Notes from a Congregant

Jesse Donaldson | Essays

On September 21, 2012, Texas executed Rodney Wayne Harris, a car wash employee who killed six co-workers after being fired for exposing himself to female customers. If we can put aside whatever debate might ensue about capitol punishment, the violent nature of Mr. Harris’ crimes, the fact that prosecutors were able to remove all potential black jurors from the trial, and the fact that Mr. Harris had an IQ of 68; if we can allow ourselves simply to say the issue of taking another person’s life is an incredibly complicated moral issue, then we can focus on Mr. Harris’s strange final words: “I’m going home, I’m going home. I’ll be all right. Don’t worry, I love ya’ll. God Bless and the Texas Rangers, Texas Rangers.”

The beginning of Mr. Harris’s statement suggests his belief in an afterlife—a home. He instructs those gathered not to worry, as if he is the person least affected by what is about to occur. This rather open-handed sentiment is not dissimilar from those expressed by numerous death row prisoners before their execution; the most common phrase spoken by such men and women is “I love you” or Mr. Harris’s “I love ya’ll.” The obvious curveball is this matter of the Texas Rangers (the baseball team, not the once-renowned wild west lawmen). Baseball’s postseason was on the horizon, and perhaps in his last moments, Mr. Harris realized he wouldn’t be around to see his Rangers play another game. Perhaps he meant to say the more direct, “God Bless the Texas Rangers” but this isn’t what he said. He addressed his “God Bless” to the family, friends, Texas Corrections employees, and families of his victims who’d gathered to watch him die. Then, all of a sudden, the thought came to him—a moment that isn’t rehearsed and therefore gives a direct window into the mind— “and the Texas Rangers.” What interests me about this shift in his final words—beyond the initial, cynical recognition that we live in a world where men bless baseball teams the moment before they die—is that Harris repeats “Texas Rangers” to give it added weight. I imagine that first “Texas Rangers” came as a surprise, even to Harris himself, but the second “Texas Rangers”—the repetition—this represents a moment of peace. You can almost hear it if you say it. “God bless and the Texas Rangers.” And then softer, like the amen at the end of a prayer, “Texas Rangers.”

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Sociologist William Spinrad, in his 1981 essay “The Function of Spectator Sports,” writes:

. . . the trivial but engaging experiences of fandom are, in the truest sense, an escape from profound personal and social problems. Unlike most popular culture involvements it is a viable escape, partly because the experiences suggest a caricature of so many unstated features of regular societal processes. The result is a respite, a small-scale catharsis. Since it is not a genuine replica of the real world, the direct impact on one’s serious behavior is generally minimal. In this respect it also differs from other involvements in popular cultures, for sports fandom does not produce any distortion of personal and social perspectives.

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Before Game 7 of baseball’s 2012 National League Championship Series, my friend Serge, whom I hadn’t talked to since 2007, sent me the following e-mail:

I’m excited for tonight’s game. I’ve been thinking of you through this series. I didn’t think they’d pull it off against the Reds, and I thought Game 5 was going to be their last high point of the season. Good luck. . . .

“They” is the San Francisco Giants. During the Giants’ postseason run, I received countless “thinking of you” messages from friends and family. People I had fallen out of touch with texted, e-mailed, and called after months and years of silence. The same thing happened in 2010 when the Giants won their first World Series during my lifetime. My wife, Becca, thinks this a strange phenomenon. My normally dormant phone suddenly comes to life—not because of anything I have accomplished, but because I am a fan. Without the Giants, I wouldn’t be back in touch with Serge or any number of people from my past. I don’t have Facebook, I don’t Tweet, and I am (admittedly) not the best at returning calls.

And so while I basked in the glory of the Giants 2012 comebacks and eventual World Series win, I also tried to figure out when the Giants became synonymous with me. The Giants. Jesse. Jesse. The Giants. These are pretty direct cognitive leaps for anyone who knows me, and yet, outside of that circle of friends, those two things mean nothing put together.

