Category Archives: baseball

Means vs Ends

Part 1: Autograph Hunting

Donell NixonDarren Lewiscaldwell

Between the ages of 10 and 16, I was an avid collector of baseball autographs. Since I was a kid without money, this meant I was actually getting the autographs from the players: doing my homework to know who might be where, being adequately prepared with the correct baseball card,* always carrying a spare ball,** learning how to recognize players without relying on the uniform, drumming up the courage to approach and ask them.

*I was good at this. Whether it was having a Mike Sadek card handy for the free Giants’ clinic at the local park, a Mario Mendoza card for when the minor league team he was managing came through San José, or a Mike Caldwell card for when his Campbell Fighting Camels got assigned to the Stanford Regional.

**Important. I obviously specialized in the more obscure players. But having a ball in case I had an opportunity for a genuine star allowed me to not waste a ton of money on pipe dreams. Buying a Billy Williams, Vida Blue, or Gaylord Perry baseball card was not something I could afford as a just-in-case purchase.

When I was 10, autograph hunting was all about the thrill of just getting anyone to sign. But that quickly changed. I was lucky enough to get to stay at the Giants’ hotel in Philadelphia when they were also staying there for a series against the Phillies. On my first day there, I tentatively approached Donell Nixon and got him to sign a card for me. He did. I was thrilled.  By the next day, I knew what I was doing and had become fixated on the reward. And on “completing” the set. Which meant that I was getting more and more upset each time I didn’t “get” a player.

I got a good talking to from my mom that day about greed and appreciating what I had versus fixating on what I didn’t.

Still, autograph hunting was about the thing—getting that signature and having something to show that I saw or met the player. If I didn’t get the signature, the experience never happened. It wasn’t until I started going to baseball card shows that I started to realize there was more to it.

As I got older, I became able to buy autographs—both already-signed items and paid appearances at card shows. Both felt wrong to me. Already-signed items were troublesome because there was no experience there. Something I’d acquired myself just felt more important even if the player wasn’t. I knew how much I’d worked to get the autographs and I started to value the experience and effort I put into it.

At first my objections to the already-signed items was a sense that buying the finished item was cheating. But the card shows showed me there was more to it. Paying for autographs at the card show also felt a little like cheating—though getting to the show and waiting in line were pretty similar to the travel and wait aspects of the rest of my hunting. But it was also just a lousy experience. After all the wait, you’d hand your item to a guy at a desk, he’d sign it, and give it back to you. All without looking up.

My first card-show autograph was Darren Lewis. I remember nothing about it other than the fact that it cost me $5. I remember less about the rest of my card show autographs. Except for Troy Neel.

When I got his autograph, rather than the usual baseball card, I brought a Tacoma Tigers program which had him on the cover. Since the show was in the Bay Area, he wasn’t expecting anyone to have this and he got a bit excited when he saw it. It was a nice change of pace and drilled home for me how much I valued the interaction and experience as much as the final product.

When I look back on my autograph hunting days or flip through my collection of autographed cards, it’s often the experiences and stories which I treasure. I love talking about meeting Will Clark and how he hated signing for non-Giants fans. I love telling the story about failing to get Willie Mays’s signature because the crowd jostled him and he stopped signing halfway through his name so some poor guy out there has a ball which just says “Willie.” I love the story of Todd Benzinger’s daughter asking from inside the car, “What is daddy dooning?” while he signed for everyone. I loved waiting for Bob Brenly outside the press elevator at Candlestick with our “Bach, Beethoven, Bob Brenly” tshirts.* I loved the Stanford Baseball Alumni game which used to signal the beginning of summer in January. I loved getting Mike Caldwell’s signature while his players crowded around to get a look at his baseball card.

*My mom made them. And sent him one. We were fans of him from his Giants days even though he was a Cubs announcer at the time. Yes I also got Steve Stone’s autograph.

Part 2: Photography

out of herechacho
When I started out in photography, I found it easy to become obsessed with the final product and frustrated when that product never matched what I saw in my mind. In many ways seeing something that should make a good photo but being unable to put it all together is still the most difficult experience I have when photographing. There’s always some detail I missed or something I’d prefer to have done differently or something which I saw originally just goes  missing.

Similarly, I’ve missed more photos than I can count because I couldn’t pull the trigger in time. This isn’t just about bad timing. I’ve found myself so caught up in watching what’s going on that I won’t even have my camera out and ready to take the photo.

