Have you ever met one of your gods face to face? I haven’t, not really, unless you count the time when I was eleven and I shouted to Jim Rice through the fence separating fans from the Red Sox players’ parking lot at Fenway, or the time I rode in an elevator a couple feet away from Tom Seaver. But I know how a face to face meeting would probably go. I’ve had the chance to meet a couple writers that have meant a lot to me, and I gushed at them in an unintelligible torrent of overwraught praise, unable to stop even as a stricken look crept across the face of the person I was accosting. “I don’t know what you want from me,” the look said, “but I can’t help you.”
When I was a kid it would have been among my greatest dreams to have one of the players from these little cardboard rectangles walk into my world, big as life. What I didn’t realize is that I’m the kind of fan who needs distance. My fandom was born out of distance and it feeds on distance. If Carl Yastrzemski or Bernie Carbo ever pulled into the driveway of the house where I grew up, interrupting me to ask for directions as I built a make-believe universe out of throwing a tennis ball against the garage door, my world would have been diminished. They would have driven off no wiser (I didn’t know how to get anywhere back then except for the places in my own dream worlds), and I would have stood there watching them go, holding what was now just a ratty tennis ball instead of the game ball in the urgent latter stages of a championship game, and I’d be feeling ashamed for the words that had vomited out of me, and hurt by the stricken looks that had crept across the faces of my formerly benevolent gods.
And let down. I would have felt let down.
“Duane Kuiper has never let me down.” – Joe Posnanski
When I watched the movie Sugar the other night, it was actually the first part of a living room DVD double-feature with another recent movie, Big Fan. The two movies, though very different in tone and story and subject matter, were on a certain level two sides of the same coin. Sugar delved with great empathy and sensitivity into the world of the professional athlete, and Big Fan positioned itself far outside that world, focusing on the psychology—or perhaps more accurately the religiosity—of the literal outsider: the fan.
It should come as no surprise which side of this coin I’m on. I mean, I’m a middle-aged man who has spent the last several years writing about his childhood baseball cards. I don’t know what it’s like to strike a guy out with a crowd watching, unless you go back three decades, to the one afternoon in my life when I recorded a couple strikeouts, and allow me to designate the small gathering of bored parents sprawled across the bleachers at the little league field a crowd. I have a much better sense of what it means to cheer for and agonize over and idolize and revile. I have a much better sense of what it means to live through strangers.
Two sides of another coin, call it the fan coin, could be Paul Aufiero, the character Patton Oswalt plays in Big Fan, and Joe Posnanski’s great blog post on Duane Kuiper. The latter is a customarily entertaining and illuminating piece of writing from one of the best sportswriters around, and among other things it offers a portrait of balanced, lively sanity. Posnanski seems to be, at least in the abundance of the personality he is able to share in his writing, that rarest of things in this shaky world: a sane man. This sanity comes across in the Duane Kuiper piece with his characterization of his bond to Duane Kuiper, which is as fiercely loyal as any bond forged by a raving lunatic, but which is grounded in a decidedly human realm. Joe Posnanski has never been disappointed by Duane Kuiper because all he ever expected from Duane Kuiper was what Duane Kuiper readily offered: hustle, humor, humility. He did not lean on Duane Kuiper to fix jagged holes in his psyche. He did not make Duane Kuiper into a rescuing god.
In Big Fan, on the other hand, there is a sense that the central character, Paul Aufiero, may be placing the entire burden of his life at the feet of a team, and most especially a certain favorite player. He is relying on his gods for salvation. In Paul Aufiero’s room, above his bed, hangs a poster of his favorite player, a hulking defensive lineman whose specialty is sacking quarterbacks. Where the sane man Joe Posnasnki chose a hero who was closest to him among the gods, a decidedly unimposing regular guy (“[Kuiper] was the one who said that you don’t have to be supremely gifted and impossibly strong and touched by God in order to get where you want to go”), the dumpy downcast cipher Paul Aufiero seems to have chosen to worship someone who is everything he’s not: tall, handsome, muscular, powerful, fearless, seemingly unstoppable.
The film, drawing on Martin Scorsese’s great and harrowing movie King of Comedy for inspiration, pushes deep into an investigation of the implications of the relationship between worshipper and worshipped by allowing for an actual meeting between the two. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that the meeting does not go well; you’ll be able to tell from very early on in the movie that the so-called real world, where the meeting takes place, is not a world where Paul Aufiero meets a lot of triumph.
Instead, he looks for triumph exclusively in the internal world he’s created. Some—including his family in the movie—would argue that he’s not much different from an insane person in an asylum carrying on dialogues with figures invisible to anyone but himself. But I wonder if he’s that much different from a monk alone in his cell, removed from the world, praying for salvation all day long. I also wonder if he’s that much different from me.