The scourge of toxic sports fandom

I have relapsed into negative baseball fandom recently. You may have sensed it in my writing – especially in this apoplectic column urging the stale Yankees to finally embrace change. A few days later, I typed a scathing screed on the team’s ugly jersey sleeve sponsorship, using words like ‘sacrilege’ and ‘blasphemy’ to decry the sullied pinstripes. Thankfully, I regained my composure before publishing that diatribe, but the ease with which I slipped back into despondency was eye-opening. 

Baseball is supposed to be fun, not torture, and I was living that before this latest setback, eschewing toxic fandom – increasingly the default mode of fandom – to explore novel concepts of fluidity and secularism. Nevertheless, it is alarming how a child’s game played by grown men in pyjamas can skyrocket my blood pressure. On the whole, I do not have the energy to harbour such sporting cynicism, but containing that raw emotion is easier said than done.

Clearly, the Yankees have infuriated me of late, largely because franchise figureheads take for granted those who make them uber-rich: the fans. When the wealthiest sports team in the world announces a uniform advertising deal worth more than $200 million over nine years, then hints at cutting payroll to get under the highest luxury tax threshold, the rage of diehard fans is understandable. Their passion enriches the Yankees – via ticket sales and merchandise hauls – only for a small cabal of knowing mercenaries to profit.

Ultimately, though, no amount of bitching will force a Bronx revolution. We are shouting into the abyss because Hal Steinbrenner, the Yankees’ owner, cares little for the individual fan. Wilful ignorance is baked into the Yankees’ modus operandi, and if the turnstiles keep clicking, nothing will ever change. The Yankees are a corporate entity with an agreed managerial ethos. Besides a financially-focused boycott, no amount of public pressure will change their tired approach.

As such, if intransigence does not eat them up, why should it eat you up? Why rage over things you cannot control? We all need to vent occasionally, but the Yankees do not listen, so why waste your breath? Sports team owners suck. They will always suck. Acknowledge that and move on with your day. Fan within those parameters, and feel the weight drop from your shoulders. Yes, you care about the Yankees, but there must be context to that fervour. There must be balance to that investment.

From Super Bowl riots and football hooliganism to social media pile-ons and talk radio takedowns, toxic fandom is an outgrowth of extreme, unchecked passion. It is a double-edged sword in many ways. When things are going well, it can be exhilarating to play or root for the Yankees, Red Sox or Phillies. But when things are going bad? Well, buckle up, because the knives will be sharpened and sentiment will fly out the window. You are going to hear about your performance in those pressure cooker markets, and the more passionate the fanbase, the more likely a subset will cross the line of acceptable critique.

Sports talk radio and podcasts are a particularly potent vector of such untethered tribalism. It has never been easier to voice an opinion – good or bad, fair or foul – about sports, and an expanded commentariat has created a race to the bottom, with self-proclaimed experts competing to deliver the day’s most outlandish hot takes.

One example hit me hard recently – a  June 15 edition of The Baseball Hour with Tony Massarotti on 95.8 The Sports Hub in Boston. I’m a long-term listener, and I generally like Massarotti. However, on this occasion, I was sickened by his scathing criticism of Triston Casas, the Red Sox’ divisive first baseman, who eloquently explained his thought process during a defensive error, only to be disparaged as ‘cocky,’ ‘un-coachable’ and ‘delusional’ live on air.

“He is not getting the message through his thick skull,” said Massarotti of Casas. That Casas possesses more athletic ability in his little finger (painted whatever colour he likes) than Massarotti could ever compute, was not acknowledged. In truth, Massarotti could not hit a 70-mph batting practice fastball, yet he sits in front of a microphone and rips the hell out of an absurdly talented big league ballplayer. There is only one delusional figure in that equation, and it is not the 23-year-old rookie with a 123 OPS+ in Major League Baseball. I deleted my podcast app after hearing the disgusting attack, saddened by the state of modern sports rhetoric.