This was especially common when I was birding. I could easily just watch a bird hunt for fish or fly by without ever bringing my camera to my eye. Even though I was out,with a camera, specifically to take photos. Some of this could be excused as watching and getting a sense of behavior so I could take better photos later. But most of it was just getting caught up in the act of seeing.

With my family, it’s the same thing. I’ll see moments and instances which I wish I could capture, but I’m just not able to do so. And this is despite me looking out for moments I consider to be more interesting.

I’m not complaining though. I’ve long since arrived at the conclusion that as much as I enjoy taking a good photo, it’s the everything else which encompasses photography which I actually enjoy. Photography for me has become going for a walk or drive* and just having my eye turned on and my brain assessing what works and what doesn’t. It’s an exercise in active seeing and the resulting images are my feedback.

*Or train ride.

I also like to try things without knowing what the results will be. Sometimes this is gimmicky, but the willingness to cede control adds a lot of the fun back into the result. I can play around and then the result becomes a “what happened this time?” surprise rather than a “did it work out?” disappointment.

Do I get a nice high from making a particularly good image or taking a photo which matches my conception of what it should look like? Absolutely. But it’s the looking and seeing and noticing and playing which makes me continue to shoot. And it’s the process of seeing and playing which I remember when I look through my images.

Part 3: Memory

Chris Ware. All Together NowSometimes, I’ve noticed with horror that the memories I have of things like my daughter’s birthday parties or the trips we’ve taken together are actually memories of the photographs I took, not of the events themselves, and together, the two somehow become ever more worn and overwrought, like lines gone over too many times in a drawing.

Chris Ware

photos

My earliest memories are from when I was two years old. One of them is of my sister being born. The other is of my uncle’s wedding. In both cases, my memories have nothing to do with the actual events.

With my sister, my memories concern the construction around the hospital which we drove through on the way to visit. I have explicit memories of looking through the window of the car at all the diggers and bulldozers. My parents have confirmed over the years, repeatedly, that these memories are related to my sister’s birth.

With my uncle, my memory is holding onto my dad’s neck as he took me through the hotel swimming pool. What a pool it was. It wound around the hotel, went under walkways, and had a restaurant in the middle of it. Years later, my parents recognized my description of the pool as belonging to the hotel where the wedding was. I’d have had no idea otherwise.

There’s no way I would have been able to hold on to those memories without having something specific to pin them to. The result is not really my memory of the event anymore. Instead it’s my memory of being told what my memory was of that I remember and which anchors the earlier fragment in my mind.

This anchoring of my memory with something specific is how photography works for me. And it’s how autograph hunting worked back before I stated photography.* The activity helps me focus on certain experiences and the resulting objects serve to remind me of the experience. Do the objects and memories kind of blend together? Absolutely. That’s pretty much the point.

*Also, baseball-wise, why I keep score at baseball games. It’s not about reliving the game afterwards, it’s to help me focus during the event.

Which is why I’ve been amused about the recent hoopla about the Taking Photos Hurts Memory study. It’s pretty clear in the abstract that the only kind of photography which hurts memory is rote documentation without thought. Focused, observational photography improves it. As it should. You’re engaged in seeing and looking for specific details that make you think. Of course your memory will improve.

Part 4: Means vs Ends

Snow DayCoast Starlight

The way to understand photography as it happens on social platforms is not to compare it to traditional photography, which is about creating an art object, but instead as a communicating of experience itself. It’s less making media and more sharing eyes; your view, your experience in the now. The atomizing of the ephemeral flow of lived reality into transmittable objects is the ends of the traditional photograph, but merely the means of the social snap.

Nathan Jurgenson

I’ve never really understood Snapchat. Well, I get it. In the sense that we experience our lives through the viewfinder, it makes sense that we’ll communicate more visually as a result. I just never imagined that I would be communicating this way. It’s just not how I see the world. I forget the viewfinder half the time.

Then my mother-in-law got a smartphone.

For the past couple months now, there’s been what’s effectively an MMS chatroom consisting of my wife’s family plus me and my concuñado.* Lots of text. Lots of photos. We’re all just talking to each other and keeping up to date as a family.

*Is there an English word for my sister-in-law’s husband (aka my wife’s brother-in-law)? If not, why not?

I’m finding that most of my messages are photo-based. Without comment. Send them out and they become part of the conversation. Not something to discuss. Nothing final. Just a statement the same as texting “just landed” or “it’s snowing!” I’m even taking and sending selfies* now.

*E.g. on Halloween.

Now I understand what Nathan Jurgenson is talking about. And I understand the appeal and use case for Snapchat.

