Sunday, March 25, 2012

Resisting the Temptation of the New York Yankees

I have a confession to make. Ever since moving out here to New Jersey, I have been strongly tempted to become a fan of the New York Yankees.   It is only appropriate for me to voice this confession during the Lenten season, when Jesus fasted for forty days in the desert, while the devil offered to turn stones into bread and to give control over the world.  The dreams of a baseball life made easy, and an end to the long fasts of bad seasons and to attain the power of a perennial contender, threaten to turn this fan's soul to the dark side

I have been surprised by these temptations, since I had always considered myself immune to the lures of  "Satan's jeweled crown" as the Louvin Brothers song goes.  For years, I thought of the Yankees as the enemy, a an arrogant franchise able to throw money around and buy the World Series, rather than winning it fair and square. They were run by George Steinbrenner, a vulgar, authoritarian jerk whose teams succeeded in spite of, rather than because of, his decisions.  His obstinacy prevented revenue sharing in major league baseball, greatly increasing the gaps between the haves and have nots.  Yankee fans were the worst kind of front-runners, the type of people who cared more about being on the winning team than about the game itself.

However, as I learned from watching Star Wars films as a child, the Dark Side is easier and more seductive. I still remember my one trip to the old Yankee stadium, and seeing the banner behind home plate proclaiming the Yankees winners of twenty-six World Series titles, about a quarter of all the World Series' ever played! As a White Sox fan, I have typically expected my teach to fuck up, even in 2005 when they won the title. Sitting in the stands at Yankee Stadium, I could tell that the fans fully expected their team to win, and that anything else was a terrible failure. That particular game was a blow-out of the Devil Rays (before their name change and improvement), and the Yankee faithful bellowed a kind of bloodthirsty howl that must have been heard at ancient Roman gladiatorial contests. In Yankee Stadium I felt like I was part of a community of winners, perhaps the most seductive thing the Yankees offer their fans who, like the rest of us, live lives of quiet desperation.

How wonderful it must be to know that the owners of your team will pay top dollar to retain rising young players, rather than trade them before they hit free agency. How comforting it must be when your team is willing to make any acquisition necessary down the stretch to win the pennant. Most baseball fans, especially those in small-markets, are used to seeing fire sales of young talent in the late summer months, and must comfort themselves with the mantra "there's always next year."  For these fans, a wild card berth is cause for celebration; for Yankees fans, anything less than a title is a failure.

How could I possibly justify rooting for the bad guys? I'd like to think my main reasons go beyond the delights of being on the winning team. In the first place, I must admit that my attraction to the Yankees has deep roots. My immersion into baseball and baseball history roughly coincided with the decline of the Yankees franchise in the late 1980s and early 1990s. As I learned about the Bronx Bombers' storied past, I felt that baseball was missing something if the Yankees weren't great; it just didn't seem to be right that they were a last place team. Thus in my mind wanting the Yankees to be good meant I wanted baseball to be made whole. It didn't hurt that I had a deep fascination with New York City itself at that time. In high school or college (I can't remember which), I bought a Yankees cap and wore it out. I remember rooting for them in the 1995 playoffs and 1996 World Series, and catching hell for it from other baseball fans.

After moving to Chicago, the White Sox became my team, and thus my only rooting interest in the American League. Despite that fact, I had a great deal of admiration for the Yankee title teams of 1998-2000. In a time of steroid-inflated biceps and over-reliance on the home run, they won by playing team baseball and doing the little things well. It was hard not to like guys like Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, and Paul O'Neil. It was especially difficult to dislike Joe Torre, a once hard-luck manager who seemed to have tamed Steinbrenner's worst impulses and molded a team based on cohesion rather than ego. Of course, that didn't stop me from being overjoyed at their defeat at the hands of the Red Sox in the 2004 play-offs.

