Take Me Out to the Ball Park-Let Me Buy Into a Ragged Myth

American Fan: Sports Mania and the Culture That Feeds It , by Dennis Perrin. Avon Books, 230 pages, $23.

Folks, let’s face it, there are only two kinds of sports fans. First up, there’s the blood-and-guts romantic variety–you know who you are–the sort of person who takes sport seriously, very seriously, perhaps too seriously. These fans become moody and erratic when their teams lose, wild when they win. They attend to their teams like crazy, jealous lovers. They submit completely and willingly to the mythology of sports, to its pantheon of heroes and villains, to its desire and despair and to its own internal logic and justice. They believe in another world and will gladly suffer for it. Some people say they’re just plain nuts, that they should lighten up–after all, it’s just a game–and yet during a three-hour ball game, romantic sports fans know a life more bold, coherent and fulfilling than the so-called real life outside the stadium.

These are tough times to be gushy about sport: Salaries are inflated beyond any sensible measure; players whine and gripe, rivaled in greed only by the owners who treat them like cattle, on a good day. The second kind of sports fan, who knows all about tough times, has grown adept at handling the compromises of modern sport. These are the sports cynics, and though at one point in their lives they may have been sports romantics, they now embrace a hard truth unknown to Joe Six-Pack (the beer, not the abs) in the stands. While the romantics submit to the game, the cynics find fault with the alienation of athletes from their fans, with the unchecked greed of owners. (For further reading, see Phil Mushnick’s column in the New York Post .)

Though the sports cynics survey the field with a cold gaze, they’re not completely heartless. They’re in love with the past, which they unfailingly cast as a halcyon period of purity, when athletes played for the love of the game, cheered on by well-mannered fans, in $3 seats, while the owners, lovable family philanthropists, happily contributed to the public good.

Which brings us to American Fan , by Dennis Perrin, which purports to analyze the current condition of the American sports nut. Mr. Perrin keeps his observations limited to the big three (National Football League, National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball), but there’s little else to structure the book–it meanders like an extended Mike Lupica column. In one early section, Mr. Perrin drifts from a riff on Dennis Rodman’s bad behavior to Mormon fans to Phil Jackson to Buddhism to the Champions for Christ to homosexuality–all this strung together by the loosest of narrative threads.

American Fan seems mostly an opportunity for Mr. Perrin to display his own punk rock sensibilities. Before going on to take quick shots at George Will, born-again athletes, double standards in the N.B.A. ( No , really?), Mr. Perrin informs us that he used to be an American Basketball Association fan, and that he preferred the now defunct World Football League and World Hockey Association to the N.F.L. and the National Hockey League. That should come as no surprise to readers of Mr. Perrin’s previous book, Mr. Mike , a biography of evil-genius humorist, National Lampoon then Saturday Night Live writer Michael O’Donoghue. In that largely uncritical work, Mr. Perrin established his taste for Mr. O’Donoghue’s edgy, dangerous fare. He brings the same attitude to American Fan .

All elbows, Mr. Perrin tries to put some angry, ironic distance between himself and his subject matter, but he’s so poor at controlling the tone that you never know whether he’s joking or not. Thus a serious homage to A.J. Liebling comes across slightly sappy, and a tongue-in-cheek appreciation of Mike Lupica comes across clumsy.

The finest section of American Fan addresses Michael Jordan and his compromised relationship with Nike–especially pertinent in light of the basketball great’s recent ascension into the ranks of N.B.A. owners. For once, Mr. Perrin sustains a single line of inquiry. Why couldn’t he achieve that sort of focus throughout?

Actually, I agree with most of Mr. Perrin’s observations, but the ideas–George Will is pompous, the N.B.A. is deceptive, Nike is exploitative, Mike Lupica is a weenie–though presented with lots of verbal punch, are themselves practically cliché and hardly bear repeating. In one typical passage Mr. Perrin observes, “most fans of major league franchises are bent over railings while owners act out the love scene from Deliverance –and then are asked for a donation afterward.” Like we need this?

Mr. Perrin underestimates his readers. He lays out his diatribes as if to a dopey and blinded public. Perhaps sports fans, far from being hapless idiots, very consciously seek out delusion. Perhaps even the romantic fans are secret cynics: They know they are being exploited, but the delusion is important to them–so important that to retain it, they will happily pay even more money than they already do.