What’s both interesting and confusing here is that photographs can be both the means and the ends of communication. Traditionally, photos are presented as the end product. In Snapchat, or in my family MMS chatroom, they’re the means. At the same time, some of the photos I send eventually become blogposts and things which I consider to be somewhat final. They stop being conversation and instead a record of the event. Same photo, different framing.

Which is why Jurgenson’s focus on framing is so correct. The same image can be presented in multiple ways and as a result, suggest vastly different uses. I tend to view the framing as a Donald Norman style affordance. If I’m in an app which is conversation-based,* I will use images as conversation. If I’m in an app which is post-based,** the images become posts to comment on.***

*I use MMS, private Tumblrs, and IRC for this kind of communication.

**Facebook, Tumblr, and Flickr in my case.

***Twitter is kind of a grey area here. It’s a bit conversational. But it’s also very post-based. And I’m realizing that my usage is all over the map. All of which is probably why I like Twitter the most.

I’ve referenced McLuhan before here when talking about how the context in which I encounter a photograph changes the way I react to it. I should have realized a lot sooner that the same dynamic is at play with how use my own photos.

For someone like me who has a tendency to remember or enjoy the process more than the end result, it’s especially exciting to realize how my process can actually be my end product. I’ve been structuring posts around tweets for a while, but this is something else.

My twitter-based posts are typically straight archives of conversations on twitter which I use as a jumping off point for something else. Twitter makes me think about things and want to respond in more than 140 characters. So I blog.

When I take photos which I’ve been messaging to my family and turn them into blogposts, I’m not presenting an archive but am instead drawing on my experience while shooting and presenting what I feel represents that experience best. I’m not responding to the previous conversation, instead I’m incorporating it into the larger experience.

That I use my process as my end product, and that I value my process so much, also explains why I’m not likely to ever get into Snapchat itself. I’m a bit of a hoarder in the digital realm the same way I am in the physical one. I like all the bits of ephemera—and memories which are anchored to them. I like being able to roll back the chat archives and see what we’ve talked about in the past.* And I know that even in what seems to be an ephemeral medium, that it’s completely possible to record messages.

*As much as I enjoy IRC, this is my main problem with it too. I do however save my AIM chat logs.

Heck, if anything, now that I’ve realized how conversational photos are part of the way I react to and think about my experiences, I want to be able to go back and see what I was thinking even more than I did before.

Insomnia

I dreamt about Candlestick last night.

Not the games.
But the long cold hikes to and from The Stick.

Mostly from.

Over the bridge
Through the tunnel
Fighting the crowds

Mooooo

Past the pretzel guy
Into the neighborhoods where I was always surprised to find the locals were also Giants fans.

But also to.

When I was younger and we parked in the lots.
And passed the tailgaters
And entered through Gate A with the escalator and wound our way clockwise to the 3rd base side where we used to sit before we started buying tickets behind the plate.

The games never featured.

Instead it was the anticipation
The energy
The leaving the everyday world to go to a ball game.

And then the rough return back through the cold night
Peeling off the tundra kit and driving back home
Eating Cheetos.

The Stick

Croix de Candlestick

While Candlestick Park hasn’t hosted a baseball game since 1999, that it’s going to be shuttered/imploded after this 49ers season has me reminiscing about all my childhood memories from there. I never attended a 49ers game. But I  attended Giants games from 1986 through 1999 and had season tickets from 1988 through 1994 (the baseball strike that year killed my habit).

My mom and I spent many summer afternoons, and quite a few summer evenings, at The Stick. Keeping score. Talking. Trying to stay warm. Going through our ritual of only eating in odd-numbered innings. Eating Cheetos on the drive home. I started off as a kid making sure to hit all the giveaway days which had things I wanted. I went through an autograph collecting phase where I forced my mom to get there early so I could hang out by the dugout* and hopefully snag a signature or two.** Eventually though the point was to settle into our upper deck seats, watch batting practice, get the lineups, and just pay attention to the ballgame.

*I always went to the visitors dugout. The few years I was really into autographs, we were also going to Spring Training. By the time the regular season had rolled around, I already had all the Giants’ autographs.

**The highlight was Billy Williams. I also remember getting Ron Gant and Moises Alou.

In many ways it’s not the specific memories which I treasure but rather the entire experience. In 1986 when I went to my first game—a 16-inning marathon—I was 8 years old. I attended the last night game with some college friends. I pretty much grew up there, marking time with the baseball seasons and the baseball teams. Was the place a dump where I froze my ass off despite bringing the tundra kit* to every game? Absolutely. Were those nights when the fog rolled in over the stadium rim and soaked my scorecard to the point where I could no longer write on it miserable? Pretty much. Did I love being there despite all that? To the point where I have no idea where I’d rather have been. Following baseball and rooting for the Giants was part of who I was. Of course I’d rather have been there than anywhere else.

