Next-gen fandom via Twitter

The creators of Twitter intended for their product to revolutionize communication. News could be consumed seconds after it broke; the article was cast aside in favor of the headline. Twitter would be a stream of pure information doubling as both a news source and a social network.

The creators of Twitter, however, did not intend for their product to serve as a potent connection between fans and the athletes they alternately adore and despise.

Fans are constantly trying to connect with athletes. We are curious to discover the man behind the .270 batting average. For a long time, the fan had only two methods of connection: She might ask for an autograph at a game, or she might hope for a chance encounter outside of the ballpark. The former entails a clipped, impersonal exchange while the latter is very unlikely to happen. By no means do athletes intentionally shy away from contact with fans; it’s just that contact with fans can be really impractical. [A Sports Illustrated article claimed that Joe Mauer responded to every fan letter he received, but I can’t imagine that he actually did.]

Professional athletes frequently have places to be and things to do that preclude them from reaching out to their faithful. The remedy, as Jason Mraz astutely points out, is a dangerous liaison. If somehow, someway, athletes could publicly convey semi-personal information in a quick and easy manner, the fan’s appetite for connection might be satiated.

Enter Twitter, and the connection is made. Using this technology, we can reply to and pass judgment on David Aardsma’s updates. We can find out where Jason Heyward’s political affiliations lie. We discover marital problems, anecdotes and religious convictions. All David Price has to do to satisfy the Rays’ faithful is type in anything along the lines of, “So I was just asked since I'm left handed do I drive with my left foot....???” The comment isn’t especially funny in itself, but it gains something from being attached to David Price’s name.

In a way, athlete’s tweets are no different from the “Celebrities: they’re just like us” section of any gossip magazine. We could logically assume that Nick Swisher drinks Starbucks coffee, but the Twitter-delivered confirmation makes us all giddy for some reason. Nick Swisher drinks Starbucks coffee? So do I! That’s exciting!

But Twitter doesn’t just connect fans to their favorite players. It fosters a phenomenon that can be loosely termed “irrational affection.” Ryan Rowland-Smith pitched incredibly poorly for the Mariners in 2010, but the fan base adored him for his earnest tweets and unyielding optimism. As someone who covers baseball without interacting directly with the men who play the game, I am frequently tempted to rant about the players who don’t do their jobs particularly well. But I could never bring myself to badmouth the Aussie, despite his sky-high ERA. More recently, A’s righty Brandon McCarthy has shown his personality to be a lovely mixture of clever and cynical through his amusing tweets; I find myself rooting for him despite my full-fledged allegiance to the Mariners. From a purely logical standpoint, this doesn’t make sense. Why would anyone favor a mediocre player (in the case of Rowland-Smith) over a good player? Why would droll 140-character updates from a member of my team’s division rivals make me like him?

Twitter has given fans a vehicle to root for players as human beings rather than as characterless objects, numerical fractions of a team. It’s easier to relate to an athlete when you know he guzzles Red Bull en masse. Twitter might not truly connect fans and their heroes in an intellectually meaningful way, but it’s a big first step. And, feasibly, there might not be a bigger step possible.

I think Brian Wilson put it best when he tweeted, “The Tux. Made of reproduced underwater sea lion-platypus hybrid DNA. Just keeping it classy! #fearthespandex”. That might not have anything to do with the rest of this article, but it makes me happy that Brian Wilson is a bizarre, fascinating human being as well as a great closer. That is the power of Twitter.

Taylor Halperin contributes to Pro Ball NW, the Mariners' corner of the SweetSpot network.