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Surely my fandom has something to do with the years between 1987 and 1991. I was in Little League then and baseball obsessed. I spent my days hitting whiffle balls and pretending I was Will Clark. Will “The Thrill”—Giants’ first baseman and owner of the prettiest left-handed swing in baseball. Whenever San Francisco traveled to Cincinnati, an hour and a half from where I grew up, my father would drive us to Riverfront Stadium to see a game.

In the blistering heat rising from Cincinnati’s artificial turf field my fandom cemented because we were outsiders. I had a Giants T-shirt and my dad an “SF” hat. In a sea of red, we wore orange and black. People booed and taunted us, which only strengthened my resolve. These were our Giants.

My dad likes to tell one story in particular from that time. At a game the Giants were losing, Cincinnati’s star shortstop, Barry Larkin, started walking toward first base after a borderline 3-2 pitch. He made it a couple steps before the umpire dramatically called strike three, and when Larkin turned to protest, I, a normally shy kid, stood up and yelled, “You’re going the wrong way, Larkin!” All the Reds fans in our section turned and then started to laugh. Crazy fucking kid.

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The word fan derives from fanatic. In its noun form the OED defines “Fanatic” as: A mad person. In later use: A religious maniac. And what is sports’ fandom if not a replacement for religion? My admittedly naïve understanding of faith is that it brings the believer some form of solace, and following Giants baseball brings me great comfort. I can recite lineups and pitching rotations like litanies. I analyze the team’s statistics with the fervor of a theologian studying the Bible.

There have been times in my life when I sought comfort in a more traditional higher power. I prefer compline services where a choir performs chants from the High Middle Ages and there is no sermon. I leave these services carrying a measure of peace I didn’t before entering the church, but when I return home a desk littered with unpaid bills or a message from some person I’ve disappointed or some other failure, that peace often wilts.

This same sensation, this brief but fading satisfaction, occurred when the Giants won the 2010 World Series. As the players celebrated and sprayed one another in champagne and hugged and cried tears of joy, I sat at a bar in Texas and watched. Surely I smiled widely after the final out and was more pleasant than usual in the hours that followed. I suspect I was more likely to offer strangers compliments or buy them drinks or profess my love, but this was only a temporary grace. The next day, after I’d exhausted the internet discovering the tiniest details about the team’s first championship since they left New York, after I’d talked to my dad about the series, my life returned to normal. I had classes to teach and papers to grade. There were weeds in the garden that needed pulling. A few days later, as the Giants paraded down the confetti-strewn streets of San Francisco, I sat in Houston traffic on my way home from work.

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There are drawbacks to fandom that often involve the people closest to you. First off, we should understand that fandom, as William Spinrad points out, is a form of escape. And what one is escaping matters. In my twenties I was escaping a stuttering relationship and a burgeoning problem with alcohol. These two sides of the coin were, of course, related. My drinking wasn’t the fall down stumble and slur variety, which made it all the worse when my then-girlfriend noticed that I would reach for an object—say a beer bottle—and miss it once before getting my bearings, and taking another drink. She started counting bottles. I started hiding them. On the night she discovered this, there was a fight. Not a screaming and punching fight but the sort of sad fight where you realize you are both hurting one another for no reason and that even though it doesn’t have to be this way, it will continue until it ends. And so she explained to me the ways in which I was hurting her and hurting myself and I listened and didn’t apologize or say much of anything before she left the apartment crying. By the time she came home, I’d finished a six-pack and fallen asleep on the couch. The next day I was watching the Giants play the Dodgers when Cody Ransom, a career minor leaguer who never seemed to live up to expectations, lined a pinch-hit single up the middle to win the game. It was a moment of unadulterated perfection, of beauty, and I found myself cheering to an empty room. I was happy. And then I started crying. I knew this was wrong—that I was betraying the woman I lived with by giving more of myself to the Giants than to her. All she wanted was for me to express some emotion over the ways in which we were failing one another, to show her that I cared, but I’d been unable. I gave my emotions to the Giants instead. And this, I believe, is where Spinrad gets fandom wrong. He claims it “does not produce any distortion of personal and societal perspectives” but at that moment I was house-of-mirrors distorted, a shell of the person I believe myself capable of being.