*Sweatpants over shorts. Sweatshirt and Jacket. Gloves. Hot chocolate.

A large part of my mentality about sports formed in the upper deck* of Candlestick. It was often lonely up there. I remember crowds of 12,000 at some games—and that was paid attendance in a 62,000 capacity stadium. My mom and I would be the only ones up there besides the occasional vendor. We’d arrive before the first pitch and stay until the last out. Every time. Anything less was cheating. We’d go regardless of how well the team was playing and always root for them to win. I learned to appreciate good baseball and the fundamentals. Being so high forced me to look at the entire field and pay attention to everyone’s positioning.

*Upper Reserve Section 1, Row 8, Seats 1 and 2. Section 1 is right above the plate. Anything below Row 8 was obstructed by people walking along the aisles. Our seats were right on the stairs.

I saw fairweather fans come and go—both with the Giants’ fortunes and the actual weather. I became proud to be a diehard. I learned to appreciate winning but not to expect it. I learned how to discern true fans of the opposing team from trolls looking for a fight. And how to apply those same lessons to fellow Giants fans. I learned to appreciate the sport for what it is and take it seriously at a personal level. I didn’t grow up with religion, I grew up with baseball. I agree with Annie Savoy.

As beautiful as Pac Bell—or whatever it’s called now— is, part of me died when the Giants stopped playing at Candlestick. The timing was good since I was moving from being a college student to becoming an adult. But it was still me losing a major part of my youth. I always held out hope that there’d be one last turn-back-the-clock game at The Stick just to fuck with the Dodgers. Now that flicker is gone too.

In terms of specific memories. I’ll never forget my first game and being thrown into the deep end of how a baseball game can keep going forever. The sense of both hope and fear that each night game could result in a Croix. Dave Dravecky coming back from cancerRiding out the Loma Prieta Earthquake. Scott Garrelts losing his no hitter with 2 outs in the 9th. The last game of the 1992 season when we all believed that the team was moving to St. Petersburg. The first game of the 1993 season full of renewed life and joy. The two-game series versus LA in 1997 where we leapfrogged them in the division race.*

*While the Brian Johnson game is justly remembered. The previous game was an equally exciting pitching duel.

I loved watching Will Clark play and Rick Reuschel hit. Matt Williams, despite becoming a slugger and gold-glove third baseman, will always be the shortstop who swings at the first pitch and pops up. I miss Bob Brenly’s postgame radio show. I miss Rod Beck and closers who could throw double play balls. I still expect to see trash blowing around in circles in the outfield and third basemen to chase pop-ups to first-base foul territory. The sound of a fog horn means “play ball” to me. And I’d love to see Tommy Lasorda make the long walk from the right field corner to the visitors dugout again, the stadium full of boos while he blows kisses to the crowd.

So long Candlestick. You were the best home-field advantage any sports team could hope to have. I’m wearing my hat covered in Croixes today in remembrance.

Head vs Heart

Fans, have absolutely no right to have any say in the terms and conditions of players.

—Marvin Miller

When Marvin Miller died in late November, I was prompted to begin a blogpost about my attempts to be a rational sports fan. Sports, and sports fandom, is inherently irrational. We root for laundry and hate any reminders that players are mercenaries. At the same time, it’s becoming increasingly obvious how important market forces are to the sports landscape and smart fans have to be aware of their team’s budget situation when it comes to maintaining the roster as well as the needs of the players.

We tend to forget—and hate being reminded—that the players are people and playing sports is their job.Instead, we hold them to unreasonable standards based on what we want. When it comes to my expectations from players, it takes my best efforts to balance my heart with my head.

Whenever a player approaches the end of his contract things always get weird. If the player is important to the team, things get really weird. If the player is approaching retirement, things get extremely weird.

Is the player still invested in the team if he doesn’t have a new contract?* Is the team going to overpay him to stay?** Is he holding the for ransom?*** Is the reason I want him to stay more sentimental than reasonable?****

*Yes. As long as he’s not flying all over to negotiate.

**Overpay in this case refers to what portion of the team’s income is being spent on this player. This is not a reflection of what the player could get on the open market. If a team overpays a player, it means that it’s allocated too large a portion of its resources to that player.

