U.S. Intellectual History Blog

All in a Season: Sports, History & Narrative

A friend of mine once described the allure of spectator sports as simply the allure of a story. A baseball season, for example, is a long, richly detailed narrative of triumphs and tragedies, both small and large.[1] As fans watch game after game and track the fortunes of their favorite teams, they are pulled in by plot twists and speculate about probable developments.

And as with any story, the characters are absolutely crucial. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are the kings of their respective kingdoms, so every game between the Patriots and the Broncos is as much a tale of mano a mano as a battle between rival nations. The individual personalities of players, moreover, allow narratives making sense of their peculiarities to build up around them; Jackie Robinson as a pillar of strength and dignity, Pete Rose as a tragic addict, Dennis Rodman as a subversive eccentric.

kansas city fans

Fans of the Kansas City Royals — who were cast in the role of the underdogs — hope for history to repeat itself.

And in turn, often the narratives of teams seem built around the center of gravity colorful personalities provide. Teams, as a whole, are “scrappy” or “seasoned” or full of “bad boys.” Indeed, one threat sabermetrics (or even just old-fashioned management decisions) poses to fans is the disruption of such narratives. For what happens when players who seem to constitute such an important part of the story fans tells themselves about their team get ruthlessly traded or decide to relocate? On a personal note, for example, I’m still coming to terms with imagining a San Francisco Giants team without Pablo Sandoval. How can we be reduced to having only one player nicknamed after a wild animal? It doesn’t seem the same.

But the loss of a player to another team is only one way the story of a sports team can be thrown off track. Every season, there are a million unpredictable contingencies – from injury to personal conflicts – that thwart the storyline any team is pursuing. Of course, then, questions about the relative importance of any given factor abound. How important is ownership or management to steering the ship, or can mega-stars like LeBron James or Clayton Kershaw exert enough agency to bring their teams championships solely through will and skill?

So in all these ways, the hook of sports is weirdly similar to the hook of history – two fields which, as has been much discussed at this blog, have traditionally been undeservedly segregated. In each, commentators bestowed with the status of experts compete to forward their version of the story, and both disciplines have their own internal rules and regulations for assessing and evaluating evidence that are, in turn, themselves constantly being contested. Above all, what is being worked out is a story – how do we account for what happened? Who are the primary characters here, and to whom (or what) do we assign primary or partial responsibility for the result?

Except for two crucial differences. First, a sports season always unfolds in the present, and relatively rather quickly. Sports commentators are constantly incorporating new information into their narratives and predictions – indeed, they might need to rework a story almost as soon as they’ve constructed it. It’s always been amusing to me watching this process unfold in the sports media – before a big game there’s generally a favorite for the win and various arguments are put forward as to why this must be so; and before very big games such teleologically loaded concepts such as destiny are even thrown around to sell the game to spectators by setting up their expectations as extravagantly as possible. If these predictions prove false, the immediate backpedaling and reassessment that occurs can sometimes become comical. The story must be rewritten all over again! It’s fascinating to watch the hopes of the sports media dashed by a less-than-compelling outcome; I am pretty sure, for example, that those responsible for selling the World Series would have preferred the underdog Kansas City Royals to complete their Cinderella story with a victory in the last at-bat in the last inning of the last game of the 2014 postseason. But at least they had the narrative of a dynasty to run with when the Giants won instead.

Historians, on the other hand, rarely have to handle a similar situation. First, huge numbers of us deal with events so far in the past there is no way our work could come to bear on a yet-to-be outcome; indeed we try to unravel cause and effect for nations and societies that no longer even exist. Moreover, we’re usually stuck with a limited amount of evidence – we will likely never get oodles of new data on, say, medieval China. Thus, in a way, many of us are protected by these circumstances from the danger of ever being proved wrong – who is currently regarded as coming the closest to being correct (or, that lovely euphemism we like to use for “true,” the work which is currently regarded as being the most “useful”) is dependent on the consensus of the community rather than results we can confirm.