Nobody who reaches MLB sucks. Merely getting to that level is a phenomenal achievement – a rare rip in the failure-time continuum that governs baseball. Most media criticism is thus a manifestation of barely repressed jealousy. These guys wanted to be professional ballplayers. They wanted to play first base for the Red Sox. They peaked in Little League, though, and had to settle for talking about the game instead. Have some respect. Have some perspective. Triston Casas will be a very good big league ballplayer for a very long time. So what if his preparation techniques are unconventional? So what if his personality is a little unorthodox? Let the kid be himself, because that is what got him to a place most of us can only dream of reaching.

Baseball is hard. Hitting a round object travelling 100-mph, propelled from a distance of sixty feet and six inches, may be the most difficult task in sports. At the London Series in June, I attempted to pitch in one of the interactive exhibits at Trafalgar Square – and I was terrible. Utterly terrible. I had no idea where the ball was going. How, therefore, can I seriously criticise a veteran professional pitcher (who has put in all that effort and travelled all those miles just to make the majors) who misses the strike zone by mere inches with a wicked slider? I cannot. That would be hypocritical.

Moreover, there is a mental and physical toll to baseball that is rarely acknowledged. Each game lasts almost three hours, and there are close to 200 games – including exhibitions and playoffs – from March through October. Add in relentless travel, perpetual time zone fluctuations and countless hours spent standing around – and, well, I do not envy these guys. Playing in a big league game would be incredible, and ballplayer salaries ease the jagged shards of jetlag, but the daily baseball grind is far from exclusive glamour. There is much more to this game than readily meets the eye, and we should remember that before lambasting its finest exponents. 

The metronomic rhythm of baseball also undermines our proclivity to share absolutist opinions about its fate. Baseball is an unsolvable game that has defied mastery for 200 years. Even the worst MLB teams win 50 games per year, and even the best lose 50 contests each season. Baseball will humble anybody, including arrogant columnists and antsy talk radio hosts, yet still we jump to absurd conclusions based on tiny sample sizes. Still we are swayed by one loss in a marathon season. Still we call for everyone to be fired, only to look silly when our favourite team reels off a 10-game win streak. We simply never learn that baseball is an untameable beast.

I understand sports talk radio has to be provocative. That is the business model: get people to listen, keep them listening, and monetise their attention through ads. Stations have plenty of time to fill, and outrage keeps listeners engaged – in agreement or rebuttal. As such, to justify and keep their jobs, sports talk radio hosts must spark outrage – often by spouting outrageous opinions they do not truly believe. Nevertheless, to analyse baseball in such a reactionary vacuum is to take a myopic view of a long-term sport. Those who explode over one series lack perspective, so maybe we should stop listening to their opinions altogether.

Indeed, just as dieters lament empty calories – daily allowances wasted on chips and chocolate – sports fans should be wary of empty content – the sensationalist kind delivered by people who do not understand how tough baseball really is. Baseball is my introverted personal treasure. I do not necessarily want self-proclaimed experts spewing vitriol into my ears. I want to hear nuanced analysis from thoughtful experts who know what it takes to grind through a major league season. 

Accordingly, following the Massarotti-Casas debacle, I took a two-week break from listening to sports talk, and my enjoyment of the actual games improved noticeably. I formed my own opinions while watching, rather than podcast earworms dictating my views. I gained a newfound appreciation for certain players, managers and executives, seeing their work in a new light. When I eventually reloaded the podcast app, however, few of the episodes echoed my perspective. They were doom-laden and fatalistic, demanding wholesale changes, and my innocent fandom was shattered anew by toxic groupthink.

Take Gleyber Torres, for instance. Yankees fans and content creators have long campaigned for him to be traded, but he is the team’s most consistent player – a .264 career hitter good for 20 homers and 20 doubles each season at second base. Sure, Torres may not have lived up to his inordinate prospect hype, but he is really good at baseball. Gleyber does everything on the field slightly above average, and he is a cost-controlled asset most general managers would love to have. Yet Yankees fans want to abandon Torres after every singular strikeout or solitary error. It is sad how such dystopian narratives form, despite debunking evidence presenting itself daily.