***Essentially trying to be overpaid.

****Especially players approaching retirement.

I’ve been sitting on this post though because I haven’t felt much like finishing it. Thanks to Victor Valdés, I feel like I have to. The reactions to his announcement that he doesn’t intend to renew his contract have baffled me and provide a perfect case study for the kind of irrational behavior fans fall into.

Victor has given notice that he doesn’t intend to sign another contract for Barcelona once his current one expires in 2014. The reactions from a number of Barça fans has been to treat this as a betrayal which hurts the team and indicates that he should be sold today.

I don’t get it.

The only way announcing his plans early hurts the team is that it supposedly means other teams can try and extract higher transfer fees since they know we have to buy a keeper. And that assumes that there aren’t multiple keepers who we’re going after.

Oh, and it also means that we lose out on any transfer fee when we sell him. If we sell him. And if there’s only one team interested in him (or one location where he wants to go).

I’m going to categorically dismiss any claims that he’s unsettling the team or no longer committed. He is a professional. He’ll do his job as long as he’s under contract.

The Valdés situation is an example of how irrational and impossible the situation is for players. Fans want him to stay. Anything else is unacceptable. If he’s decided to leave, is he supposed to lie for the next year and a half?* Is he supposed to string the team along and not tell them what the plan is?** Is having a discussion about “Is he or isn’t he?” every press conference somehow less disruptive?***

* I can understand the outrage if fans feel like they’ve been lied to. That sucks indeed. But in to kill someone for telling the truth? 

**As if that wouldn’t unsettle the team. Uncertainty is always more unsettling than certainty.

***Also much more likely to unsettle players is having to be reminded of things which aren’t related to the games they’re playing.

I applaud him for telling the truth and not making trying to extort the team for too much money. And I thank him for making it perfectly clear what situation any new keeper Barça signs is going to be entering.

I also don’t begrudge him, or any other player, seeking the biggest possible payday. Though I tend to believe that the largest paydays are often indications that an organization isn’t run well and so, should be treated with some suspicion. Likewise, I don’t blame any player for refusing to renegotiate his contract down in order to make up for a club’s stupid business decision.

The flip side of this is that I find myself becoming somewhat cold blooded when it comes to aging players. Aging players are typically overpaid in that their skills are in decline and they can’t be expected to maintain, let alone increase, their levels for future seasons. It makes no sense to pay them as much or sign them to long-term deals. Yet they’re typically the ones which get the largest, and longest-term deals.

If an aging player also happens to be a fixture/icon of the team? Look out. Heartbreak dead ahead. It’s true with baseball and it’s true with any other sport. There is an age at which everyone is expected to get worse. What do we do with those players? Do we sell an icon of the team a year early? Do we keep him a year too long and let him embarrass himself? Is the break up amicable? Are we paying him too much? Could he get one last big payday somewhere else? Lots of questions. No good answers.

I tend to fall into the sell early and give him an option for one last big payday somewhere else camp. Yes, this means that I would be willing to sell Xavi or Puyol right now. But that’s my head talking. My heart will root for the team no matter what.

Winning

It’s been a couple weeks now since the Giants won the World Series and I’ve been thinking about the difference in my reaction to the Giants’ continued success than  the way I react to Spain’s or Barcelona’s.* With the Giants, I’m still in the afterglow of the 2010 victory and treating 2012 as a bonus. With Spain and Barça, I find myself wanting continued success and being disappointed in any hiccups.

*Since my last post, I’ve watched Spain win Euro2012 and the Giants win the World Series.

I’m tempted to chalk these differences up to a baseball vs soccer thing but they’re not. I enjoy both sports as much for the down time as the exciting moments. Soccer is perhaps a bit more passionate but not enough to really explain the way I feel.

A large part of this is the expectations game. I still don’t expect the Giants to win. Every year I hope for the best and expect the worst. But Spain and Barça begin each competition as THE favorite now where the expectation is winning. I won’t reach the point where I start rooting against them because of the expectation. But I can admit that while the past six years have been extraordinarily special, they have taken some of the shine off winning.

Another part is the nature of the teams themselves. Baseball teams have a lot of turnover now. The Giants are no exception. There are only a few important players on this year’s team who were also important in 2010. While I root for laundry, the connection to the players is still important. And continuity is key here. The Giants are in the position to start a great thing. We’ll see how long Posey, Cain, and company can maintain the core of the team and forge a connection with the fanbase.

This hasn’t been Barça or Spain’s problem. The core of those teams has been constant for longer than they’ve had success. And it’s my connection with those players which drives a lot of my desire for continued success. I want to see them do well and I dislike it when they play poorly. As a result, I find myself caring a lot more about their games.

