We live in an age of cynicism and snark, in which ironic posturing and the self-aware smirk often seem to be the dominant modes of cultural expression. But earnestness still abounds if you're willing to look for it, and one would be hard to pressed to find a better example of unabashed enthusiasm than what can be found at each Fresno Grizzlies home game.
Behind home plate, in the last row of Chukchansi Park's lower level, sit season ticket-holders Milana and Dan Shydler and their neatly ordered stacks of homemade inspirational signs.
Some of the signs are situational (an exclamation mark to be displayed after a great play), others cheer on a certain player ("Heat Hembree" for the hard-throwing reliever Heath Hembree, "Beast-Nick" for Roger Kieschnick), while still others feature all-purpose sloganeering ("Protect This House" or the "Ignite the Dream" sign displayed at the beginning of every homestand). All of the signs, regardless of specifics, are done up in bold orange and black, in honor of the Grizzlies and their parent club, the San Francisco Giants.
Milana and Dan are married, and initially, the Grizzlies were more of a casual recreational diversion for the Fresno couple. But, as Dan puts it, Milana began to discover her "inner fan" three seasons ago, and things haven't been the same since then.
"Our phrase is 'If you play, then we come,'" said Milana, wearing a black "Giants of Tomorrow" Grizzlies T-shirt and still highly energetic even though the ballgame was three hours old by the time I spoke with her. "Even if it's 112-degree weather, it doesn't matter. Giants baseball torture -- this is what it's all about."
The last row is a strategic location for the Shydlers, as it affords them the opportunity to affix signs to the railings and to stand during the game without impeding anyone's view. The couple is a whirlwind of activity throughout, selecting the exact right sign to display at the exact right time.
"We spend a couple of hundred bucks each offseason, and our living room turns into a sign factory," said Milana. "If an idea hits us, that's a sign! We then go 1,000 percent on being creative because it's all about inspiring guys to do better so that they can get called up.
"They're this close," she continued, narrowing her thumb and index finger together to where there is almost no space between them. "We're just trying anything we can to help them achieve their dreams."
This attitude accounts for the unyieldingly positive nature of the signs, the sentiments of which are perhaps best summed up by a simple exhortation tied to the railing: "Believe in yourself. Have Fun." (Milana explains that this was a quote from Andres Torres while he was on a rehab assignment with the Grizzlies.) The Shydler's player-first mentality also accounts for the way the signs are displayed.
"They face toward the field, because they're for the players and not the fans," said Dan. "Anything to provide a little inspiration, a little mojo."
While not as outwardly exuberant as his wife, Dan's enthusiasm for his hometown team is palpable. During our brief conversation he showed off the phone apps he uses to keep track of the Giants and all of their affiliates, the Minor League team logo pins affixed to his hat and, of course, signs such as "Confidence is Everything" and "Find the Sixth Tool." ("We believe that it's clubhouse leadership," he explained).
The Shydlers are members of the Grizzlies booster club and occasionally speak with the players at team functions or before games. But, largely, they seem content to set up shop in their usual ballpark spot and let the signs do the talking.
"This is fan love, we call this 'fannage'," said Milana. "Inspiring players to do their best? That's fannage."
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.