However, even those of us who work on subjects closer to the present rarely get our feet held to the fire in this manner. It does, of course, occasionally happen – one can most definitely argue that the entire historiography of the Cold War had to be reconsidered in the years and decades following 1989. But even then, sometimes there almost seems to be a suspicion that if what one writes about the past bears immediately on the present, they are in some sense doing something other than history – many a time have I told both fellow historians and non-academics that I work on the 1960s to receive the smiling, only half-serious answer, “oh, so you don’t really do history then, do you?”

And then finally, there is the messiness. Figuring out what happened in history and why is so infinitely harder than figuring out why sports teams win championships. Alas, if knowing why the liberal stage of the civil rights movement was successful but then the radical stage stymied was only so simple as knowing why King James was able to win two back-to-back championships with the Heat but not three. Granted, if it were, we’d all likely be out of a job.

Nonetheless, when I think about why I love history, and why I love sports, it always surprises me how much I find in common: the thrill of a narrative, the attachment to various characters, and the mystery of result – it’s all there. And, being concerned with current events as I am, I suppose there is also something of the gambler in me – the excitement of taking a guess with a prediction that I have a shot of seeing proved wrong or right. By which I only refer, of course, to the question of whether or not the San Francisco Giants will continue to make the rest of the country cry.

[1] The number of games played, of course, impacts the pace and tone of the story of any sports season; in baseball, with over 160 games, there is time for a lot of commentary, speculation, and sub-plots to develop alongside the larger overarching narrative of looking always to October. In football, however, every game is a Big Game, every meeting an entire chapter rather than a little side development. In an entirely unrelated analogy, lately I’ve been listening to Jane Austen’s Emma on tape, and am amazed at how long and detail-rich it is, especially compared to the much more famous and succinct Pride and Prejudice. It amuses me, then, to think of baseball as the Emma of American spectator sports.

8 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Baseball, the Royals, and a great books analogy in the notes? How could I not drop my household activities for a bit and dive into this?!

    Even though we had a conference with “narratives” as the theme a few years ago, in 2011, I spent more time thinking about the idea of narratives in 2014 than any other year. Yes, I did occasionally think about the Royals’ 2014 narrative (i.e. underdog, sabermetric underminers, etc.), but I thought more about narratives in relation to my day-to-day work in student advising: their narratives (i.e. really self-aware?), my narrative as their advisor (i.e. competing or shared?), administrative narratives about the student body (and vice versa), the narrative of healthcare in the U.S. (improving?), and the narrative of my university in relation to larger landscape of higher education.

    In my role as a professor, I discuss historical thinking and narratives with my M4/history of medicine students almost daily. We ponder selection and emphasis, plausibility, causation, complexity, etc. Many times our conversations turn to patient narratives and the limited time my students have (only 10 minutes, sometimes), as aspiring doctors, to construct a medical narrative that will result in proper diagnosis and treatment. We discuss how a patient’s narrative may or may not influence the doctor’s search for the right diagnosis—particularly in relation to ordering tests. The point—my point—is to discuss how much subjectivity and perspective enter into the practice of medicine, which aspires to be scientific and evidence-based.

    Returning to simpler topics, my narrative about the Royals’ season and post-season is less, in the end, about underdoggedness than it was surprise. The team continually surprised me. That narrative withstood the sorry (from my perspective!) events of World Series game 7. The surprise narrative expired after the WS, however. That theme is off the table for 2014. I guess that’s the nature of history, or things becoming historical—that surprise is often off the table. Surprise is reserved for the emerging present and future. – TL

  2. “The point—my point—is to discuss how much subjectivity and perspective enter into the practice of medicine, which aspires to be scientific and evidence-based.”

    Ugh wow, I never thought about this before! Oh man, now I’m going to be thinking about this next time I go to the doctor: make sure you present your narrative Robin as accurately as possible! Sounds like you do interesting and important work.