It could also be that it’s the amount of my life I’ve invested in each team. I’ve invested twice as much time in the Giants as I have in Barça. And while Barça was always good, the Giants have been all over the map. Maybe the longer you watch a team not win a championship corresponds to a longer afterglow when that win finally arrives.

House money

I’ve been a San Francisco Giants fan for over twenty five years. In many ways, I was incredibly lucky to start following the team when they finally became decent again after over a decade in the wilderness. At the same time, I instead got to grow up with a team which managed to break my heart frequently.

1987—Still hurts. And I still dislike St. Louis because of it.
1989—Never had a chance but a special year nonetheless.
1993—Who knew that a 100-win season could hurt like that?
1997—A hell of a ride in the regular season. And a hell of a let down in the playoffs.
2000—Nothing like rallying in the 9th to tie a game only to lose it later.
2002—Game 6. Six outs away. Closest I ever expected to get.
2003—A blur. Still reeling from 2002.

By the time 2010 came around, I had pretty much given up on ever seeing the Giants win the World Series. I watched that post season hoping for the best while expecting the worst. I was ecstatic when we finally won and experienced a sense of relief/satisfaction at seeing something that I could honestly say I had been waiting my entire life to see.

I went out and spoiled myself with a jersey.* I had always wanted one as a kid and had semi-seriously filed it away as something I’ll get when we win the World Series. Those things are expensive.

*There is an interesting series of posts ranting on that experience. If you don’t make it past part one, at least keep in mind that it all ends well and that I don’t harbor any resentment against the official MLB online shop. 

The best outcome from 2010 though is that it was sort of a rebirth in my fandom. I had started to check out after 2002 due to a number of factors* and it took the 2010 team to pull me back in and remind me of how much I used to care. While I’m still much more of a casual fan than I used to be, I’m much more up-to-date with the team than I’ve been for the last decade.

*Family, job, and the interminable Barry Bonds circus where the only news worth reporting on Giants games was how Barry did. For a few years, the headline/lede for every Giants game was only about Bonds and often didn’t mention who won.

Which takes me to this season. It’s a novel experience for me to be rooting and caring for a team while also feeling somewhat zen about whether or not they actually win. I’m still coasting on the high from 2010 and know that nothing will replace that feeling of seeing something I never expected to see. I’ve seen the Giants win it all. I’ve been pulled back into baseball. The reminder in the pit of my stomach that it ain’t over ’til it’s over is still there but it’s no longer an impending sense of doom.

As a result, I’ve been able to truly enjoy this year a lot more than I ever expected to and the World Series victory was true surprise. It’s extremely fun to win something when you haven’t invested anything. 2010 was after an investment of 2o+ years. 2012 was still the bonus round.

Nostalgia Again

I’m done with the Olympics. Not tired. Done. It’s not just that I’ve stopped really caring, it’s that I’m now questioning the entire reality of sports as a result of the Olympics. I’m hoping that this is just a function of how my views on sports have changed as I’ve aged.*

*And that watching sports with my sons will rekindle some of my former feelings. I’ve covered this before but I’ve been pushed even further down this path now.

I fear however that it’s sports which have changed to the point where I barely recognize them anymore.* And that the world has changed to the point where the old approach is no longer sustainable.

*In some ways, best summarized by the baseball card market and how it imploded on itself by forgetting the point of the product.

We know too much now and something as innocent* as sports is anachronistic when it doesn’t evolve.** Yet it’s no longer recognizable when it does.

*Ideally.

**E.G. The Masters. The fact that it hasn’t evolved is what makes it both great and horrible. It’s a remnant of the past and a reminder of how sports used to be covered.

This isn’t just the evolution of sports into becoming more and more like business. It’s the erosion of our sense of idealism.

In the past, it was possible to watch the Olympics each night with family, talk about it the next morning with friends, and experience the events as an introduction to semi-obscure sports and to the rest of the world. The competitors were amateurs and the competition was intended to be a celebration.

Tape delay didn’t matter. Nor did the relentless focus on American athletes. And the event was unquestionably the most important event of the sport.

Now? It’s a stunt more than anything else. These athletes see and compete against each other all the time.* Any surprises are because of people peaking at the  right time rather than a lack of knowledge about a country. The events are never show live so there is no sense of community with the rest of the world.** Results are known in advance.*** And, in many cases, the competition truly isn’t the most important event for the sport anymore.

