The San Francisco Giants and the Selflessness of Fandom

It's not identity that makes the World Series team so special to me. It's love for others.

Kyle Terada/USA TODAY Sports/Reuters

Hampton Stevens wrote here at The Atlantic yesterday as to why his Kansas City Royals are now America’s favorite team. Well, that’s a challenge to any fan of my San Francisco Giants, who earned the right last night to meet Stevens’s Royals in the upcoming World Series.

Stevens’s case rests in part on the idea that KC plays baseball the way it once was and ought to be— “small ball”—instead of reliance on home runs. The Royals scrape together runs through infield hits, strategic bunts, and capitalizing on opponents’ mistakes. Of course, the same can be said of the Giants, who scored two runs in their sixth inning comeback in Game Four of the League Championship series without hitting the ball out of the infield. For lovers of strategy, scrapping, and old-fashioned small ball, this World Series will be a delight.

The Royals’ appeal also rests on their comeback story: After three decades in the wilderness, this once-proud baseball power is back on top. But the Giants have a powerful comeback narrative, too—one they relive on an almost daily basis. It started with the team’s incredible run to the world championship two years ago, when the Giants faced elimination five times, but stormed back to win three straight against both the Cincinnati Reds and St. Louis Cardinals and then sweep the mighty Detroit Tigers in the World Series. This year, the Giants added to this streak to set a playoff record for most consecutive wins. And they’ve done so by coming from behind in almost every single game this post-season. I’ll match the Giants streak-for-streak and comeback-for-comeback against the Royals, any time.

The Royals’ larger comeback narrative is the return to greatness of a fallen dynasty. Together, in Stevens’s telling, it all adds up to a morality tale of faith, hope, and ultimate redemption. Since this is now the Giants’ third trip to the big show in five seasons, it’s becoming normal to think of them as a perennial power once again. But the Giants’ resurrection is still of recent advent—and, like all great stories of devotion, it too involves a heavy dose of suffering.

Mine was inherited. My father, who was born in 1904 in Upper Manhattan, became a New York Giants fan at a very young age—early enough to have gotten Christy Mathewson’s autograph, to cling to the notion that the Chicago Cubs (not the Brooklyn Dodgers) were the Giants’ real rivals, and to root for the National League in the World Series even if represented by the hated Cubs (fortunately, an infrequent occurrence) because the Americans were simply “the new league.” My dad retained all these prejudices throughout his long life and passed them on to me, along with a disdain for designated hitters and today’s playoff system (which didn’t keep me from rooting for the wild-card Giants). From as young an age as I can remember, my childhood dream was to be able to go to see the Giants play in a World Series game with my father.

Unfortunately, I was born relatively late in my dad’s life, and at a time when the Giants’ storied franchise fell into relative decline. I was too young to be cognizant of the team’s 1962 World Series appearance, when Willie McCovey’s seventh-game, ninth-inning, two-out line drive to Bobby Richardson came within an inch of winning it all. Instead, I waited patiently for the Giants’ next trip to the Series as my father aged. And aged. And aged.

Finally, in 1987, they came within one game of making it. But the St. Louis Cardinals—always the last hurdle—were there to stop them. I figured it was the last hurrah for me and my father, and so I wrote a short story about it that wound up running in Newsweek early in the 1988 season, the week after dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Much to my surprise, the Giants’ owners invited us to come attend a series of games with them at Candlestick Park. The Commissioner of Baseball—at that time, Peter Ueberroth—invited us to attend the next World Series in which the Giants appeared, as his guests. (He then resigned as Commissioner the next day.) And I received letters from fans all over the country eager to share their own stories of connection to baseball through their fathers. The following year—1989—the Giants did in fact get to the Series, the Commissioner’s Office honored Ueberroth’s offer (despite the fact that two Commissioners had come and gone in that time), and my childhood dream came true. I can still remember walking into the ballpark with my dad for Game One and, even more, the transcendent feeling as I fell asleep on the red-eye flight home after that weekend: I had attained something that I never thought I would, that would never be taken away from me, and that, frankly, I had nothing to do with bringing about. It was, in essence, a religious experience.

So I certainly recognized Stevens’s depiction of the Royals’ journey in terms of faith, hope and redemption. But I think he gets one thing wrong: He writes, “Ultimately, sports fandom is all about self-identification. So many of us love teams and athletes because we see ourselves in their stories.” I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this since that plane flight back from the Bay Area 25 years ago—about the emotion and energy that so many otherwise sane people invest in sports teams, players and entities to which they have no real personal connection, like, say, a meaningful two-way friendship—and I don’t think Stevens’s formulation is quite right. I think the power of a fan’s connection to his or her team comes not from self-identification but rather from our attachment to others.

Devotion to one’s team is (despite Stevens’s portrayal of Royals players handing out T-shirts and paying for fans’ drinks) largely a one-way street: We give our heroes all we have. All we get back is, basically, their success, not ours. For the fan, it’s a selfless, self-sacrificing relationship. In short, it’s about love.

And, usually, it springs precisely from some even deeper love—in my case, like many other people, for my father. To others, for their city, or for some other nostalgic association resonating, in Abraham Lincoln’s words, with “the mystic chords of memory.” When I sat in PacBell Park four years ago and watched the Giants winning their first World Series championship of my lifetime—when I looked around the stadium so reminiscent of the ancient Polo Grounds—I felt the presence of my father in a way that I had longed for since he passed away many years before. It was one of the most special feelings of my life.

All fans have some similar story or, frankly, they wouldn’t be fans. It’s not just about the beauty of the game, the smell of a leather glove, the glory of a summer afternoon. There are deeper phenomena at work. They may be faith, or hope, as Stevens posits. But the greatest of these, of course, is love.