Magic, Logic, and Hope

by Ryan

George Gmelch once wrote an article entitled “Baseball Magic” describing the connection between Trobriand Islanders and baseball players.

The way Trobrianders approached fishing on the open sea was much different than how they handled fishing within the safety of nearby lagoons. Basically, there was much more ritual and prayer involved in fishing the dangerous and unpredictable oceans when compared to fishing close to home. Lagoon fishing required skill and experience, all things the Trobrianders could control on their own. However the endless possibilities of sea fishing required a certain degree of perceived control; that is, superstition.

radialmapGmelch compared these tendencies to the way baseball players approach hitting, pitching, and fielding. His point is that there is little superstition associated with fielding because almost everything involved is within a player’s grasp. Fielding percentages are in the .900s while batting averages are much lower. A player’s abilities are known and directly effect a fielding percentage, with little room for intangibles.

Hitting and pitching, however, are completely different. A “successful” batter only registers a hit once every four at bats. That’s a lot of failure and uncertainty, and so batters begin to attribute outside things to their peaks and valleys in performance. Hence a ballplayer’s pregame routines, batting rituals, and crazy superstitions.

This desire for perceived control has a simple explanation: it’s human nature to seek power over things. Human beings want to understand the world around them, and so inquisition is done with the aim of comprehension, the end hope always being utility.

And so no matter how ridiculous a batting ritual or religion or superstition may seem to some logically, the reality is that to the individual and others involved it makes perfect sense. Their understanding of the world is slightly different than everyone else, and their very understanding of reality may hinge on such beliefs.

In some ways I think this theory has a lot to do with being a fan. If sports fans were Trobriand Islanders, they would be fishing in the middle of the Atlantic on an unvarnished door with a waterlogged shotgun. Sports fans have absolutely no impact on the teams they root for, no control over much of anything involving their favorite team. So, many overcompensate by adding layers and layers of superstition onto their viewing habits.

wordoverflowMany people wonder why hockey fans grow playoff beards or follow other superstitions, but it all goes back to the basic needs to belong, to feel any kind of attachment to humanity. Communication hinges on shared meaning, and so fans with like rooting interests create tangible bonds through these teams. Superstition is just another way fans try to reconcile the fact that there’s nothing they can do to effect the final score.

The real question is not why fans have superstitions, but rather why do they care so much in the first place? It’s quite clear that the final score is determined on the field, but why does that score feel like life and death for so many in the stands? The value some humans place in box scores and the leaderboard is downright scary, and leaves questions of priorities and real value left to be asked.

To be honest, I think once again it comes down to human nature. I think the surrender to something beyond your control is an essential part of the human experience. To leave yourself vulnerable, to rely on hope and faith and all those things we attach to the unknown really is a big part of a person’s existence. There is something about giving in, about taking that risk that is somehow vilified in the end.

It is a simple case of risk/reward, of course. There is heartache and pain but it comes with the potential for something more. Surrender always comes with the goal of something greater, and the risk we take as fans is justified when the result is victory. The logical conclusion is that losing should be taken in stride, that the cosmic equilibrium will take over and make that pain worthwhile.

But logic is often lost on sports fans, and clearly on Buffalo sports fans. The other half of the risk/reward paradigm has never come, yet thousands buy into it each season searching for that reward. It’s a fruitless experience, but maybe there is value in not finding it. If surrender to the unknown makes us more human, how human are those who never come out on top?

I don’t know the answer to that, but I know that no matter how many times I’ve experienced it, the hurt is still very real. Monday night brought us yet another example of the risks involved in this voluntary surrender, and it’s a lesson that only reinforces what we’ve learned in the past.

wolfintrafficIf there’s anything that troubles me about last night it was not in the meltdown, but the aftermath. No one will ever try to justify this, but overreaction to traumatic events is nothing new. What bothers me most is the reaction of most sober Bills fans: somber acceptance.

This improbable explosion has become an annual tradition with this team, and we’ve grown far too used to the horrors of national embarrassment. It’s not a good place to be, and it’s not something to be proud of. Sometimes it feels like we wear the scars of the past like medals of honor, justification for the teams we like and the way we are.

But there is no need for justification, really. Not for the normal, non-vandals out there that felt so defeated last night. The faith we put in our sports teams only makes us more real, more human in the end. Try as we may to avoid it, last night we did what every Bills fan does each year: lay ourselves at the mercy of a football team. It may be illogical, fruitless, and endlessly painful– but something has to give.

We’ve certainly given enough on our end.


  1. Ron Burgundy

    Excellent post.

    Gmelch was a professor of mine in college. In studying some of these cultures and their crazy rationales/superstitions, my (sometimes drunk) classmates and I always walked away from the class shaking our heads thinking these isolated societies were plain silly. Fast forward four years to Monday night as I’m watching the Bills drive with :40 seconds left from the same spot I stood when they scored their last touchdown. I stand there purely out of fear that sitting elsewhere won’t produce a score. My other friend is in a different room by himself because we scored a TD while he was in there. Another friend in the group is chain drinking beers because his nerves are fried.

    We pour everything we can into this team – superstitions, fanaticism, money, liver damage, etc – for just one GLIMPSE of the glory. We have zero control over the outcome yet we try, try, try again. Tuesday morning came with a hangover and the overwhelming feeling that I had witnessed a puppy getting run over before my eyes. No. All it was was a team I follow losing a GAME, but that sense of mourning was too intense. It’s gone now and already I’m planning my tailgate for Sunday’s game. Why? What else can we do…

  2. i still cant believe someone was a big enough douche to vandalize McKelvin’s lawn. that’s why buffalo fans get a shitty rep. ugh.

  3. According to ESPN, in their last 3 MNF games the bills not only lost all of them, but did so by only a combined 4 points…

  4. NoUseForANickname

    Nice graph.

  5. Jeff

    One of the best posts I’ve read here.

    I think being a hockey fan really feeds into this – the limited following of the NHL in the US makes it even more like being part of an isolated society.

    /washes lucky jersey, now tainted by loss
    //shits pants