Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

March 26, 2010

The Voice of Baseball Fans

Former Village Voice sports reporter Emma Span chose the wrong season to follow New York's bumbling baseball teams. So instead she turned her book inwards, on the life of a fan.

Nick Matros

When Emma Span—lifelong Yankees fan, former used-book salesperson, and Yale graduate—left her job writing copy for a website of straight-to-video films to become the sports reporter for the Village Voice, she crossed over from the world of the mere fan to that of professional sportswriter. Somewhere along the way, she successfully pitched a book for which she would follow New York's two Major League Baseball teams for a season hopefully destined to end with another Subway Series.

Emma Span
"People don't associate the Voice with regular sports coverage too much. It made me more of an outsider."

Emma Span

But she had the bad luck of choosing to cover the 2007 season, now infamous among New Yorkers, which ended in an embarrassing, epic collapse for the blue and orange, and in a seemingly biblical insect swarm for the pinstripes. Fortunately for us, this led Span to completely rethink her book as a collection of personal-narrative essays. 90% of the Game Is Half Mental: And Other Tales from the Edge of Baseball Fandom lets us live the dream of the intelligent baseball fan suddenly given the keys to the clubhouse… well, the proverbial keys, anyway. After all, Span was writing for the Village Voice, whose back page is devoted to personal ads thanking St. Jude, or searching for that guy who held the subway door open, or soliciting healthy cocaine users for research—and not to the likes of Jeter, A-Rod, Wright, and Beltran.

Gelf had a chance to talk with Span about her brief stint with the Voice, her new book, and general theories on fandom. The following interview was conducted via telephone and edited for clarity.

Gelf Magazine: The focus of the book is clearly in getting to the bottom of fandom. You start with a quote from Roger Angell's Five Seasons, referring to finding an answer to the non-fan's scorn of professional sports as "patently contrived and commercially exploitive." It speaks to the heart of your book, and it was written in 1977. The truth of that statement is amplified tenfold in the wake of free agency and steroids. How do we defend ourselves?

Emma Span: Well, baseball is one of those games where people always look back and say, "It used to be different, it used to be better, there used to be a Golden Age, and now it's getting worse." But I think people always have been saying that. Five years after baseball was invented, people were complaining about how it used to be better. I don't know how much it has changed—obviously now it is bigger, and there is more money in the game, and in some ways it is a little harder to defend. But basically, I don't think it was ever perfect, or that there was ever an ideal time. It still provides us much the same things as it always did: an escape, an outlet, a way to bond with people—you know: entertainment.

Gelf Magazine: If anything, if he's already saying that in 1977, before steroids and various other scandals, is that maybe testament to steroids being one more problem to add to the list of the things we choose to ignore when we talk about our love of baseball?

Emma Span: I don't think we need to ignore it. But just like with segregation, or exploitation of players before free agency, or things like the Black Sox scandal, there was never really a completely pure time in the game.

Gelf Magazine: Your book seems really to be about using your experiences as a reporter as a lens into the nature of fandom, and to a much lesser extent about being a "female reporter" or a "female fan." I wonder, though—was being a Village Voice reporter more of an issue, in terms of earning respect, than being a female?

Emma Span: That's a good question. To a certain extent, probably, yes—because there definitely are female beat reporters who are out there every day and it has become pretty normal. I think I had a different experience because I hadn't really done it before, and because people don't associate the Voice with regular sports coverage too much. It made me more of an outsider.

Gelf Magazine: Does your approach to the writing change when you're writing for such a non-conventional sports audience like the readers of the Voice?

Emma Span: There was always a balance. You didn't want to assume that people knew exactly who everyone was, but also you didn't want to stop and explain too much, either. For people who are baseball fans, you don't want to have to stop and say who Carlos Delgado is, but you also don't want to lose people who may not be regular sports fans. If you're writing for a sports blog, you obviously can assume that people know significantly more.

Gelf Magazine: When Gelf interviewed the authors of It Takes More Than Balls: The Savvy Girls' Guide to Understanding and Enjoying Baseball, which you reference in your book with a pretty strong knee-jerk reaction which I'd love to hear more about, they discuss some polemics over the pink hat and its role in the game. Do you have any strong feelings on the issue?

Emma Span: I don't, really. If people want to wear a pink hat to the ballgame, that's fine. I wouldn't do it, because I wouldn't want to separate myself like that. If you wear a pink Red Sox hat, it's kind of like saying, "I'm not a Red Sox fan. I'm a female Red Sox fan." I don't think you should really feel the need to make that distinction, but if people want to, then why not? People should be able to wear whatever color hat they choose. Did you actually read that book, can I ask?