Torres is not alone, though. There are myriad examples of Yankees fans collectively deciding to move on from struggling players who could really use their support. Consider Aaron Hicks, for example. He did not meet expectations in pinstripes, but he was a decent guy. I watched him honour every single autograph request at the London Series in 2019, and he was great with the fans. He did not deserve to be booed incessantly, regardless of the large contract or unrealistic demands placed on him by Yankees management. I felt sorry for the guy, in all honesty. He deserved better.

Similarly, I rue the way Joey Gallo was treated in New York. Okay, he hit .159 and struck out 194 times in 140 games as a Yankee, but that does not justify the merciless abuse that ran him out of town. A two-time All-Star with lefthanded thump that produced back-to-back 40-homer seasons, Gallo was the prototypical Yankee. Joining the team aged 28, he could have established himself as a beloved Bronx Bomber. Instead, he was driven into hiding – quite literally – by poisonous fan backlash to his chronic underperformance.

“I really grew up a Yankee fan, and all I wanted to do was play for the Yankees,” Gallo recently told the New York Post in a sombre expose. “I’ll probably never have a chance to play for the Yankees again. That was my opportunity, and now I’m known as the guy who fucking sucked for the Yankees. That part is tough, and I have to live with that for the rest of my career and the rest of my life.”

That Gallo is an anxious introvert who suffers from facial tic disorder barely entered the equation. Professional athletes have mental health, too, but we often overlook that in favour of wins. Gallo did not want to fail. Neither did Josh Donaldson, nor Andrew Benintendi, nor Sonny Gray. They tried their best and it did not work out. That should not preclude them from living safe and happy lives away from the ballpark.

To that end, you rarely see Yankees personnel smile, and when they do, it is more out of relief than genuine happiness. Those pinstripes are heavy, and there is a dense joylessness to the biblical pursuit of Yankee exceptionalism. George Steinbrenner apologised for losing the 1981 World Series. Mickey Mantle cried at his locker after losing the 1960 Fall Classic. Billy Martin wept every time he was fired. Even today, manager Aaron Boone looks ashen-faced in the dugout, clenching his jaw while awaiting the next firestorm. Meanwhile, Yankees players are still not allowed to grow beards! The fishbowl they inhabit is an incubator of stress. 

For a long time, I embraced that pressure because it distinguished the Yankees as an organisation committed to winning. It is an injured DiMaggio taking himself out of a big game to protect the team. It is Mantle excelling despite crumbling knees. It is Jeter diving into the stands to catch a foul popup in July. Pressure makes diamonds, but it can also burst pipes, and I now wonder if the heavy burden of Yankee expectancy contributes to their existential malaise. Maybe the Yankees take things too seriously. It is difficult to excel when everybody is so uptight.

“I have long thought we collectively demand far too much from baseball players,” writes Stacey May Fowles in Baseball Life Advice. “We demand their time via the media, autograph sessions and scheduled public appearances. We demand their sole focus always be on winning, regardless of what is happening in their lives. (Birth of a child? Sick relative? Who cares?) For some reason, we think that because we spend our leisure time on baseball, those on the field owe us something more than a game played.

“We act like players deserve a higher level of abuse – and a lower level of dignity – just because they get paid a lot of money to do something they love. Not many people think about the fact that it probably doesn’t feel very good for a player, who is likely already disappointed in himself, to stand in a stadium and be booed at, just as not many people think of elite athletes as actual human beings. We ask for their best performance every single game, despite the fact that, logically, that’s impossible. Booing represents a belief that, because we paid some money for a ticket and a beer, we’re allowed to scold someone who is slumping. Perhaps even more important, booing suggests they don’t deserve our support when they’re facing difficulty.”

Fowles raises a salient point about the essence and responsibilities of fandom. Maybe ‘fans’ have an ingrained propensity to push boundaries and have their passion overflow to extremes. Rather than ‘fans,’ then, maybe we should aim to be ‘supporters,’ ‘boosters’ or ‘connoisseurs’ – more mature, well-rounded and optimistic observers. Perhaps we should back our guys through feast and famine, choosing compassion over cruelty and prioritising happiness over hysteria. Perhaps we should stop yelling at people who fail in a game built on failure.

