Monday, July 26, 2010

Watching Fans Unravel

The fight felt like piling on. The Mariner's season ended months ago. The team gimps along with a castoff  bullpen, the second lowest batting average in the major leagues and a number of  players hitting career worsts. Ken Griffey, Jr. fled  town,  and the pleasure of watching Cliff Lee's excellence ended when he was traded for another set of maybes.

Weeks of keystone cops defense and awful base-running gaffs  normally seen in T-ball bombarded fans. Through it all manage Don Wakamatsu kept calm and focused. He dealt with issues carefully and privately. He saw the effort even when combined with stupidity.

But on Friday's  July 23rd. game, a routine missed cutoff man (that is now routine?) ball rolled by Sean Figgins.  Figgins stood, glove down, and watched the ball role by. He stood and watched it, did not even lift his glove. In not backing up the cut off man he matched his team's collective amnesia of fundamentals, but no one yet had evinced simply not caring, not moving and not acting. His stand elicited one of the few direct reactions of Wakamatsu all season. He replaced Figgins for lack of effort, not bone headedness. If he regularly had penalized bone-headed play, half the team would be off the field. 

Figgins attacked the manager in the dugout. The attack has been endlessly analyzed locally and nationally and may sound the death-knell of the manager. But watching the season unravel I have been struck by how the fans have unravelled.

The unexpected success of last year arose from luck, timely play, a reinforcing cycle of success and chemistry. It raised expectations far beyond reasonable levels. It lead to a hero worship Jack Zduriencik, the GM. "In Jack We Trust" became a press and blog motto.

Over the winter he seemed to do no wrong. He stole Cliff Lee for a year. He re-signed the team's best pitcher, Felix Hernandez, and sewed up its upcoming outfielder Gutierrez. He signed Sean Figgins. He even convinced the benighted Cubs to take Carlos Silva.

He knew the team was not ready. Fans knew the team was not ready. No team could replicate its 35 of 55 record in 2009. The Cliff Lee acquisition drove reasonable expectations over the top. Web denizens chimed in and a steady drum roar fed by the media made Seattle a dark horse favorite to win the division. Wakamatsu's insistence upon a "belief system" and his demand for "accountability" but behind closed doors was hailed as a mantra for new age managing.

llusions. Shadows. Zombies, Dead walking. Failed strategy. Not sure what to call it but the whole plan failed. The bullpen imploded. No one hits. The team is last or second from last if nine of the 10 major offense categories. 

Now the blog sphere rips their heroes. People call for Wakamatsu's firing. His every decision is dissected. When our self-exiled hero Lou Pinella returned, a shadow of his bear self, fans and media gushed over how nice it would be to have a kick ass manager who could fire up kids and veterans. The reality, of course, is that veteran ball players seldom respond to abuse and most modern younger players wilt under blistering ugly assault. 

What troubles me is how ugly and mean the reactions of many fans have been. The web denizens whom I follow quietly are apopletic calling for the manager's resignation; demanding trades; demeaning players; turning a Griffey nap into a city wide disaster. I am simply struck by how bitter and mean many of the reactions have been.

For many of the bandwagon types, it doesn't matter. This is Seattle, you can enjoy the clouds, run in the mist and kayak, mountain climb or head for beaches and freeze in water.

But true fans should not turn viciously on the team. They should not call for destroying a manager after one successful year and a year of failure. They should not swing from ecstatic worship to nihilistic meanness.

I mean I understand the sadness. I understand the frustration of endless losing. I grew up following the Kansas City Athletics who finished last in the American league 9 years in a row (no one remembers them except as the interlude between the Philadelphia athletics and the Oakland athletics).

Many fans retreated and stopped going. Others follow but with the sound off on their TVs. Some look at the bright side and urge the team to play the youngsters and get ready for next year. They then get mad when the Mariner's don't play them, largely because they don't have a strong farm system.

Then there are the edge fans. You see them at games but really find them entombed in web sites. The ones consumed by the team and linked in emotional DNA. Like similar college fans, their emotional lives rise and fall by the team. This grates over baseball seasons that last six months and cover 162 games where even the best lose 40 percent of their games.

We are not zen pessimists that Cubs fans have perfected or romantic masochists who revel in their broken hearts like the old fashioned Red Sox fans. This is the west coast for heaven's sake.

Non-fan fans give up and stop following. Some appreciate the small joys like watching Ichiro or Lee when we had him. They enjoy the game if not the team. Others dissect each game looking for  auguries of the  future in each hit by a rookie. Others gnaw on their souls by dissecting and hating every micro-decision.

As the emotional fabric of the fans unravels, they boo home team players more and have a harder time getting up enough energy to boo Alex Rodriquez. They actually still show up to watch good or fabled teams play. But the sense of community a competitive team or good team engender withers. It is hard to talk about endless losses. Even the augury guys looking at team entrails  do not believe it. The latest take is that the club house fight will generate a turn around. I mean the team has to win 90 percent of our remaining games to finish in third place!

I seldom emphasize the role of winning; but winning solves things. Winning builds up social capital on the team, grants forgiveness and even helps disgruntled players enjoy the ride.  Last year the winning hid the weaknesses. This year the hope of winning conquered the clear-eyed assessment of the GM that the Mariner's are still two to three years away. But dashed hops generate more anger and mean spirited release than no hope.

Experiencing the combination of bile and indifference reminds me again of how vulnerable elite athletes are to the whims of winning of game, glory and  people. Not only will they be often traded; but the fawning fans will turn on them in a minute. The boos will cascade as readily as the cheer. A sane athlete learns to protect him or herself from the fans.

When we ask why athletes seem detached from fans, we only have to look at ourselves.


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