Frozen Fandom: The Royals, America’s Pastime, and Being a Casual Fan

I’ll be the first to admit I’m not a baseball guy, and haven’t been one for years. I ran away from America’s pastime to the greener pastures of basketball, football, and sometimes tennis roughly 10 years ago, before nominally returning last fall. There were two reasons behind this.

  1. To me, watching baseball is slow and painful. People complain about soccer being boring because of low scoring, but at least the ball is almost always in an attacking mode. You get great footwork, intricate passing, and rocket-speed shots. Baseball, meanwhile, is simply a man on a small hill throwing to a man directly in front of him at high speeds, while another man uses a wooden stick to try to hit the ball. The most frustrating part is, and this is the real issue I have with the sport, 75% of the time the hitter fails. There’s nothing exciting about fly balls, grounders, and strikeouts. They just display ineffectiveness by the most exciting of the 3 relevant players. Bryce Harper, who according to FanGraphs is the leagues leading batter, whiffs an astounding 23.3% of the time. Almost a quarter of his at bats he swings and misses to no avail, or worse, lets the ball go right by without making an attempt at it. Yes baseball is a game with tremendous skill, yadda yadda yadda, but that doesn’t mean watching on TV was ever anything more exciting than a dental cleaning. At least cleanings are minty fresh.
  2. I’m from Kansas City.
    In terms of long term sports misery Kansas City might as well be Cleveland Jr. We lost our basketball team to Sacramento, of all places, and the city hadn’t seen a playoff win since 1994. Chiefs Vs. Oilers. The Houston Oilers. We have the 2nd longest championship drought in sports (I’m not counting Milwaukee, they’re all Packers fans) at 29 years, which, coincidentally, was also the time between Royals playoff appearances. 1985-2014 is the second longest playoff drought in the history of baseball. So becoming a Royals fan amidst a long streak of losing, riddled with 100-loss seasons, was not an easy task.

It was almost surprising then, in the waning hours of September 2014, when I sat on a couch, eyes closed, listening to one of the greatest and most improbable comebacks in MLB history. I had walked away to do a problem set when the Royals were down 7-3, and by the time I returned, we were down 2 with runners in scoring position in the bottom of the 8th. I immediately left the room, knowing full well my casual fandom was a jinx upon the house that George built. Less than an hour later, I was sitting outside the room showing the game, listening through the door and watching an ESPN game cast for signs of life. When Salvy Perez hit his walkoff bloopy grounder, I was overjoyed. My lukewarm not-quite-love for the Royals had blossomed. I was enamored by the high-speed, contact hitting team that would fuel the biggest sports camaraderie since I had lived in Kansas City. After all, that is “what speed do”.

Dyson Gif

“But you’re not even a Royals fan!” my friend Wheeler angrily exclaimed, as Kansas City completed a sweep of his beloved Orioles. I protested that I went to a few games a year, and kept tabs on our record (usually hovering around a middling 70-93). Was I not allowed to be deeply entrenched in the Royals run? After all, I had suffered through 13 years of bad baseball just like the rest of my high school classmates. Surely, the fact that they were going to the playoff games while I was watching on my laptop in Durham, NC was not my fault? I had seen my fair share of Royals losses up close and personal. Why, just that summer, in my brief 3 weeks in KC, I had seen two brutal losses from the nosebleeds at the K. Okay, maybe before the playoffs I could name like 6 Royals players. And maybe I hadn’t followed a team closely since the star outfielder was named David Dejesus. But I was still a Kansas Citian with Royals apparel in my closet! Was it right for me to be so slandered for my “casual fandom”? After all, I certainly was not alone. Thousands from around the country began to bask in the glow of this fun-loving Royals team. That a Kansas City bred kid was as well was surely among the smaller offenses.

This glorious, roller coaster of a month, which you can re-read about here and here, left me thinking less about the Royals and more about casual fanhood. In sports, it seems like one of the biggest insults you can throw out, other than “Raiders Fan”, is “bandwagoner”.

In terms of long term sports misery Kansas City might as well be Cleveland Jr.

It’s an all or nothing culture, which is, I guess, understandable from the point of view of a diehard. How can you be allowed to gloat in the success of my team, the group of athletes I watch every game and read about every week, if you don’t suffer through the heartache? Just because you check our record every couple of weeks, does that give you the right? Well, to me, it’s not really about that. Maybe it’s because I support teams that are either universally reviled (Duke; whoever LeBron happens to be playing for) or considered irrelevant (the Chiefs, the Royals, Sporting KC). Casual fandom still involves being a fan, and I’m happy to celebrate (or commiserate) with anyone that wants to. Intense fans for small teams like the Royals are a family, and we, the locals, the sometimes watchers, the casual fans – we are the uncles, aunts, and cousins that you celebrate with at weddings and reunions and huge parties. And the 2014 Royals playoff run? That was a celebration like no other.

When the Madison Bumgarner ripped the Royals hearts out from their chests like Mola Ram in the Temple of Doom, I was upset. Not distraught, but upset. The ability to bask in the championship glow, whether from my 1st team or my 5th, was something I had never experienced (unless you count a Sporting KC MLS Cup in 2013, which nobody ever does). My friends tried to comfort me the only way college kids know how to, with substances that destroy your body. Had this been the Chiefs, I might have gone out and binged for the next 3 days. But seeing as how it was the hapless Royals, I calmly reflected on how lucky I was to even have a shot to root for my baseball team (however casually) after August. Hell, the way the last decade had been, I was happy to have been relevant in July!

The best thing about this type of fandom is that it’s easy to intensify. You always have it in your freezer, ready to defrost, microwave, and enjoy. Imagine never-ending frozen chicken. With sports, you never really have to re-freeze your loyalty. This season, I’ve been watching with rapt attention as the Royals sped to the best start in team history, and after tonight’s win, the best record in baseball. I stream games to my laptop in Singapore, listen to podcasts, and search MLB Power Rankings for more info about my team. It’s as if I’ve rediscovered what I loved from 2003-2005, when I was a star (okay, league average) second basemen for the Parkville Seadogs. And if we go on another deep run, and, fingers crossed, win a Championship? I’ll welcome a new bulk of people emerging from their self-imposed fan-hibernation. I did the same thing last month, when my beloved Duke Blue Devils won the NCAA Championship.

Duke Champioship Scene As I looked around at the thousands of people watching with me in Cameron Indoor,I knew that maybe half of them, hell, maybe not even half the people I came to watch with, had watched every game and read as much as I had. But when we were making our rally, when I put my arms around my best friends and watched Grayson Allen come out of obscurity to lead the most lovable Duke team ever to a win over the Buzzcuts, I hugged every person on campus. Winning is winning and fandom is fandom. No matter how casual the compatriot, fandom is hollow if you’re the only one. When the Red Sox won the Series my freshman year of college, all the Boston kids, who barely knew each other just 2 months into school, ran around the East Campus Quad together, yelling and hollering and generally being obnoxious Boston sports fans. As much as I hated them, I was jealous of the camaraderie that they had. Not many kids from KC go to Duke, and even fewer of them follow sports. So come one, come all. Chiefs, Royals, Blue Devils, Sporting KC, #TeamAndyMurray, the Saint Louis Blues, even 2011 Cricket World Cup Champions Team India – all of “my teams” are open to new members.  Eventually one of them is going to win a championship. Just hope your fandom is heated up and ready to eat when they do.

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