    It also made me think how perhaps one of the great comforts in sports is that their narratives are generally so much more simple than all these other ones in our lives and in our (history and otherwise) work; all those other narratives you talked about are both hard to figure out and could have really significant outcomes, whereas on the other hand, talking about which team will win it all involves a much easier to assess body of evidence and much higher probability of correct prediction. They are narratives that are comforting in their relative lack of complexity.

    Which might also relate to how Eran has long noted that some of the media’s best analytical thinkers, in terms of knowing how to construct a sound argument based on actual evidence and then explain it to an audience, are sports commentators. But that seems due to a large part because in sports, both what counts as evidence and how to assess it enjoys such a bigger chunk of consensus than any other major topic of public discussion — in politics, you can barely even establish what evidence counts a real evidence. Sports commentators, however, have a limited set of data and an established mode of analyzing it; and, again, their methods are constantly refined by the interest of everyone involved to see their predictions turn out correctly.

    Which is why!, bringing it back to your comment, that surprise does play so well in a sports season I think; because it’s relatively rare! Sports fans love to be caught off guard at the same time they like the predicability of sports; the runs no one sees coming. And yeah, now no more surprise for KC. Will be interesting to see how the pressure of expectations will play out next year. Hmmm so munch to chew on, thanks for sharing 🙂

  3. Love love love this post — and not just for its marvelous treatment of that marvelous team, your. San. Fran. Cisco. Giiiiii-ants!. (Though that’s very nice)

    On narratives and being proven wrong…

    Along with the unbelievable sense of elation when the Giants won the series in 2010 — really, almost simultaneously — I experienced the most profound sense of dislocation and disorientation. I bet I wasn’t alone. I had followed and loved and been fiercely and unshakably loyal to a losing team my whole life. Not just “a” losing team — that losing team. God, nobody but nobody could lose like The San Francisco Giants. Gawd! Their narrative arc was always a losing arc — no matter how much we all hoped and cheered and willed it otherwise. Always. And as wrenching as such storylines have always been, they were at least dishearteningly familiar.

    But what in the world do you do when that story line is broken? It was like the apocalypse, like the eschaton breaking through into the damned drudgery of mortal time — I mean, really, it was marvelous and world-shattering all at the same time. When your whole experience as a fan has been to be loyal to a team that can never manage to win — well, when they finally do win, it’s just so disorienting. At least it was for me. I hardly knew what to think. It was the strangest thing to realize that that shadow hanging over the team and all its generations of fans had finally been banished. It felt so weird. I wondered if there was something amiss with my fandom. But I called my best friend who loves baseball as much as I do and she assured me that, yeah, that’s pretty much how it feels for a while. She ought to know — she’s a lifelong Red Sox fan.

    I’m happy to report that I have since adjusted quite happily to the Giants’ recent dynastic turn. I loved them and cheered for them when all they could do was lose, so I can live with a few more wins. Indeed, I would see them vanquish the Yankees. Repeatedly.

    • Thanks so much for this enthusiastic response, LD! It’s especially interesting for me to hear someone talk about what it was like to see the team win in 2010 — for believe it or not, I did not even watch baseball, let alone root for a particular team, until 2012, when I fell hard and all at once for the game and the Giants in particular. So I’ve had some catching up to do — I’ve watched all the World Series games from 2010, for example — on the history of the Giants, and there’s nothing better than getting a first hand experience of what that very different fan experience was like.

      Indeed, I think much of the time and energy I pour into sports is driven in part by a sense of loss; all those years I could have enjoyed what is now this hugely important pleasure and interest of mine, but I was too stupid, until the summer of 2011, to even sit down and watch an entire baseball game through (which I had never done before)! Amazing to me, all that I missed. So, that means I have to be the most bestest Giants fan ever from now on — even if I end up knowing, like you did, what it is like to be a fan of a team that loses!

