Usually, this takes the form of identifying or measuring undervalued skills and assets, and capitalizing on those market inefficiencies. Under the prevailing framework of baseball analysis, a researcher who identified (for example) the key to Tommy John surgery would be entirely justified in keeping that information private and selling it to a team and making untold sums of money, rather than releasing it to the public and keeping the other 97% healthy as well.

Now, I am not suggesting that someone who made such a major breakthrough should not be rewarded for their work, medical or analytical. Modern baseball analysis is increasingly a business rather than a hobby, and the researcher who identifies the perfect defense-independent pitching metric should be rewarded for the likely massive amounts of work that went into that discovery. But teams are trying to save money for one reason only: to make their owners more money. Every team, from the Red Sox and Yankees to the A’s and Rays, has the ability to spend more and chooses not to. The only “spending limits” they encounter are owner-imposed, and exist for the purposes of profit.

We, meaning fans and hobbyists, are not professional baseball researchers or owners of teams, and as such, are not restricted or motivated by the profit motive. We should feel no such compulsion to orient our passion solely toward teams and their profits.

Despite that, the perspective of the fan tends to always be pro-team, and in many cases, that means it is anti-player. Mike Trout’s contract is “good” because the Angels don’t pay him a lot despite being very good, and Josh Hamilton’s contract is “bad” because the Angels do pay him a lot despite not being very good. Really, therefore, what we mean when we say a contract is good or bad is that it makes or loses an owner money. When the topic of contracts comes up, fans often view them solely as a question of what the team “should” do. This is an example (no offense, T-Sky, you were just the first I saw), where the author writes that “if I were a general manager… I would hand out a lot more contracts like the one the Cleveland Indians just gave Carlos Carrasco.” To be fair, the author also discusses why he feels these deals are good for the player later in the article, so the focus is not just on the team (owner) saving money, but the wording suggests that the player has no agency or control over his own future. While people might not consciously think this, the language used is important, and shows the subconscious assumptions of most fans: contracts are bequeathed by teams to deserving players, as determined by that same team. Now, this obviously isn’t the case in contract negotiations in reality, but it illustrates the viewpoint fans bring – team first, and frequently, team only.

Contract negotiations are not the only aspect of baseball in which this fan viewpoint reigns supreme – on the contrary, this is baked into everything we as fans do. It colors every aspect of the game. As another example, when each year’s Hall of Fame discussions are happening, players are often given accolades for spending their entire career with a single team. There might be valid and legitimate reasons for this – a rapport developed with the fans of that team really is cool, and worth giving someone a bump for – but truly, what is being rewarded is the decision not to test the free-agent market and take the highest contract possible, and instead to reward a team (and an owner) with performance at below-market rates.

Dustin Pedroia, for example, has played with the Red Sox for his entire career, and is currently signed through the 2021 season, after which he will be 38 and either finished or very close to finished playing baseball. He signed his current contract in 2013, but was already extended through 2014 and 2015. The net extension was for 2016 through 2021 (six years) and $89 million dollars, or about $15 million per year. In 2013, Dustin Pedroia had over 5 WAR. At that point in his career, he had averaged 4.7 WAR per 600 PAs. Two years prior, in 2011, he had almost 8 WAR. Had he made his services available to the highest bidder, he would have signed for so, so, so much more than $15 million per year. Instead, he signed with the Red Sox, saving them that large amount of money. Maybe that meant more money was spent on other players, but the Red Sox are one of baseball’s richest teams, and the limits to their spending have always been self-imposed. What that definitely meant was that more money went to the team and its owners.

The standard is to consider Pedroia’s career in a slightly better light because of that. (I don’t mean to point fingers, either – I absolutely am guilty of this.) He sold his services for less than they were worth to a team that could absolutely afford to pay full price, and he’s more likely to make the Hall of Fame because of it. That also means that, implicitly, we’re punishing players that choose to go to the market, and make as much money as they can, which is the last thing I want to do! But when it’s portrayed as rewarding “loyalty”, or whatever other word is used to describe giving money back to team owners, it’s hard not to. This is but one example of the subtle but pervasive pro-team culture that’s endemic in all of baseball fandom.

If this resonates at all with you, I’d encourage you to try to shift your focus as a fan, away from the team and toward the players. There are some trends in baseball that make this more of a legitimate option. Fantasy baseball allows fans to have “their” guys, regardless of what team they’re on. The drive to recognize prospects as early as possible allows fans to keep track of players long before they do anything that impacts a major league team, and hopefully root for them no matter what team they debut with. National media coverage and MLB.tv means you aren’t restricted by geography to what players you follow. Those are steps in the right direction.

