Summer anthropologies #2: Leslie White goes to a baseball game (Part 3)

Summer anthropologies #2: Leslie White goes to a baseball game (Part 3)

Oracle Park, last game of the season, 2023.

In the last post of this installment of the summer anthropologies series, I ended with the point that major league baseball (MLB) is an annual demonstration of autocratic corporate power. If that’s the case, I asked, why would anyone go?

Well, humans are complicated. Take my case. I grew up playing baseball since I was about four or five years old. I played it all the time, went to MLB games when I had the chance, collected baseball cards, played baseball on my own in the backyard and out in the street with my friends. I loved the game. But, as I mentioned in this piece, then the big strike hit in the mid 1990s, and I was done with it. Done. Between 1994 and 2022, I went to exactly one MLB game. One. That was on a road trip with my wife, and we decided, in the middle of a road trip from Kentucky back home to California, to catch a Rockies game in Denver. We ate hotdogs with sauerkraut, watched a great game, and it was super fun. That was around 2010 or so. During that almost thirty year period, I checked up on baseball every now and then, but rarely watched and definitely didn’t give MLB any money (except for that one Rockies game). I was about 19 during that strike in 1994, and I was disgusted by the whole thing. So I just walked away. I went surfing for a few decades instead. I was disgusted by the owners and the players–just all of it. Looking back, some of my views of the politics of the sport were a bit naive, but I stuck to my decision and moved on. I had other things to do. 

It was with all of that in mind that I went to about a dozen games this past season (Giants, A’s, and Dodgers). I know the MLB is problematic. But my oldest kiddo got into baseball this year and, well, we went to some games. As I explained in the opening piece of this little sub-series within a series:

It was nice being back after so long. Things that I’d forgotten about all came back–the sounds, the feel of a packed stadium, the smell of hot dogs, popcorn, and not-so-cheap beer. Baseball was my first love, so it was fun to be back.

Like I said, humans are complicated. I happen to be one of them.

So, why do people still go? Well, to start off, maybe it’s about the beauty of the game. No, really. In the opening of Ken Burns mid 1990s baseball documentary, Bob Costas describes baseball as a “beautiful thing.” Costas talks about the rhythm of the game, the choreography of it all. Sportswriter Robert Creamer calls it a pastime (something you do), entertainment (something you watch), and a shared experience (something you read about and talk about with others). But, most importantly, Creamer says “it’s the best game that’s ever been devised.” He says that baseball is great because it’s just so much fun to watch.

Baseball is fun to watch. I grew up watching the Angels play at the “Big A” in Anaheim, and I’ll never forget it. I loved being at the stadium, hearing all those sounds, seeing that massive green field. I loved getting the chance to see my favorite players right there in front of me. I remember the moment when Bobby Grich threw a ball right to me after a double play during one game. These things stay with you. The feelings of being at a game, the sound of the PA announcer, the food–all of it. That’s why people go. 

But baseball isn’t just about watching. It’s also about playing. As someone who started playing around 4-5 years old and played all the way into High School, I can speak to how fun it was to play. To me baseball has always been like chess–this intricate game with all kinds of possibilities that play out each time. It’s just fun seeing how it all enfolds; you never know. And when I say that baseball is fun to play, I’m not just talking about formal, organized baseball. Playing baseball out in the street or out in the backyard was, honestly, just as fun as any formal game I ever played. I remember all of it, and one of the great things about the game is that you really only need some kind of ball and stick to get a game going. We used everything from real baseballs to tennis balls to those amazing wiffle balls that allowed you to throw massive ten foot curve balls for games. Any of it and all of it. Here I think things get interwoven. Many people watch, I think, because the game itself is fun to play…and it’s amazing seeing people who are really good play the game.

So there we have a few reasons why people still go to games, despite the politics of the sport. I also think it comes down to a whole list of other social reasons, ranging from nostalgia to sheer devotion. Some people go to major league baseball games because it reminds them of childhood, memories of a certain time period, or things they used to do with family, friends, etc. Others go–and keep going–because they are so dedicated that almost nothing could get in the way. So we have the nostalgia seekers, on the one hand, and the fanatics, on the other. And then we have all those regional identities and histories–Dodgers fans, Yankees fans, and so on. In many ways, all of this makes sense. I get it.

Even so, I still have questions. While this behavior makes sense on various levels (memory, nostalgia, habit, fanatic devotion, regional identities), it’s hard to understand on others. Given a choice between a world of options, why would so many people choose to take their hard-earned money and use it to watch millionaires play a game on a field owned by billionaires? Is there something else going on here as well?  

I think David Graeber had some interesting answers for these kinds of questions in his book Utopia of Rules. Games, he explained, whether sports events like baseball or board games like Monopoly, appeal to people precisely because they have clear rules, boundaries, winners, losers, beginnings, and endings. Games are appealing, mostly, because they are so different from everyday life, which is often maddeningly complicated, opaque, and uncertain.

Games are spaces in which participants have to follow rules—and there are clear guidelines, incentives, and penalties in place. Baseball is, of course, jam-packed with lots of intricate rules. The rules keep everything running smoothly. Sure, there’s some room for choice and individual moments of heroism, but everything has to fit within the boundaries of the field and all those rules. This ‘utopia of rules,’ as Graeber calls it, is incredibly appealing for people to watch and enjoy, precisely because it’s such a break from real life, where rules are often so arbitrary and unclear, and (some) people get away with breaking them all the time. It’s nice to watch or participate in something where you know when it starts, when it ends, what can and cannot be done, how one can win or lose, and what will happen if rules are broken. There are even official rule arbitrators right in the middle of the field (umpires) to clarify everything as the game progresses. 

So, then, maybe one reason why people go to baseball games is to see and experience that particular ‘utopia’ as a break from the torrid, unpredictable, and often unfair mess that is everyday life. I don’t know how many people actually think about baseball in that way, but I think it’s plausible that this explains some potential underlying motives. Baseball is an escape, a momentary getaway. Mix that together with all the other reasons (memory, identity, habit, etc) and it makes sense why people go…even with all the politics and corruption. I mean, people need somewhere to go, and they can’t always just build their own games and stadiums. So they seek refuge, respite, and some form of communitas in things massive, pseudo-public spaces like baseball stadiums (and Roman coliseums?). They make life–and memory–in the spaces they have. I think they do this despite the machinations and motivations of the (many) owners who rule over the game, the players, and even the fans as if they are all little more than petty holdings from which to extract as much wealth as possible. Dreams, nostalgia, and memory, in this scenario, are simply more grist for the owners’ mill. 

I think the fans know all this, and they go anyway. I think some could care less about the politics of the game. That’s always going to be part of the picture. But for others, I think they go despite full knowledge of the corruption and politics of the sport. There’s a tenacity within many fanbases–a protest, resistance, or pushback–that tells me that the ‘ownership’ question is actually open for debate. It’s contested ground. I think Graeber is right that the ‘utopia of rules’ has a strong appeal, and people go to such things in search of a break, of respite. But I also think there’s a battle over who rightfully owns and controls that supposed utopia. The owners may rule over franchises, stadiums, merchandise, the league, and all those trademarks, but there’s still so much that’s up for grabs.