WHERE IS THE LOVE?


Last week, Alan Grant wrote that fans really don't care about athletes. Today, Eric Neel explains why he doesn't think that's true -- at least, not for the vast majority. Patrick Hruby, Tom Friend and AG respectfully, but forcefully, disagree.

The opposite of apathy | From Eric Neel
In last week's WB steroids discussion, Alan Grant asked:

"Does anyone really give a crap if their favorite players on their favorite teams incur irreparable damage to their bodies because of prolonged drug use?

And my first thought was: Of course they do.

I'm not limiting my take to the steroids question. I'm saying, in general, I think fans do care, about the games, teams, and players they follow.

I don't mean to single out Alan. I hear a lot of folks say otherwise these days. I hear talk of how hip and cynical modern fans are. We're supposed to be deep into a once-bitten-twice-shy culture. We're supposed to see through fronts with our jaundiced eyes and smell rats around any and every corner. We're all supposed to be jaded, unmoved, and more than a little bit self-absorbed. I hear sports, like politics, is just a game and the fans don't care.

But the thing is, it's not what I see.

I know fan talk, around the water cooler and on radio call-in shows, is tough. But that talk is cheap, too. Folks are full of bluster. Like James Dean in "Rebel," they play it cool on the surface to cover up hot beating hearts.

Last summer, I had a chance to tour 10 different major league ballparks for a Page 2 assignment; and at every stop, I found fans in the stands who were deep into their teams and deeply committed to their favorite players. Two young girls in Oakland wearing Eric Chavez and Barry Zito T-shirts were quoting me stat lines and biographical details on the guys, and telling me how beautiful Barry's curveball was.

A father in Arlington was hugging his son after junior got an autograph from A-Rod and telling me, still giddy, about the time he met Nolan Ryan. In Kansas City, where just about everyone I met quoted Tony Pena's "Nosotros Creemos" line, I could barely see the field over the heads and shoulders of the SRO crowd.

And in Anaheim, where if you weren't wearing Angels red you were some kind of freak from outer space, a guy in the seats down the line in left told me, like he was making an argument before the high court, about how Garret Anderson is and always will be under-appreciated by the stat-heads because he doesn't fit their analytic models. He was worried about this; he wanted me to go forth and tell the world.

It's all anecdotal stuff, but what I see are people who might be polished and hard out in the world coming to their favorite teams and players looking to be soft.

What I see are fans who develop attachments to teams and players at a young age and maintain them for years, fans who identify themselves and each other through these attachments, and who consider them constitutional elements of the soul and fundamental features of history.

I see fans who carve out relationships with their kids, with their parents, and with old friends, at games and in the company of the great athletes who inspire and delight them. I see fans who know they can never really know the athletes, but who know, too, that what they feel for -- and because of -- their favorite athletes is genuine and potent.

I see fans who treasure this feeling and thrive on it, who feel grateful to the athletes for stirring it in their hearts, and in the hearts of their sons, daughters, moms, pops, and buddies.

I see fans paint faces, wait on line for days, keep score in well-worn scorebooks, take pictures that are too far back and out of focus in the hopes of taking some part of a game home with them, nervously approach players to get a handshake or to share a favorite memory, keep weblogs and diaries, write letters, and sing songs.

I see fans shout like they never shout anywhere else, like they need to shout, like the shout comes from some deep, delirious, primal place, when their favorite athletes and teams do well.

I see them cry like they might not cry anywhere else, like they need to cry, like the cry is a release of a hundred secret longings and fervent hopes, when their favorite athletes and teams suffer defeat.

I see them hush when a player goes down hurt, even when the guy's on the opposing team, even they're just watching in front of a TV at home.

I see them boo and heckle Karl Malone because he took their hearts, and rally 'round Allen Iverson because he gave them his.

I see them so stung by the strike of '94 and so concerned about steroids that they can't stand to watch the game they love.

I see them making road trips to Arizona and Florida every March.

I see them tearing up at the mere mention of Bo Jackson and Len Bias.

I see the Sports Guy, for crying out loud.

I see fans staying away in Portland and coming out in Denver.

I see the Cameron Crazies bouncing as one, the Block O in Columbus sitting in red-shirted vigil, and the folks in the Wrigley bleachers blowing kisses to Sammy and throwing visiting homers back out on the grass.

I see them all over town in replica jerseys, past and present.

I see guys arguing all night in a bar over who does and who doesn't belong in the Hall.

I see two strangers at Chilis in O'Hare, composing extemporaneous poetry over the way Sweetness ran, and then going silent when they feel again the hurt of his dying.

I see my grandpa sitting next to me at the kitchen table, listening to Vin Scully and telling stories about the days of Jackie and Brooklyn. And I see me, doing the same with my toddler girl, 25 years later.

I see a lot of things: Affection, projection, empathy, desire, catharsis, nostalgia, identification, bandwagon hopping, outrage, and rejection.

The only thing I don't see is apathy.

People or product? | From Patrick Hruby
Of course fans care about the players, the teams, the games. It's not like fat guys will just use any old excuse to whip off their shirts and slather their bellies in greasepaint.