If we as fans take a more individual focus, perhaps the conversation will change. Perhaps it will no longer be considered automatically “good” that Bryant has to wait an extra year to sign his first free agent contract, and is more likely to see his career ended by an injury before he ever gets paid, or “bad” that Josh Hamilton capitalized on his excellent performance through age 31. The good/bad labels come from the perspective of the people paying those players, but we as fans are not those people, and we should feel no obligation to take that as our starting point. Root for the players, not the teams.

Henry is a very-part-time baseball writer whose past work has appeared at Beyond the Box Score and Baseball Prospectus. Find him on Twitter @henrydruschel, and find his other writing at medium.com/@henrydruschel.

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7 years ago

I, for one, am very happy every time one of the 29 teams I don’t root for signs a player for more money than he’s worth.

I think it is really easy to root for a team, and rooting for an assortment of players is much harder.

The players are known and their salaries are known, and you can compare among them (the only reason Hamilton is “overpaid” is because we know better players make much less; Bryce Harper would seem “overpaid” if 1960 salaries were still the norm). I think this leads to thinking about the money they make. The worth of owners and the profits they make are not known.

I think most people who think about this agree with you,, but you have to stop, remove yourself from the craziness of actually rooting for a old rich dude’s continuing extraordinary profit, and think about what is actually happening when money goes from owners to players. But this was good depth to that point; nice job.

Henry Druschel
7 years ago
Reply to  TKDC

Yeah, I agree, and I maybe came on a bit hard. I wasn’t trying to suggest that people stop rooting for teams — baseball might a very individual version of a team sport, but it’s still a team sport — but that they try to shift the needle somewhat, from 99% teams/1% players to 90/10, or something like that. Getting people to think about what they’re doing when they celebrate a contract that underpays a player is exactly what I’m trying to do.

7 years ago

This is a good point and exceptionally well written. Thanks for posting!

At its best, I feel sabermetrics would be used to fairly compensate players based on both what they have accomplished and what they are likely to accomplish going forward. Naturally, this would require dramatic changes to the current business-centric model of team construction, especially in regard to the free agency system. Perhaps we as fans should not only be lobbying against the fact that Bryant can be held back a few weeks for an extra year, but also the fact that he has to produce 5 years or whatever to get a legitimately fair contract out of a MLB club!

Furthermore, I think this concept is even more applicable in the realm of college athletes and their relationship with the NCAA. The tendency within fandoms and the mainstream media is to criticize players and coaches who violate arcane recruiting and/or eligibility regulations that essentially assure that players get as little a piece of the admittedly large financial pie as possible. Its even more urgent there that we adopt a pro-player stance there, because as is, the athletes we purport to cheer for are assuming most of the risk and almost none of the benefit of the arrangement as a whole!

For the record, I just love it when sports are discussed from a macro perspective like this, especially in regards to morality and/or philosophy. So seriously Henry, thanks for bringing this up 🙂

Henry Druschel
7 years ago
Reply to  KK-Swizzle

I do think sabermetrics is used in that way a lot already, and in hindsight, that section of the piece is probably a little too assertive. John Jaso is an example of a player that probably would never have made a big league roster if sabermetrics hadn’t discovered all the ways he could be valuable to a team. But I’m glad you liked it, and thanks for the feedback!

7 years ago

Fantastic article, I agree 100%. It’s always troubled me how much the average fan seems to side with owners rather than players.

Pirates Hurdles
7 years ago
Reply to  James

Its not really a conscious decision to side with ownership, but rather a decision to like what is best for the team. In Pittsburgh, people hat Bob Nutting the owner, yet side with team friendly contracts and such because we understand the economic structure of the game. A player turning down an extension is a rejection of the team and one choosing to sign is a team 1st guy.

Henry Druschel
7 years ago

I think that’s a totally reasonable viewpoint, but what I find interesting is the compartmentalization of the owner and the team into separate entities. The Pirates are a team that operates on a low budget, and so when a player signs a team-friendly contract, it consumes less of that budget, presumably allowing more/better players to be signed as well. But they operate on a low budget because and only because Bob Nutting chooses to. Why is it that the player is rejecting the team when he turns down a contract that underpays him, rather than the team (or Bob Nutting) rejecting the player?