*One of the nice things about the World Cup is that it represents a reorganization of the existing professional teams in a way which is still taken seriously. This reorganization of teams isn’t possible with individual sports.

**Watching Twitter, or even Facebook, while a live event occurs is a fantastic way of being plugged into the pulse of the event.

***It’s been this way for a dozen years now. Impossible to stay away from “spoilers” and, really, why would you?

If it’s not broadcast live, it’s no longer a sport.

The Olympics is now a sports-like product which encourages all the things which are ruining sports.

It’s not just fanaticism, it’s nationalism. This tales the irrationality to an extreme. Not only does a rational point of view become potentially “not a real fan,” it’s now unpatriotic to criticize your team. Oh, and you can’t choose your team at all now.

The packaging of individual stars as products. While this is annoying in sports which I care about, it’s even worse with sports which no one cares about. Especially when a medal favorite “fails” despite the hype. Winning is hard and should never be taken for granted yet the Olympics coverage is all about expecting wins.

Advertising and commercial sponsorship. Good lord. At least the Super Bowl ads are funny. These ones are all trading off of stars or patriotism. And they all reflect corporate buy-in in a way which tends to exclude any local businesses from being involved in the games. Every Olympics is the same old sponsors. Why are there never any local companies involved?

The extortion of public money for private benefit. This one galls me the most. Private owners of sports clubs expect the general public to fund stadiums and other infrastructure. For baseball (80 games a year) this makes some sense. For football (8 weekends a year) it does not. For the Olympics (2 weeks. Period.) it really does not. Especially since all the commercial sponsorship money does not make it back to the funders of the infrastructure.*

*The Bay Area 2012 Olympics proposal involved already-existing stadiums and just upgrading the infrastructure. It never made the cut because it was “too cheap.”

The amateur-professional issue. The Olympics, correctly, does not treat athletes as amateurs anymore. This, however, screws anyone still in college since the NCAA still clings to an unworkable definition of amateur. And it points out both the problems and issues we have with rationalizing the professional world with our ideals of what sporting competition should be.

As someone who roots for comeuppance, the only lingering hope I have for the Olympics is that they’ll blown themselves up in their own hype. While I’ll only get to see it on tape delay, the good news is that I’ll know to tune in ahead of time.

Sports Photography

With all my thinking about functional photography, I couldn’t help but think about sports photography and whether or not it could ever be art. Sports photography, almost more than any other form of photography, is tied to specific events and is tied down by the requirement that it be true. We look to photographs to settle on-field controversies and stop motion so that we can see the detail of the action.

There’s a reason why the only sports photographs I’ve ever seen in an art museum are large-scale Gursky prints which, while they show action, aren’t about the action on the field.

EM Arena, Amsterdam I, by Andreas Gursky

While I wouldn’t call Gursky’s soccer shots functional, they do demonstrate my previous conclusion about how functional photography has to lose enough details so we can fill in our own. It doesn’t matter what game the photo is of,* as a fan’s-eye view, we can fill in our own experiences.

*Though I do remember studying and identifying the players—yes, the big bald Dutch center back is Jaap Stam.

Besides the Gursky photos, I can’t think of any sports action photo which would be considered art. Heck, even non-action non-portrait is tough. Nat Fein’s Babe Bows Out which won the 1949 Pulitzer is close since it requires almost no supporting text or context for most Americans to understand and, while not technically* a portrait, it’s pretty close to being one.

*For many people, portraits are strictly posed photos of people’s faces. These people have never seen Avedon’s portrait of Andy Warhol.

Now, I have seen plenty of artsy* sports photos. I tend to notice them more during the Olympics where photographers of the more obscure events often end up favoring more graphic compositions or exposure experiments** which don’t tell a story but serve more as examples of what makes these other sports interesting. I’m not sure why I haven’t seen these kind of photos become art yet. Maybe it’s because the sports are so obscure that most of us can’t fill in the missing details. Or maybe it’s just bias against functional photography.

*Artsy in this case meaning that the photo is taken for aesthetic reasons and not to tell a story. 

**Longer exposures, deliberate over/under exposure, or anything else which is technically wrong for sports.

As with government documents, I suspect that the correct edit could result in a fantastic exhibition of sports photography as art where, instead of reading stories about specific events, we experience a different trip through the athletic world.

Nostalgia

I’ve lived through an interesting period of time when it comes to sports and how we cover and perceive them. I’ve tended to consider most of my changing perceptions on sport to be related to my own maturation. A twelve-year-old kid will think about sports very differently than a 30-year-old adult. But there’s more going on as I’m finding that I’m not the only one with these feelings.