(Okay, so maybe I'm not as eloquent as Mr. Neel. He sees amber waves of grain; I see a bunch of wheat).

Still, I think Eric may be missing the real point of Alan's question, which is: Do fans care for the players they serenade with cheers and boos? Do they care for them as people, not simply as product, care for them enough to worry what kind of terrible damage they may be wreaking on their bodies by using performance-enhancing drugs?

Some do, I'm sure. A majority? I dunno. Maybe Alan or the rest of you can offer some insight.

I do know this: "Caring" fans made Bill Buckner's real-world life a living hell. "Caring" fans once taunted Arizona guard Steve Kerr, whose father was assassinated while serving as president of the American University in Beirut, with chants of "PLO, PLO!"

"Caring" fans shot and killed Colombian midfielder Andreas Escobar after he scored in his own goal in the 1994 World Cup.

Ask yourself: What, exactly, do these fans care about?

The love connection | From Eric Neel
You're right, Patrick. Alan's question was about whether fans care for athletes. I don't know how you measure that exactly, though for every story about Buckner and Escobar, there's one about fans wanting to give Mantle a liver, and another about folks volunteering their kidneys to 'Zo.

You ask whether the majority of fans are empathetic towards athletes. My feeling is: Yes, it's a vast majority. I'd say the same about people in almost any walk of life. I'd say the empathetic and caring far outweigh the callous and the hostile in almost any arena, and I'd say it's certainly true in sports, where fans have deep-rooted (even if sometimes imaginary) connections to their favorite teams and players.

The phony factor | From Patrick Hruby
Maybe so. But I have to think the fans wanting to give organs to Mantle and 'Zo were doing so because Mantle was the Mick and 'Zo was a 20-10 warrior.

Otherwise, wouldn't these same good samaritans already have given their livers and kidneys away to equally sick -- and equally worthy -- patients?

Like I said before, fans care. But it's a different kind of care than what you might feel for, say, a family member. It's not quite genuine. It's a little bit phony. It is, as Eric puts it, a work of imagination. For good and ill.

Frankly, I think it's a little bit twisted. I think Alan might agree. And that's without sitting through that godawful DeNiro-Snipes baseball-in-a-torrential-downpour flick.

Speaking of Alan -- you gonna chime in, amigo?

The emperor's new clothes | From Tom Friend
Fans root for the uniform . . . not the dumbass inside.

I'm telling you, that's how they see it. How else do you explain Karl Malone's reception in Utah this week? He gave 'em 18 years, missed maybe four out of a million games there, and they heckled him for being a traitor.

On the other hand, it's usually the provincial, low-self-esteem cities that do this. A player leaves town, and they boo him every time he touches the ball. They're convinced that he left because he didn't like the place, didn't like their grocery stores.

The jock filter | From Alan Grant
Eric, I appreciate what you wrote and I applaud your sincerity. But I think fans embrace athletes the same way they embrace fictional characters in a movie. I don't think most fans relate to them in a normal human fashion.

Like Patrick says, its a connection that is, for lack of a better word, "twisted." For instance, there was a time when my teammates and I watched in horror as a woman lay down in front of our bus, right there in the street, refusing to move until she could meet Joe Montana.

I use that example because it illustrates a twisted form of affection I like to call "baby chick love." That's when a child holds a baby chick in his hand and is so moved, so excited by the experience, that the object of its desire is no longer a living, breathing thing. This detachment leads to the child "loving" the baby chick so much that it actually squeezes the very life from it. An extreme illustration, but relevant as it pertains to extreme levels of fan appreciation.

Of course, as a former athlete, my perspective on this topic is both personal and practical. And that is probably the main point here. Several years ago, when I entered this business, I found myself suddenly surrounded by folks who had never actually shared a space with someone who had once been a professional athlete. As a result, my actions were poured through a weird "jock filter," and I was never seen as just human.

If I was in a bad mood, (like anyone else) I was seen as "dangerous" or "volatile." My ambition was viewed by some as "an athlete's sense of entitlement," and my inherent self-esteem was viewed as "an athlete's lack of humility."

The point is, because of my former profession and perhaps because of my "athletic" appearance, I was never seen as a man. And most of the guys who were at one time teammates in college or in the pros constantly tell me these same stories.

Perhaps at times, I project (rightly or wrongly) that sentiment onto other "fans" and their interaction with athletes. But there really is a certain otherworldly standard to which fans and media hold athletes that I've always found laughable. Each time I hear someone ask, "Why do athletes rape women?" or "Why do athletes go to strip clubs?" I'm tempted to remind them that it is men who rape women, and it is men who frequent strip clubs.

Finally, on the subject that brings us here -- steroids -- I hear people complaining, not because of the health risks involved, but because of some bulls--- "morals issue." There's a cry to abolish steroids, not because Barry Bonds could increase his risk of heart failure or liver damage, but because some believe the records in their beloved games are being tarnished. Your words notwithstanding, Eric, I still believe that.