Iím a baseball nut. (Gee, no kidding!)
Iíve attended thousands of baseball games in my life. I have a rather large spreadsheet that tells me that, as of the day I wrote this, I can account for 5123 total games, over 80 percent of which are of the amateur variety. I work with a Little League Baseball program in my hometown, serving as the official scorer for regular season and tournament games since 1980. Iíve also done public address for college and high school games, and I enjoy the sport no matter where I see it. That includes professional venues, where Iíve seen over 900 games at 329 different parks (major, minor, and independent) as of the end of the 2007 season.
When Iím working a game, Iím the picture of decorum. I might not like an umpireís call, yet I have no choice but to accept it (and, in fact, defend it). If an umpire asks me for the clarification of a rule, Iíll read it, but itís up to him to make the call, and itís up to me to stand by it. But when I go to a pro game, Iím not above razzing the umpires a little bit, particularly if I think they missed a call. If the game is in, say, Lakewood, I might yell down, "Hey, blue, I hope youíre enjoying the game in Hagerstown!" The implication, of course, is that he isnít watching the game in front of him.
Why do I do such a thing? Because itís fun. Razzing the umpire has been a part of the game since it started. As E.L. Thayer wrote in his poem "Casey at the Bat" back in 1888:
"Kill him! Kill the umpire!" shouted someone on the stand,
And itís likely theyíd have killed him had not Casey raised his hand.
While calling for the umpireís head might land you in jail these days, telling the umpire he was wrong, good and strong (as Katie Casey does in the 1908 Jack Norworth song "Take Me Out to the Ball Game"), is a time-honored tradition. Itís part of the American tradition of free speech. When you buy your admission ticket, youíve paid for the right to boo.
But at least when you tell the umpire that heís blind, the man in blue can see you (unless he really is blind, and thank goodness I havenít run into that at a baseball game!). Itís also a time-honored right that someone who is accused of an act gets to face his accuser. Now a good umpire will ignore, or even laugh at, the catcalls from the bleachers and focus on the game at hand; but the fact remains that if you yell down to the umpire and he notices you, he can pretty well figure out who yelled down to him.
The same thing goes for a town meeting. If you show up at a meeting of your local governing body and speak before your elected officials, the first thing you do is state your name and address, so it becomes part of the public record. And any respectable newspaper will not print your letter to the editor unless it verifies the identity of the author and you consent to having your name printed along with your comments.
So why is it different in cyberspace? Why do forums and blogs allow nearly anyone the chance to say nearly anything while hiding behind a mask?
There are folks who believe the Internet represents the Great Electronic Frontier, where people can get away with just about anything. This hearkens back to the 18th century, when pamphleteers whipped up broadsides to stir the populace into action against an oppressive empire across the sea. Then, people wrote anonymously for legitimate fear of reprisal from the colonial authorities. But for the most part, anonymous writing went out about a century ago, when sports commentary was seen as something less than proper for a journalist. Then, many sports columns were penned by folks with pseudonyms like "Jim Nasium."
I remember when I first got involved with online services. I joined CompuServe back in October 1987. Every user was identified by an octal numeric code; I still remember that I was 71001,1464. To shake that impersonality, users adopted handles, much like citizens band radio users. I had several handles over the years. But it didnít take long to realize that the people behind those handles were real, with names and off-line personalities. The same thing happened when I joined America Online in November 1993. Early AOL users found ways to "keep it real" Ė if we so desired. We could hide behind our handles until the friendship became enough to reveal more of ourselves, or we could mingle at live social gatherings. I still have quite a few friends I made during my years as an active AOL user. To become a real, in-person friend meant shedding the handle one was hiding behind and presenting oneís true self. And why not?
Now I recognize the importance of protecting certain personal information. Social networking sites like MySpace allow users to post as much or as little about themselves as they desire, and users, particularly the younger ones, are advised not to tell too much about themselves. But this policy also leads to abuse. I recently read about a case where a teenage girl entered into an online friendship with a boy who then turned around and trashed her using rather personal insults. The girlís self-esteem was so utterly destroyed that she took her own life. It turned out the "boy" was the fictional creation of another girl who was getting back at the victim after their acquaintance had ended in a nasty manner. The second girl needed to hide behind the anonymity the site provided in order to exact her revenge, rather than face her "enemy" directly.
In my opinion, a blogger (or someone who comments on anotherís blog) who makes disparaging or derogatory comments about someone else while hiding behind the cloak of anonymity is just as cowardly as the girl who created the false profile. I canít imagine saying something publicly without having the guts to tell people who I am.
Hereís a simple example. I live next to the Meadowlands Sports Complex, which has as two of its primary tenants National Football League teams known as the New York Giants and the New York Jets. The Giants franchise goes all the way back to 1925, while the Jets began in the American Football League in 1960. Both teams played at various sites in New York before moving out to the Meadowlands, the Giants in 1976, the Jets in 1982. And both teams have chosen to retain their long-standing identity as New York teams. Personally, I donít have a problem with that, even though East Rutherford is clearly within New Jersey and a quasi-public New Jersey state agency runs the Meadowlands. I accept that "New York" refers to a media market which we in Bergen County are part of whether we like it or not.
Every so often, a politician opens his mouth and says that the two football teams really ought to change their names so that "New Jersey" appears. Soon thereafter, several letters to the editor appear in the local newspapers, saying that we subsidize these teams through our tax dollars, and the least they can do is acknowledge the state that hosts them. Once, I was ready to fire off a letter countering that point and spelling out the rationale I just gave for letting them keep their New York names. But then I realized that one of the people pushing for the name change was the executive director of the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority Ė for which I do perform occasional per-diem services in sporting event operations. It dawned on me, "I really shouldnít blast an organization I do some work for, because my name will be at the bottom of the column." And so I bit my tongue and held my venom.
To be honest, I donít care what the names of the teams in the Meadowlands are. I root more for the Bulldogs of Rutherford High School than I do the Giants or the Jets. My point would only be that the argument over the names of these teams is trivial compared to some of the other issues that come before us. Local political issues affect my pocketbook more than anything a professional football team does. I have every right to be worked up about what my mayor and council, or my state legislators, are doing Ė and I have every right to speak out about it. But if I believe something needs to be said, Iíll identify myself and say it. If Iím not prepared to stand and publicly defend my position, it isnít worth the energy I would waste to state it.
So this is my appeal to all the anonymous bloggers out there: Face the music. If you have something important to say, say it Ė and let us know who you are, so we can more intelligently debate you if we so desire. Or, if youíre saying something that is agreeable, we might want to publicly thank you for saying it. But I know Iíd rather thank you by name than by handle. Have the courage to stand outside on the soapbox and say your piece. Weíll respect you more if you do.