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Does Fandom Require Dislike?

A conveniently research-free topic in a week where I was pressed for time.

MLB-Game Four of the NLCS between the Washington Nationals and St. Louis Cardinals Photo by Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post via Getty Images

My wife and I got a puppy a few months ago. I thought I knew how to take care of a dog -- my family always had dogs growing up -- but it’s been a real learning experience. Some of it is obvious stuff. Before we adopted Ruby, for example, no one was peeing on the floor of our apartment, and no one desperately required a walk at 6:30 in the morning.

But none of that was particularly surprising. Unpleasant, sure, but I already knew those things. Those were the ones I’d dealt with as a kid, when my parents didn’t feel like taking Spot (and later brown Spot, and later Sugarplum) on a walk. There’s a whole different side to dogs, though, a behavioral training side, that I’d never experienced as a kid.

You see, dogs don’t have much of an inherent sense of good and bad. They do things, and then there are consequences, and they kind of build from there, internalizing the results of these little things they do. I thought that if your dog peed inside, or tore up your flowers, they were just being a brat. Not so! They’re just doing what comes naturally, not trying to antagonize you.

We learned that using negative feedback is a bad way to train your dog. Yelling and screaming and shaming doesn’t really do anything -- your dog isn’t a moral being, it’s a dog. It’s not doing something evil that needs punishment. It’s just being a dog! So instead, the best way to handle things is with positive feedback. When Ruby does something good, we praise her and give her treats. Ever heard of Pavlov’s dogs? It’s like that. When she exhibits some behavior we don’t want, we just ignore it. She doesn’t know it’s bad, and us yelling at her will only teach her that she should avoid us. We just don’t reinforce those behaviors, and eventually she stops doing them.

That’s really interesting to me, and it’s working quite well so far. But that’s beside the point. We’re a baseball website here, and it being the offseason and all, I’ve been struggling for topics. But dog training made me think of one. See, lots of being a fan is negative emotions towards your rivals. Or at least, I always thought it was. I remember telling my dad, when I was younger, that you couldn’t be a real Cardinals fan if you didn’t dislike the Cubs. I don’t remember the exact context, but he had said something vaguely praiseworthy about the team, and I got all grumpy.

But in recent years, I’ve been veering to the positive-reinforcement-only side of the spectrum, just like the way we train Ruby. Some of it is because my wife is a Brewers fan, some of it is because we had Mets season tickets, some of it is because I’m writing about so many players and teams for FanGraphs that it’s only natural to root for players to succeed -- I’m not here to explain exactly why. The point is that when I watch Cardinals games, I don’t find myself rooting against the opposition the way I did when I was younger.

That makes me annoying to watch a game with, because I can be maddeningly neutral and appreciative of good plays the opponents make, but it has also fundamentally changed my approach to watching sports. I used to just seethe and rage about the bad calls the Cardinals got. I’d complain about Anthony Rizzo crowding the box and teeter on the edge of wishing he’d get hurt, just a little bit, so that he’d stop doing it. I’d assume the umpires were biased, that they hated my team. You know the type.

But now I just kind of don’t do that, and it makes me experience sports very differently. For the longest time, I didn’t realize it -- the change happened gradually, so gradually I couldn’t see it. One minute I was cursing the Red Sox when Michael Wacha got lit up in the ‘13 World Series, the next minute I was admiring Javier Baez. But this World Series, I got a taste of what it used to be like.

The Astros are a team that should be easy to root against, and even there, I struggled, because I like lots of their players. But I mostly rooted against them, for the sliminess of the franchise, and it brought back that old feeling of sports fandom for me.

Now that the World Series is over, and my briefly adopted Nationals vanquished the Astros, I’m back to my old ways, and I want to pitch the virtues of them. Investing fully, turning games and seasons into an us-versus-them mentality, is natural. It’s also awful! It’s stressful, and it’s zero sum, and in a sport like baseball where the best teams still lose 65-ish games, it’s exhausting.

It has its charms, no doubt. Rooting for someone to fail, and then having that person fail, is a nice visceral feeling. But honestly, do you want that guy to fail? Do you really? Maybe he’s a bad dude. But probably he’s not, no more than the people wearing your team’s uniform. And again, he’s going to win about half the time, and then you’re rooting for a good person to fail and then getting angry when they don’t.

Baseball players are amazing at what they do. Why would you watch a game and limit yourself to admiring only half of the good plays? They’re spread out enough as it is, with yawning chasms of sign changes and mound visits and batting glove adjustments filling the gaps. It’s not even just that you’re not admiring half of the plays -- when you’re rooting against the other team, those plays, which are objectively amazing, are making you sad! What a bad deal.

To be clear, I don’t mean you shouldn’t still root for the Cardinals. This isn’t some ‘oh I just root for the stories’ screed. I have a dumb, irrational love for El Birdos, and just because I don’t dislike the Cubs and Brewers anymore doesn’t mean that’s going to change. I can root for them to win, root for Flaherty to annihilate everyone in his path, and still say well done when someone gets a hit off of him.

This probably isn’t for plenty of people. I doubt I’m going to make everyone in St. Louis start liking Kris Bryant. But I guess what I’m asking is, give it a trial run sometime. Pick a baseball game whose outcome is meaningless to you. Pick a side. Root for your side, but admire the good plays the other team makes. Maybe it’s not for you. But I’ve noticed that since I’ve been doing this more, I enjoy watching sports much more than I used to.

One side note: this doesn’t apply to other teams’ fans, at least not for me. I can’t really explain why that is -- something about Red Sox fans in the mid 2000s just set a little piece of my brain haywire, and it’s never been fixed. But the players -- don’t dislike them. It’s not worth your time.