For example, I’m finding international competition to be increasingly meaningless. The Olympics, for starters, is now endless, prepackaged, tape-delayed coverage. So much so that I find myself just not caring about the events anymore. Plus, since all the athletes are professionals in constant competition against each other anyway, I no longer understand what makes the Olympic games unique.

At least with team sports, international competition is still appealing. Reorganizing teams every couple years for a summer tournament provides a nice change of pace and different way to see things. While the quality of play may not be as good as the best professional teams are capable of,* because many fans still pick their rooting interests based on where their compatriots play, it’s nice to have them all on the same team every once in a while.

*though the massive overlap between Spain and Barcelona comes pretty close.

It’s not clear how long international competition will remain appealing. The world is getting smaller and it’s increasingly likely that people will migrate toward following club sports—or at least the international superstar players—instead of international teams. I’m not ready to throw in the towel regarding all international competition* but I do agree with the concept that there is something inherently nostalgic about it. And that it’s sort of the last bastion of the concept of pure amateur sport.

*If you subscribe to The Classical, there’s a great post on this.

Which is what scares me. Once we start trying to preserve a sense of what sport should be, or used to be, we run the risk of screwing it up the way we’ve screwed up college sports. It’s not enough to say “be careful of what you wish for” since we also have to think about how to maintain that wish. Holding on to concepts like “amateur” long after it’s stopped describing anyone is not useful. “International” is soon to be the same type of term. Players won’t always play for their passports. Many don’t already. And it’s increasingly obvious that many of the best players are not playing for the best national teams (right now).

We know too much now. We know all the dirty laundry behind the scenes. We talk to the players on Twitter. They talk to us. We know everything is for sale. Sports is global. The audience is global. It’s no longer about how my local team is doing—assuming I even follow my local team…

But there’s hope. Look at a lot of what Major League Baseball’s doing for example. Retro is in. As it should be. Classic uniforms. Classic ballparks. After a couple decades of multipurpose doughnut stadiums and attempts to modernize the look, Baseball has realized that it’s really about embracing the past.* For Americans, Baseball is about nostalgia. Heck, it’s a game which is still best experienced on the radio.

*I wish it would go further and roll back interleague play, the wild card, and the DH but I doubt that will ever happen now.

International sports should take a page from the same book. Embrace the past and find ways of evoking it. Become unabashedly retro and make us remember what we liked about it all when we were kids.

The ease of being a local

When people ask me whether I’m a Warriors fan, I tend to shrug and say “when they let me.” With the 49ers over the past dozen years, my answer has been “it’s been tough.”* I haven’t followed the Giants with any real passion for almost a decade.** I half keep an eye on the Sharks. I don’t follow Stanford as much as I used to. And I don’t follow the Earthquakes at all.***

*Easier recently.

**Stupid Barry Bonds coverage was so bad that Giants news stories were only concerned with how Bonds did and rarely mentioned anything else about the team.

***I probably would care more if their jersey sponsor was anyone but Amway.

Yet if asked about most of these teams, I will self-identify as a fan. I’ll always have a general sense how they’re doing. And who the key players are. And I’m familiar with the team history and legacy in the area. I’ve had decades to soak all this up so it’s part of who I am. When things pick up and the Warriors make an improbable playoff run or the Giants actually win the World Series, it doesn’t take much to get me back into die-hard mode.

Especially with the Giants since I knew everything about them for about 10 years of my life.

It’s all very easy compared to how hard I worked to become a Barça fan. I couldn’t keep in touch with how things were going by paying attention to the local news or office chitchat. I had to read game reports in Spanish and research the history of the team the best I could. I took what I learned in design classes and art history classes and became interested in Barcelona the city. I don’t claim to be a local but I’ve had to steep myself in many things Catalán.

It’s a lot of work but it’s what makes me a fan.

And it puts into perspective how easy it is to be a local. When the Giants won the World Series, I was thrilled. But I also felt like celebrating it was sort of cheating. I’m used to being either the hardcore Barça fan who follows everything because he has to, or the hardcore Giants fan I used to be when I was 16. I don’t have to be either of those now.

As a result, despite it meaning more to me when the Giants won the Series than anytime Barça has won anything, I felt that I was somehow bandwagoning onto my own team. That there were other fans who had committed more and deserved to celebrate more. And I was just a local who had sort of coasted along. Just because it’s easy to follow the team doesn’t make me less of a fan. But it should make me realize how lucky I am that it can be that easy.