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In 1962 the Giants came within a couple feet of winning the World Series. Down 1-0 in the ninth inning of Game 7, with two out and runners on second and third, Willie McCovey drove a line-drive bullet into the glove of Yankees second baseman Bobby Richardson. “Nobody could hit a ball as hard as McCovey,” my dad says when I ask him about the game. His voice starts to crack as he becomes excited and shouts into the phone, “McCovey hit the ball so hard it knocked Richardson down!”

The McCovey line drive haunted the Giants fans of my dad’s generation. On December 21, 1962, months after the end of the World Series, Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schulz, a life-long Giants fan, drew three straight frames of Charlie Brown and Linus sitting despondent on a rock before Charlie Brown wails, with tears streaming from his eyes, “WHY COULDN’T MCCOVEY HAVE HIT THE BALL JUST THREE FEET HIGHER?” Over a month later, on January 28, 1963, the same exact comic appeared again, only this time Charlie Brown wailed, “OR WHY COULDN”T MCCOVEY HAVE HIT THE BALL EVEN TWO FEET HIGHER?” Schulz rarely made such direct references to contemporary events in his comic strip. The Cuban Missile Crisis, which began the same day McCovey lined out to end the World Series, couldn’t move Schulz to tear down the veil between Charlie Brown and the real world, but the Giants could.

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In 2008, two years before the Giants won the World Series, my father was diagnosed with cancer of the vocal cord. His oncologist surgically removed the tumor and ever since his voice has possessed a rasp it didn’t before. That 2010 World Series somehow seemed like a gift to my father and me, some sort of compensation for our years of loyalty. We met in Atlanta to attend a pair of post-season games; we wore our black and orange in a sea of blue and red clad southerners brandishing Tomahawks—outsiders united again.

I can’t separate the Giants from my father, can’t separate my own childhood infatuation with the Giants from his. He listened to every game on the radio, cut out box scores and pasted them into a book I now own. I suppose he can’t separate the Giants from his own father either. And so on and so forth. We begat begat begat. And when the time comes, I will explain to my own children why we Donaldsons root for the Giants. I will explain that once they were the New York Giants, that their great-grandfather watched Christy Mathewson pitch at the Polo Grounds, that their grandfather watched Willie Mays patrol centerfield. I will tell them that when the Donaldsons moved west, the Giants followed. I will explain that even though I grew up in Kentucky, far away from San Francisco, I too am a life-long Giants fan and so will they be.

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Becca calls the peace after the Giant’s win “Jesse’s Zen.” Despite caring little about sports, Becca has embraced my fandom as a sort of personality quirk. She’s even tried to turn herself into a fan so we can bond through the Giants. She’s learned the basics of baseball, knows the players’ nicknames; she even found a thrift-shop Giants’ jersey that she wears for a laugh. But all this goodwill on Becca’s part has a breaking point, and the long slough through the postseason takes its toll. For that month my life revolves around baseball, the quirk turns into an unhealthy fixation. I schedule meetings for work accordingly. I spend ridiculously long hours reading and rereading baseball blogs. Our dates are always burgers and beers at a bar with the game on. I recognize that it all becomes too much, that this devotion leaves little time in my life for the things that really matter—family, work, general mental health. I am, in many ways, an addict. I cannot help but watch the games if they are out there, and so part of me (a small part but part nonetheless) actually roots against the Giants getting to the World Series because it would give me back my regular life. Those three-hour time slots might be used for something more practical, at the very least something more personal. I sometimes rationalize my obsession—it’s just sports after all—but I also feel on the edge of a greater darkness. I guess I feel out of control.

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Just before the 2012 post-season, I moved to the West Coast for the first time. Aside from getting used to the fact that everyone I normally call is in bed before I eat dinner, the biggest change I noticed is the number of Giants fans around me. One would think this is a good thing. The building of community is another way in which sports fandom is not unlike religion—it connects the individual fan to other “believers.” It forms a congregation of sorts. It is this aspect of fandom that sociologists are most interested in studying. In “fandom” the prefix “fan” still comes from fanatic, but the suffix  dom comes from domain, meaning “the domain of the fanatics.” For context you might think of a Kingdom (the domain of the King) or Freedom (domain of the free).