Some of my other major reasons are purely practical. I've committed myself to living in the New York City area for the forseeable future. As a sports fan, it's hard to live somewhere long term and not have a rooting interest in a local team. When I was affiliated with a university, the choice was made for me, but I am no longer in that position. As I get older, baseball is the one professional sport I really, truly care about, partly because the NFL's technocratic violence no longer appeals to me much. That leaves me with the Yankees or the Mets. Over the past few years, I've tried to claim the Mets as my National League team. Truth be told, their new stadium is kinda lame. Beyond that, their ownership is implicated in the Madoff scandal, and is currently completely dysfunctional.  Most importantly, I have many more Yankee fans in my circle here than I do Mets fans.

After all, isn't sports fandom really about community? My continued devotion to Husker football, thirteen years after leaving the state of Nebraska, is a kind of cultural glue that allows me to more easily connect to my father and other members of my family. That fandom I did not choose, like the Roman Catholic Church, it was chosen for me. It is the one sports connection that I will never shake, since it's practically in my blood, and that's not necessarily a good thing. By choosing the Yankees, aren't I just electing to more closely tie myself to the community I already live in? Isn't team loyalty a kind of fetish?

Ah, here are the sweet words of the Father of Lies, taking my weakness, vanity, and lust for power and glory and calling them virtuous.  Satan, be gone with you!  You can keep your crown, encrusted with twenty-seven championship jewels.  I shall continue my time in the baseball desert, spending the next season watching Jake Peavy and Gordon Beckham fail to fulfill their promise, groaning at yet another Adam Dunn strikeout, mourning Mark Buehrle's loss to the Marlins, and observing with dread the great Paul Konerko's slide into old age.  I might even wander over into the Mets' unforgiving wilderness, to take on the role of a baseball St. Anthony.  Blessed are baseball's poor in spirit, for they are the true fans.  Or, as Met Tug McGraw once said, "you gotta believe."


Recovering Historian said...

You know that you can't join the dark side. If you do, the kids won't have any hope of understanding just how wrong the dark side is.

Debbie said...

RESIST! RESIST! You are a White Sox fan, man, don't shame yourself by rooting for the Yankees.

Anonymous said...

They are seductive--the stadium is so pleasant and who can resist the spectacle when there are cheesesteaks and GARLIC FRIES?!?! and so many "I know a guy" hookups that can get you box seats for the price of loaned bleacher passes? But don't give your soul away. There's always the compromise I struck in order to survive in the Bronx: pick a Yankee and only root for him, and only when not playing against your real team. Mine is Swisher, and I sorta like saying "I root for the Red Sox and Nick Swisher." :) There's nothing wrong with admiring the strengths of your enemy, even as you seek to destroy them. -jen

Brian I said...

Rooting for the Yankees would be like rooting for Mitt Romney, tax cuts, and McMansions. Yankee success--especially present-day Yankee success (read what Bill James says about the long-term effects of free agency)--is based on the same type of concentrated-wealth-wins-all thinking that got us the Gilded Ages of the 1880s, 1920s, and early 2000s. Why encourage that? If you grew up in New York rooting for the Bronx Bombers, that's one thing, but converting from the White Sox at mid-life would, in fact, be the equivalent of selling your soul. (Full disclosure, I'm a working-class Cubs fan who grew up in central Illinois and more or less resisted the temptations of the Atlanta Braves when living in the Big Peach.)

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

As I hope I made clear at the end, I have successfully resisted this temptation. I am even planning on making a real effort this year to follow the Mets as my second team to better fight temptation. It is nice to be able to root for a local team, especially since I plan on being in this part of the country for the rest of my life. What makes it difficult is that I know a lot of perfectly wonderful people here who root for the Yankees. Hence, the Mets following will be a kind of inoculation.

Not to be overly sentimental, I also want my children and I to share a rooting interest in a local team, and the Mets it will be.

As Jen says, I do like a few select Yankee players. Jeter is overrated, but I respect him, and he does have West Michigan roots. Jobah Chamberlain is from Nebraska, so I pull for him too.