This is a delicate balancing act, of course, because being overly supportive and unflinchingly optimistic leaves sports consumers ripe for exploitation – by teams, executives and marketers seeking to capitalise on guaranteed recurring interest in products regardless of their quality. We are seeing this with the Yankees right now, as Steinbrenner and his cronies seem impervious to criticism and complacent to fan frustration. That is why fluid fandom is such an alluring concept to me. It protects the naïve fan from the cunning capitalism of a deceitful elite.

Sometimes, it just feels cathartic to switch on a ballgame of less teeth-gnashing consequence – a mellow Mariners-Athletics affair, say, or a midweek scrimmage between the Brewers and Reds. There are fanbases that seem to enjoy baseball in a more refreshing philosophical context – viewing it more as a pleasant pastime than a holy war – and it can be liberating to experience such a holistic outlook. Of course, every fanbase has a lunatic fringe, and that will never change, but there seems to be a more relaxed vibe in Cleveland, Arizona and Colorado, say, than in the baseball hotbeds of Boston, Philadelphia and New York. Some will say such nonchalance breeds losers, but maybe that is beside the point. Maybe there is more to sports than winning or losing, and having a good time is the most important concern.

The San Diego Padres are a fascinating example of this paradox. A few years ago, during a swashbuckling ascent, the Padres became everybody’s second favourite team. It was fun to watch Manny Machado and Fernando Tatís Jr. coalesce into a potent tandem. It was cool to see the return of those quirky brown and gold uniforms. It was enjoyable to watch games narrated by Don Orsillo, whose laidback joie de vivre set the tone for a likeable underdog. Then what happened? Freshly ambitious fans implored the Padres to win, things turned sour when they did not, and the zany enthusiasm has slowly dissipated from America’s finest city.

It is still fun to watch Yu Darvish, Juan Soto and Xander Bogaerts in San Diego, but heightened expectations seemingly correlate to diminished enjoyment, and the 2023 Padres have devolved into a frustrating conundrum. Their 51-54 record belies a $250 million payroll, and fans are now agitated by a lack of October baseball, despite a paucity of postseason appearances in franchise history. Jobs may soon be lost among the Padres’ aggressive brain trust, because being the league’s most charismatic ballclub will no longer suffice. Teams must win at all costs nowadays, or face the kneejerk wrath of a bloodthirsty punditariat. 

All of which brings us back to the impending trade deadline, which cajoles the worst from baseball fans. I get it, to a certain extent. I have lived it for many years. We want it all, and we want it now. If our team does not plug every perceivable hole on its roster, with a view to improving down the stretch, we are livid. We write bitter blogs and post expletive-laden vlogs. We transform into armchair GMs, fretting over hypothetical moves. We live in abstract bubbles of fictionalised idealism, then fume when reality hits home.

We forget ballplayers are people, not chess pieces on a board or line items on a spreadsheet. Each player you throw into a haphazard trade rumour has a family, and commitments, and feelings. Consider a guy like Oswaldo Cabrera with the Yankees, who has been demoted thrice this season. In the abstract, that seems perfunctory – send him down if he does not perform. However, in reality, imagine the upheaval caused by each of those roster moves. Would you like to shuttle between Scranton and the Bronx on a monthly basis, your life in constant flux? Probably not. Cut these guys some slack, then. Stop and think about the real life consequences of your fantasy world projections. Think of the human before suggesting they be shot from a cannon outside the stadium.

I appreciate it is difficult – if not impossible – to watch baseball dispassionately, but you pick the emotional prism through which you consume anything. Pick a positive prism. Pick an even-keeled prism. Pick a sustainable prism. Baseball is a soap opera that provides everyday escapism. It is always there for us, but it should be a force for good in our lives, not a strain on our emotional energy.

Remember why you fell in love with baseball. Remember your favourite players as a kid, and how you worshipped them regardless of statistics that poked holes in their legacy. Remember how inconsequential baseball is in the wider scheme of human existence, and that will set you free to enjoy it in fresh and authentic ways. Let out your inner child, because that is what baseball is all about. Stop strangling the joy from this silly, innocent game, and it may just love you back.

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