The problem is I don’t enjoy being immersed in this more populous Giants community. My aversion is two-fold. First: I am forced to look at other Giants fans and pretend as though we have something vital in common. This is hardest when the person on the other end of a “Go Giants” is the sort of guy who might otherwise call me “bro” or, even worse, “buddy.” Second: it is proof that the Giants are not mine alone, or not mine and my father’s. Those trips to see the Giants play in Cincinnati made our particular fandom seem special, but now that I live among so many other like-minded souls—fans who boldly promote their allegiance with jackets, hoodies, ball caps—I witness each day just how commonplace our devotion is. And when I try to find commonality with these other fans, I am often disappointed. They talk to me about San Francisco. I visited their city once (and not during baseball season). Or they ask me to tell them the name of that pitcher again. Even when I find a true fan, one who can recite the lineups through the years, I only recognize in them my own ridiculous obsession, which seems sillier and sillier as the years pass by. I think of those parents who tell their kids not to fill their heads with song lyrics because there won’t be room for anything else, which is of course bullshit, but seems plausible enough that I worry that when someone asks me a question like “Do you think there’s an afterlife?” I’ll say, “Will Clark’s middle name is Nuschler.”

This is the danger of becoming associated with a sports team. To root for a team is to adopt that team’s personality, at least in public. If my friends think of me whenever they think of the Giants, then I am representative of the team’s values. Sometimes this isn’t so bad. The Giants of the past few years have earned a reputation for being slightly off-kilter. Brian Wilson, their former closer, speaks like he’s in a comic book and hasn’t shaved in years. Their overweight third-baseman goes by the nickname “Kung-Fu Panda.” Their star pitcher Tim Lincecum looks more like a skater than a ballplayer. These are qualities that I can root for because they make the sterile world of sports a bit more human. But there are other associations linked to the Giants I’m less enamored with. Their fans are known for being a largely white, largely affluent bunch more likely to grab a California Roll and an Anchor Steam at the ballpark than a hot dog and a Bud. And they will forever be linked to Barry Bonds and baseball’s steroids era. I lived in Brooklyn for a few years and was heckled by passers-by on the street whenever I wore my Giants’ hat. “Steroids!” they’d yell. Or, “The Giants suck!” Or they’d ask, “How’s it feel rooting for a bunch of cheaters?” I still don’t know how to answer this question. I am ashamed of Bonds and his drug use but that doesn’t have any bearing on my fandom. I have no control over the team or its players. My devotion is not contingent upon their likability, nor how good they are in any given season. I listened to almost every Giants game in 2007 when they lost 91 games. This was the end of the Bonds era—when I was heckled most. The Giants were terrible. I guess what I am getting at here is that my fandom is not about wanting to be associated with the Giants, about wanting to adopt whatever qualities define one as a fan of this particular team, it just is, for better or worse. Sometimes I think of it as a virus I contracted from my father—a pathogen that found a particularly suitable environment and became so strong that I no longer possess the strength to ward it off.

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On the day after the Giants won the 2012 World Series Championship, their second championship in three years, various friends e-mailed their congratulations. I read through sports blogs and websites, watched the highlight videos. It was 2010 all over again. Later my father and I had our final rundown of the season. We talked about players we admired, the best plays of the Giants’ unexpected championship run. We generally offered our praise to the team, and then Dad asked me, “How are things going otherwise?”

Each time the season ends, I learn again that I care more for the build-up, for the process of being a fan from spring training until the last pitch of the season, than the end result. Maybe this is what true fandom is—a love of the ritual, of holding onto the belief that somehow my devotion has meaning—but if that’s the case, it can’t help but leave the fan feeling empty. Winning and losing don’t matter. At the end of the season it’s the mere existence of the Giants that I both miss and try to embrace.

Not long after the 2012 World Series, an old friend from Kentucky called and we talked about his kids and then the Giants and he said, of his one-time fandom for another sports team, “You know, I grew up.” I’d like to say I am doing the same. At least until pitchers and catchers report. And then. The San Francisco Giants. The