Tales of a Spectator Spectator

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Watching the fans at a minor-league baseball game is just as fun as watching the players. From the silent statues to the loud cartoon caricatures, from the self- contained families and social groups to those who fully participate with the game, from the normal to the abnormal to the absolutely bizarre, the crowd at the stadium is a microcosm of the human race .

This world of characters can be categorized into three groups according to their interest in the game. These three main groups may then be divided into several subgroups.

The first group is the TBFs, which is short for "True Baseball Fans." These are mostly individuals who are not part of families or clubs who came to the game together. TBFs only leave their seats between innings and are, for the most part, completely focused on the game. They pay little attention to what goes on in the stands and couldn't care less for the promotional events. TBFs can be found within social organizations and families, but they come for one reason and only one reason: because they enjoy baseball and actually know the players.

Within the TBFs, you find the Statues, who are older men who sit still in their seats the entire game, uttering only the occasional cheer, boo, or "Call 'em, Blue!" They are old-school fans who could probably tell you about watching Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays play. Most Statues complain about how commercialized and business- oriented the game has become, and prefer the minor leagues to the majors. Statues are as much a fixture at the ballyard as the seventh inning stretch. It would take a wrecking ball to the stadium or a fire to move them from their seats.

In contrast to the Statues, the rabid Hecklers cannot resist a single opportunity to hurl insults at players, managers, coaches, and, most often, umpires. There are only a handful of Hecklers at most games, but there is one who has a reserved seat in the front row right behind home plate, ideal for giving the home plate ump a piece of his mind in the rudest manner imaginable. He doesn't speak very loudly, but if you're in his section, you hear his caustic remarks on every missed call. I sat behind this prototypical Heckler one game when the umpire made several calls unfavorable to the home team. His mouth ran nonstop, like a one-sided conversation with no response from the object of verbal abuse. (Umps must be required not to respond to fans unless their safety is threatened.) Count on Hecklers at any sporting event, although some youth leagues are cracking down on fans who don't behave themselves.

The rare YEBF, or Young Enthusiastic Baseball Fan, is under 30 and appreciates both the game of baseball and the spectacle of attending the event. I count myself among this group. We are a little more interested in off-field or promotional events than Statues, but tend focus ourselves primarily on the sporting event at hand. Most YEBFs cheer very loudly for the home team when they get a hit or make a good pitch or defensive play, and boo when appropriate, but tend not to be as insulting as Hecklers. Most YEBFs will come to a game whenever it's convenient, some even have reserved seats or ticket books. Sadly, baseball is rapidly losing fans in my age range. Who knows what will happen when the Statues pass on...

The final and most abundant subcategory is the MAFIF (Middle-Aged, Fairly Interested Fan). These mostly range in age from 30 to 50, are usually married and bring their spouses to the games, and tend to talk with them a fair amount, mostly about baseball. Some even bring their children (primarily sons) who tend to be less interested, but probably will become TBFs as they get older. MAFIFs like to just take in and enjoy the game more than interact with the players and umpires. A MAFIF might tell a Heckler to quiet down, even though they may quietly agree with the Heckler's sentiments. Baseball has a greater percentage of middle-aged fans than most other sports, but like YEBFs, you can find them at other stadiums and fields.

One interesting and diverse bunch I guarantee you will find at every single minor- league game are the TEs, "Team Employees." They are always at the game because they get paid to be there, and most have a fun time with it. Some, however, like the ushers, custodians, ticket-takers and those who serve food and drinks at the concession stands, are not into the game and seem not to have a lot of fun, including the mobile vendors who must yell "Peanuts, get your peanuts here!" Ushers, as an example, are more focused on making sure people stay in their seats, avoid safety risks, and refrain from sitting in the wrong section. But those who have the most fun at the games work in the pressbox, like the radio commentator, the newspaper reporters, the sound effects technicians, the PA announcer, and folks who work in the PR department. These last three groups have the most fun of them all.(1) The regular PA announcer at my hometown ballpark is the voice, informer, and chief entertainer of the crowd. He gets to participate in most of the on-field promotions, along with the PR folks, but he mostly sits in front of the pressbox, regaling the crowd with his own brand of post-modernist humor, aimed more at the average adult than at kids or real baseball fans.