Gelf Magazine: I didn't. Carl Bialik did. One of the things that stood out for him, though, was how much he learned from reading it, and I believe he had some questions on the marketing because he felt a male readership could have enjoyed it just as much.

Emma Span: I still haven't read the book, so my problem isn't at all with the writing, which could very well be fantastic. I just didn't like the way it was marketed, with the approach of, "Hey, girls! Are you trying to understand how complicated baseball is?"

Gelf Magazine: Was there some kind of implication about being afraid of math?

Emma Span: I mean, the writers of the book probably didn't have anything to do with the copy on the back of it, or on Amazon, or wherever I got that from. I think it was something along the lines of, "How can we talk about all these crazy complicated numbers?" or something equally condescending.
Note: The phrase from the back cover Emma most likely is referring to is "explaining exactly how to figure out those complicated score cards."

Gelf Magazine: Much more than specifically a female audience, your book clearly is geared towards the thinking baseball fan, and that dynamic between the "nerds" in high school who may have been tormented by the jocks whom they are later going to go on to romanticize when they're on the field. Did you have to resist any similar kind of "female themes" in the marketing?

Emma Span: My editors totally got it. They're both female baseball fans, and they weren't trying to push it in that direction. Occasionally, though, there would be something, not from them necessarily. Like, there had been some talk about the back cover saying "diamonds are a girl's best friend, but for Emma Span the diamond is 90 feet on each side." I was like, "No, no, no, no."
I think also one of the covers they came up with was, like, a baseball with lipstick on it, but that didn't even get to me, because my editors were just like, "Yeah, no."
The book is really about being a fan, and the gender stuff just isn't as different as people make it out to be.

Gelf Magazine: What makes the story interesting is not so much that you're a girl, but that you're the girl from the used-book store, and not so much that you went to Yale, but that you're so into cinema and the humanities, and you search for a reply to friends from that world who have that same old sneering question of, "Why do you waste your time with all this baseball nonsense?" How do you maintain those friendships, and what do you say to those questions and those artsy friends?

Emma Span: At this point, my friends are all pretty OK with me being into baseball. I mean, they're not snobs about it, even if they do think it's kind of silly. They're not judgmental about it. A lot of things we do are silly, though. There's not really a super-practical reason to watch movies or go to the opera. We get something out of it. Obviously it's a different kind of culture, but at a base level, I think they're all just different kinds of entertainment.

Gelf Magazine: And if you approach baseball with a certain sensibility, it can become like the opera, or like a movie…

Emma Span: There are more fat, drunk, guys screaming at a baseball game than you'd find at an opera.

Gelf Magazine: How did the conception of the book change from the original idea of following the Mets and Yankees?

Emma Span: It's been a long process. The original plan was to write about the 2007 season, covering the Mets and Yankees, back then it seemed like it could be a Subway Series year. Then a couple of things happened:
(A) I got fired from The Voice, so I was still watching, but not with that insider's perspective;
(B) The Mets had an epic collapse of historical proportions; and
(C) The Yankees lost in the playoffs because a swarm of gnats attacked Joba Chamberlain.
Afterwards my editors were like, "You know, New York fans probably aren't going to want to relive this season any time soon." We had to start over again after that.

Gelf Magazine: The book still maintains an admittedly New York-centric nature. What might a Boston fan say to this book?

Emma Span: I certainly hope that any baseball fan will be able to find something to relate to, or to be interested in. All that stuff about those first moments as a sportswriter and going to the clubhouse for the first time—I think fans will be interested in that. That said, I am especially fascinated by New York baseball because it's so insane here. The media for the Mets and the Yankees add a whole other aspect to the game. I think Boston has this, too, but for most other baseball teams, the players have a handful of reporters who follow them on the road. The Yankees have, like, a whole city.

Gelf Magazine: I wonder if even New Yorkers understand that it's not like this elsewhere. You talk about your experience in Milwaukee in the book. What was the reaction of the fans you spoke to there when you talked about how things work back home?

Emma Span: I think people know how things are in New York, but they don't quite get it until they come here. Players always talk about being shocked when they come here. For example, recently Chan Ho Park strained his gluteus and was surrounded by a massive swarm of reporters asking about it, and he was like, "Really? This is big news, guys?"

Gelf Magazine: And suddenly all New Yorkers are experts on thyroid conditions.

Emma Span: Right. I mean, every team I'm sure has its crazed fans, and I think blogs have enabled that a little bit, especially if the papers aren't covering their teams in great detail. If you want to follow everything, there will be a website covering your team in great detail. I hope the book does well outside of New York, but also, a ridiculously high percentage of all books sold in the US are sold in New York. That's from my Barnes & Noble training days. So, if you're going to have a limited audience, that's not a bad one to appeal to.

