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:: By Megan Lisagor

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Investigations ::

Fans commune in bleachers

Holly Swyers, AM’99, PhD’03, rang in the new year April 8. For Swyers and some 200 other bleacher fans, the Cubs’ season opener holds pride of place on the calendar. The group puts such stock in the event that they call it a high holy day of obligation. In fact, Swyers, a collegiate assistant professor and Katharine Graham fellow in the social sciences, canceled classes to attend the reunion. She stresses, “It is an obligation.”

Opening day is not only an obligation to the Cubs; the group’s loyalty also extends inward. Being one of the “regulars,” known to Chicagoans as the bleacher bums, means more than going to games and sitting in a certain section. It involves personal commitment—weddings, funerals, dinners, vacations are all part of the deal. The fans consider themselves a true community, defying the popular belief that the culture of connecting is disappearing in America.

Swyers joined like anyone else. A friend she made at Shea Stadium—both women were rooting for the Cubs, not the Mets—initially brought her as a guest during a Chicago trip. After relocating from New York to the Windy City for graduate school in 1997, she kept returning to the bleachers, gaining “official” status as a regular at the end of the 1998 season. The group didn’t care that she was a professor in training; she could have been a lawyer or a plumber. It was her knowledge of the game and commitment to the community that mattered.

Over the years the academic in her—busy writing her dissertation on education and adolescent life—realized the fans might be worthy of scholarly examination. Then she read Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (Simon & Schuster, 2001). That was a turning point. Rejecting Putnam’s assertion that community no longer exists in the United States, she became interested in what fosters and sustains such a group. Using the bleacher fans as a case study, she theorized that community grows out of a feeling that can be replicated through storytelling and other social interactions. “Just because it’s a feeling doesn’t mean you can’t study it,” she says. “There are ways to create that feeling.”

Swyers had ample opportunity to take a closer look while finishing her dissertation. She lives in Wrigleyville, shares season tickets with another Cubs fan, and attends some 40 games a year, always plunking down in the center section near the concession stands. Regulars identify themselves by area; others call the left- or right-field bleachers home base. “The space is owned, appropriated,” she explains. Fans save each other seats, defending their turf with jackets. “There’s a sense that once you are a regular, it’s a permanent thing. It’s a comment on your soul.”

With a marked soul, completed dissertation, and countless note-filled scorecards, Swyers formalized her fieldwork. First she needed permission from both the research powers-that-be and her fellow fans. After getting clearance from the University’s Social & Behavioral Sciences Institutional Review Board to study human subjects, she reached out to the regulars from all three fields by e-mailing their shared listserv in January 2004 and talking to group elders. With their blessing, she began conducting interviews and recording oral histories.

Specific practices emerged that help construct a feeling of community, she reports in “Who Owns Wrigley Field?” slated for an upcoming International Journal of the History of Sport. Of course, there’s having a common social space and interest—the Cubs, in this case. Upon joining the bleacher fans Swyers quickly learned that “a sense of knowing things [is] how you get entry.” For her, a well-timed prediction on Sammy Sosa at a 1998 game prompted an “elder” to say, “You belong here.” Not long after that she received her first wedding invitation. Three funerals followed. She equates the community to a neighborhood, where friendships and personal animosities exist, expectations and obligations occur.

Knowledge of the sport and allegiance to the Cubs, however, will only open the door. Time, Swyers says, widens it, and making an investment is key. Time in the bleachers is “passed instead of spent,” she says. The regulars don’t watch the clock. “All the news of everybody’s life gets laid out, pictures of kids, grandkids.” The group has its own history too, and enjoys telling it. Newcomers learn that the oldest member sits in the “death seat” and that the current occupant can’t make as many games because night driving is difficult. She says, “It’s being part of something bigger than yourself.”

Although the regulars treat the sport of communing as a lost art, Swyers maintains similar social circles endure elsewhere. “I believe firmly that community in the United States is not dying,” she says, “but we don’t have [an analytical] language for describing what community looks like.” Beyond neighborhoods, whose geographic boundaries are often destroyed by displacement and urban renewal, community sprouts in other places and ways. For example, she says, comic-book fans forge connections online. “It’s the ability to accept what you’re passionate about.”

Community builds on human interactions, good and bad. “You’re hanging out with one another, irritating one another, helping one another,” she explains. “Community is not an idyll.” For Swyers, now writing a book about the bleacher fans, it feels like home.