The group that forms most of the crowd at the average game is the TWBPSE (pronounced twa-BIP-see), "Those for Whom Baseball is a Primarily Social Experience." Three subgroups are Families, SOs, and UKs. TWBPSEs only pay attention to the game when something big happens or when there is a rally going on. Otherwise, they talk, eat, drink, and walk around the stadium. Baseball seems to serve better as pleasant background for a social evening than any other sport, so for a TWBPSE, minor-league baseball is tailor-made for conversation, unlike sports ruled by the timeclock that demand constant watchfulness. Baseball rewards close attention, but forgives occasional diversions.

You'll find many families at minor-league games because the games are billed as good family entertainment, which they are. In fact, most families are there more for the entertainment aspect than for the actual baseball game. There are rare exceptions, like parents who are TBFs and who try to instill their love of the game in their kids. But most families find games to be a relatively inexpensive, exciting and out-of-the-ordinary afternoon or evening of fun that gives their kids a different and enriching experience of the world. Here's an example of a conversation you might hear within a family group wherein the father is a TBF:

Father: Christy, see that man right there with the bat in his hand? He's trying to hit the ball with it, hoping to run around and touch all the bases.
Christy (daughter): I WANT ICE CREAM!
Mother: Maybe you should get her some ice cream. And take Josh to the bathroom while you're at it.
Father: But, honey, there's a rally going on here, can't you take them?
Mother: But I'm busy talking to my friend Flo here.
Father: (resignedly) Oh all right.

You will find members of SOs, or Social Organizations, at most games. SO members can be coworkers (usually in a company that sponsors the team and has reserved seats), members of religious groups, youth groups, or nonprofit groups. Most of these organizations are present because they get discount admission or some special package that usually includes a pre-game picnic. For SOs, the game is purely intended to be a time for eating, drinking, and socializing. On Advertiser Appreciation Nights or other times when certain groups get discounts, you'll usually have bigger crowds, but most of the noise they make is just in talking amongst themselves. They may react when something big happens on the field, but the game mostly provides a nice backdrop for their conversation. Here's a sample conversation within a business group:

Sam: What do you think about our stock options at this point?
Chris: I don't know, Sam, the market's a little iffy. (CRACK) Oh, look at that ball go.
Sam: Yeah, but none of these guys will ever make it to the big leagues. Anyway, what are you going to tell the boss at lunch on Monday?

There are two subgroups within SOs. First are the TFBMs, "Thanks For Bringing Me," who come with their organization and really enjoy the experience of minor league baseball, but are not motivated enough to go on their own. They are truly happy to be there and you often hear them lamenting, "Why don't I do this more often?" TFBMs are a significant target group for most teams' advertising campaigns. Second are the DKAS, "Dragged Kicking and Screaming." These are mostly kids or adults who may enjoy themselves, but wouldn't be there in a million years if it was left up to them. They are unlikely to come back unless dragged again with their group.

The final group makes up the minority of TWBPSE. The Uninterested Kids, or UKs, consists of 7 to 16-year-olds who view the stadium simply as a cool place to hang out, eat junk food, drink soda and meet other kids. UKs may or may not be there with their families. They may be there with a youth group, but they often choose not to sit with them the entire game. Mostly, they walk around the stadium in small groups or stand in the aisles in the main concourse or between the stands and field and chat about all manner of things, never baseball. Some UKs may stand and wait for foul balls but not be interested in the game unless a ball comes their way. Going to get food between innings can sometimes be an adventure, having to wind your way around groups of UKs standing around and chatting.

If you want to see for yourself just what I mean, you can go to your local minor- league stadium. Any event that is entertaining to watch and be a part of but can also be followed by more dedicated people will usually feature this kind of spectator breakdown. Scope out the social scene next time you're at a sporting event. People-watching is just as fun as watching the game, and you may actually find yourself enjoying both.

Malcolm M. Kenton is a sophomore and full-time student at Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina, who is majoring in Environmental Studies and Political Science. When he is not at a Greensboro Grasshoppers' game, he enjoys advocating animal protection and environmental causes, politics, computers, and reading and writing. He was the editor of his high-school newspaper and has had op-ed articles published in the Greensboro News & Record.

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