      (Also on that weird experience of suddenly having a winning team; can you imagine what the Cubs fans will feel like when they finally win? Assuming they will, of course. Man, *that* will be some major disorientation! They’re going to be walking around in a daze for like, months.)

      • Ah, the enthusiasm of a new convert!

        Yes, I almost brought up the Cubs upthread. Talk about the apocalypse! At least someone in my family had memories of the New York Giants winning the series in their lifetime. Not the same thing exactly, but at least there was living memory of the legacy of victory. But gosh — there’s probably not a Cubs fan alive who has seen that team win the World Series — they would have to be at least 116 years old. Heck, there are fewer and fewer Cubs fans alive whose parents remembered what it was like for the Cubs to win the Series.

        That’s a long sojourn in the wilderness.

      • As a long-time (and odd) dual Royals *and* Cubs fan (since 1977 and 1981-82, respectively), I can say that the mania observers saw in 2003 (i.e. Bartman et al) is a sign and signal of how crazy things will be IF Theo Epstein has pushed all the right buttons. Signs are that he has (good farm system now, signing top-notch players, proven coach), which means craziness will be here soon enough. And yes, the fans will be disoriented. Thankfully my experience as a Royals fan has prepared me for what’s to come! – TL

  4. This was a fantastic, fantastic post. Thoroughly enjoyed it.

    Your point about narrative reminds me about my favorite baseball team: the Atlanta Braves. Most fans assume the “Braves choke” narrative has been around since 1991. But reading old Sports Illustrated articles years ago, I noticed that the Braves from 1991 to 1995 were often portrayed as a great team that just fell short against other great teams (the 1993 NLCS against Philly was an exception, but even then folks gave Atlanta credit for the pennant race against San Francisco).

    The Braves choking narrative doesn’t really start, in my opinion, until 1996 when they lost to the Yankees after being up 2-0. I don’t think they’ve ever shed that label, which begs the question: is it better to win a WS and just be mediocre for a decade before and after, or to be a constant contender but win “only” one championship? It almost seems to me, at times, that the act of winning in sports these days is something taken for granted too much. If you don’t do it, especially if you’re a great team, then you failed–no matter the circumstances.

    This also reminds me of the post Andy Seal wrote months ago about sports–if memory serves, he made a fascinating point about the incorporation of the wild card game into baseball. The fact that you could have a great year, but it still comes down to one game, seemed to point to our modern obsession with the playoffs over the long, hard grind of a baseball season.

    Anyways, this was great. Loved the post!

    • Robert, thanks so much for this! (Argh the comments today are too awesome!) That’s so interesting how you tracked those changes in the Braves narrative. If you think the “win it all or you suck” narrative is something relatively new, any idea of what accounts for it? I’m inclined to agree it is but, then again, I was not paying attention until very recently! But I remember hearing a Red Sox fan I was briefly talking to last year, at the start of the season, complaining about the team, something like “this is what we do, we crash and suck” and I was thinking, *dude,* you just won the World Series last year! For the third time in about a decade! That’s like um, pretty good! Give them a break, yeah?

      I mean, I’m at least personally prepared for the Giants to suck this year. Especially since then you know we’ll come back and win again in the even-numbered year of 2016 🙂

      But I definitely think Andy is on to something about the impact of the structure of the Wild Card game. I mean that game between KC and the A’s this year; just crushing. Must have been such a high for KC fans and, the media loved it, but to an A’s fan (I have my number 2!) it was just like, how could that just happen? Granted the A’s set themselves up for it to come down to one game by losing so much in the end of the season, but there was still this sense of, wow….so that whole season, that whole story, didn’t end up going anywhere, really. When is Moneyball going to get its happy ending?

      In the long run, maybe that’s not good for sports as an experience for fans; maybe it’s too disorienting, too much like the arbitrary, random injustice of real life. But the media loves elimination games, so it seems like we’re stuck with it.

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