Gelf Magazine: Many of us have our own generalizations about Yankees fans and Mets fans. You mention that your father accused you at a young age of having an inner Mets fan inside you, even though you grew up a Yankees fan. What are these most predominant generalizations, and how true do you find them to be? Are there a lot of Mets fans trapped in Yankees fans' bodies, and vice versa?

Emma Span: For the most part, those generalizations are a myth. With millions of Yankees fans and millions of Mets fans, they obviously aren't all the same. That said, I think people do take on certain influences. It's easier for Yankees fans to be a little arrogant because they've had so much success. The team itself also has a kind of pompous arrogance about its history: the greatest sports franchise ever, blah, blah, blah. I think the generalizations, though, are mostly bullshit. I do ask in the book, however, that if you grow up as a kid watching Mariano Rivera as your closer, if that has a slightly different effect on your personality and your outlook on life than if you grew up watching Armando Benitez. I think somehow it might.

Gelf Magazine: I think an interesting litmus test, at least for the nature of the Mets fan, was, who they would choose to cheer for in the Yankees-Phillies World Series last year? What does it say? Who are the Mets fans cheering for the Phillies and who are the Mets fans cheering for the Yankees?

Emma Span: There was a serious debate about it. Mets fans actually got pissed because they couldn't believe that certain people would support the Phillies or that certain people would support the Yankees. Obviously they weren't really supporting either team, but when you watch the World Series, it's always more fun to have one team you're rooting for. I think a slight majority—and this is based just on personal observation—but I saw a slight majority pulling for the Phillies. You know, because Mets fans live amongst Yankees fans and deal with them constantly, and the depth of anger against the Yankees is really pretty serious—obviously with the understanding that it's just a game and most Mets fans have at least one Yankees fan in the family, but still there's a serious anger there.

Gelf Magazine: Do you still consider yourself a Yankees fan after being forced into professionalism and objectivity? There's a fantastic moment in the book where you just can't bring yourself to don Yankees attire when returning to the stadium.

Emma Span: I'm still not wearing the shirts to the stadium, but I still consider myself a Yankees fan, since I'm not covering any team on a regular basis. If I did do that again, I'd just put it aside. It's funny. You don't really have to make that much of an effort. It just sort of happens. I'm a little more detached than I used to be. I don't buy the merchandise or anything, but I still am a Yankees fan. I still have my Paul O'Neill shirts, of course.

Gelf Magazine: Did you go to the parade?

Emma Span: I did not go to the parade. I thought about it, but when I woke up and heard on the radio how crowded it already was, I said, screw it, and went back to sleep.

Gelf Magazine: You get to mix the genre of sportswriting with that of creative nonfiction, or memoir. How did this, combined with your background in film studies, affect your voice?

Emma Span: I do tend to see baseball as an entertainment more than a sport, almost. Even though I like all of the stats and strategy, and I'm very much into that, it's not the primary way that I see the game. I tend to see it as a story. I was certainly trying to be funny. I always feel like people will forgive a lot if you make them laugh. Also, my way of coping with all this stuff—awkwardness in the locker room, getting fired, etc.—was trying to find the humor in it. That's the advantage to coming to it from a non-traditional sportswriting perspective. Sportswriting tends to have a certain formula that's often followed.
As far as calling it a memoir is concerned, it was always going to be in first person, but it wasn't always supposed to be about me. It was always going to be about the Mets and the Yankees. My editors kept pushing me to make it more personal, and I told them, "You know, I'm really not comfortable writing a memoir. I'm 28 years old and I haven't really done anything." So, they said, "What if we don't call it a memoir? What if we call it a personal narrative?" So, OK, I guess that's better. I don't think of it as a memoir, though, even if it is more personal than what I originally set out to write.

Gelf Magazine: If you haven't already written a screenplay based on your experiences, would you consider calling it The Devil Wears Pinstripes? [Editor's note: It's taken.]

Emma Span: I will definitely consider it. Originally, I was planning to be a screenwriter, but I haven't done anything like that in years. I don't think this book would necessarily work. You'd have to invent some storyline. If anyone bought the film rights I'm sure they'd have the reporter character fall in love with a player and it would be just awful. I would love to write a baseball movie—just not this one.

Nick Matros

Nick Matros is a writer, Italian teacher, and high-school chess coach.

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- Sports
- posted on Apr 06, 10

Man, everybody hatin' on Albom. You obviously haven't read his Peruvian translation, Fridays with Federico.

Article by Nick Matros

Nick Matros is a writer, Italian teacher, and high-school chess coach.

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