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Joel Achenbach

The Baseball Wonk

Deconstructing the fan dance

By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, March 6, 2005; Page W11

Baseball is back in Washington, and we're all excited about Opening Day, when the president tosses out the first pitch, Cheney manages the team from an undisclosed dugout, and Rumsfeld serves as the batboy ("Here's your weapon of mass destruction, slugger").

But that day is still a matter of delicious anticipation. Now, the main action is the frenzied competition for the best seats. In Washington, winning isn't everything; good seats are everything. Where you sit is who you are.

(Richard Thompson)

Because this is Washington, the Nationals games will feature special VIP seats in the dugout itself, as well as two super-premium seats in the on-deck circle, and one seat, reserved for a visiting head of state, on the infield between first and second. (Prime Minister Blair has already volunteered to cover the bag at first in a bunting situation.)

Ideally, this politicking and lobbying for seats will evolve into something much nobler: rooting. Rooting is an underappreciated psychological phenomenon. When real, it's as irrational as romantic love, only more likely to endure into your pudgy years. You feel connected to the team as though you're on the roster.

There are sports fans who root so hard for their team that they achieve the ultimate state of rooting, which is the inability to watch the game at all. They just stay home, in the dark, alone, with their eyes closed, not daring to eat or drink or speak or make the slightest sound, lest they somehow jinx the outcome.

The Nationals may need irrational fans because, although the team will be a champion at selling tickets, it may be mediocre at such baseball essentials as hitting, pitching, fielding, spitting and flamboyantly adjusting the protective cup. The technical stuff. The Washington Nationals are basically the Montreal Expos, a team so bad it was forced to play for many years in a foreign country. Attendance in Montreal was so sparse in recent seasons that the players would sometimes sit in the stands to make them look more crowded. When the manager signaled to "the bullpen" for a relief pitcher he often had to point to the upper deck.

As we root for the Nats, we'll also find ourselves rooting against other teams and other players, particularly the ones who are products of advanced chemistry. There are all these players today who insist they've never taken steroids, even though, in some cases, they have an extra pair of arms. It's hard to take someone at his word about steroids when he's signing four autographs simultaneously.

The best player in baseball, Barry Bonds, is on track to break Hank Aaron's record for career home runs, but his implausible comic-book physique makes him rather difficult to root for. He does put on a dramatic spectacle, however. Opposing pitchers are notorious for "pitching around" Bonds, which means that, instead of throwing strikes, they throw the ball in the dirt, way over his head, or 15 feet outside, or refuse to pitch at all. About once a game a careless or reckless pitcher will throw a ball somewhere in the vicinity of the plate, and Bonds will hit it so hard it will literally vanish. Gone. Atomized.

I will spend this season rooting against Bonds and thus, in a sense, for Hank Aaron. Aaron never had a comic-book body. I doubt he even had a trainer. He laced up the spikes every day, had strong, quick wrists, hit for power and average, and over many years consistently excelled. He drove in more runs than anyone in history, and hit 755 balls over the fence, the greatest record in baseball and perhaps in all of sports. He lacked the cocksure swagger of today's chemically juiced players. He stood calmly at the plate, looking almost sleepy.

Although I rarely saw Aaron on TV, and never saw him play in person, the games of the Atlanta Braves were broadcast on the radio when I was growing up in Florida. When Aaron was at bat, I concentrated on the staticky noise of the crowd and the murmur of the announcer, hoping to hear that signature KLOT! of Aaron's bat launching a ball toward the bleacher seats. No one at the time knew how much hate mail Aaron received from people not ready to see a black man break Babe Ruth's record. Some fans, desperate to minimize his accomplishment, talked of Atlanta's thin air, as though Aaron played in the Himalayas.

All I knew was that he was my hero. Rooting does not allow for ambivalence. If you can root, you don't need the fancy season tickets. No matter where I was when I listened to Hank Aaron hit a home run, it was the best seat in the house.

Joel Achenbach is a Washington Post staff writer and regularly hits journalistic fungoes at washingtonpost.com/achenblog.

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