My Mother, Drunk or Sober

January 7, 2017

Bill Walton, in his inspiring autobiography Back from the Dead, attributes to his coach at UCLA, John Wooden, the notion that the greatest quality in team sports is loyalty, the foundation on which all else rests. "Where did John Wooden put loyalty in his pyramid of success?" he asks his reader. "In the very bottom block, the ultimate foundation. You pull loyalty out and it all crumbles."

Here’s Wooden’s literal pyramid of success, in which loyalty sits in the very center of the bottom row of building blocks

In that building block, Wooden defines "loyalty" as loyalty "to yourself, and to all those depending upon you. Keep your self-respect," an admirable credo. Athletes need to feel their teammates’ sense of integrity and dependability. And teams benefit greatly from knowing that individuals place the team above each of their own personal glory. But doesn’t "Keep your self-respect" seem like a non sequitur?

Keeping your self-respect can easily butt up against team loyalty. Any organization’s ethos, by definition, might cut sharply against any one individual’s preferred ethos, making him choose between his team and his self-respect. Loyalty to a team that represents your own personal beliefs is easy—the hard part is what you do when you find your team zigging against your zag.

For players and for coaches, this can be resolved with the guiding principle of "team first," which is what Wooden’s pyramid dictates.  A team, after all, is a brief assemblage of players, who can all suppress their individuality in the interests of the team for the length of a season, or until one graduates, or quits, or transfers out. When a professional team player gets traded, it doesn’t take him long to transfer loyalties to his new team and teammates.

But what about us fans?

We attach ourselves to teams, sometimes with ferocious loyalty, often for life. I want to suggest here that a powerful sense of team loyalty, in sharp distinction to a player’s useful loyalty to his teammates, or a coach’s pragmatic loyalty to his players, is for a fan a destructive quality, one that needs to be at least questioned, and sometimes abandoned for the sake of the fan’s self-respect.

How do we choose which team to root for? I’d argue that we don’t, in fact, choose our teams. Our teams choose us, it seems to me, more than we truly choose them. Most Cardinals’ fans, I’d guess, grew up in a time and a place when Cardinals games were the easiest to get to in person, on TV, on the radio—if they’d been born on either coast, where Cardinals games were much harder to come by, they might be Yankee fans or Angels fans, which renders their loyalty more to personal convenience than to any sort of principled choice on their parts. As Americans become more mobile, and as TV and internet coverage becomes more available, will geographic convenience fade? I suspect so, but then I’m the suspicious type.

Among the more surprising discoveries I’ve made in the past decade is that I no longer enjoy being a fan. Oh, I still enjoy sports, especially baseball, maybe as much as ever. But in 2007, I turned from being a lifelong fanatic of one particular team to being a heretic, which got me almost literally excommunicated from being a fan of that team. It was a traumatic experience.  I learned, however, that most of my pleasure came from following baseball generally rather than rooting for that one team to win.

I then discovered that the experience was so enjoyable, I could apply it to other areas of my life besides baseball (there are a few), which has also been enjoyable. Now, what works for me may not work for you, and I’m specifically NOT recommending this heresy for you. Few people appreciate being proselytized, and I’ve found that it’s far better to let people arrive at truths on their own, or to think that they’ve arrived at those truths on their own, than to grab them by the elbows and preach at them. Your own continued loyalty to your team, however ferocious or intense, hurts me not at all. If anything, your continued rooting like a rabid raccoon makes me feel better about my own control over my behavior.

I mean, "Wouldja just LOOK at those fools behaving like lunatics just because their stupid team scored a stupid run?" That’s what you’d say if you could step back from your self.  A few years ago, I had a mind-blowing experience, around the same time that I stopped rooting for the Mets: it had long been a dream of mine to live in Australia in December, January and February, so I could have a solid year-and-a-half of pleasant weather, an endless summer, and I managed to do that in the winter of 2007-8. One of the many parts of that winter’s fun was getting to see sports fans, in this case Australian Rugby fans, up close for extended periods: the woman I was visiting had many friends who were completely crazy about Rugby, and I spent many an hour listening to them arguing about players, teams, techniques, leagues, histories—you name it. They talked Rugby, night and day. And though I didn’t know a blessed thing about Rugby—on TV, it just looked like some kind of endless free-for-all with some semblance of a ball involved—I recognized the discussion, down to the beer flying out of the discussers’ mouth as they excitedly argued fine points of each play to the point (and occasionally beyond) of taking fists up against each other.

It was funny, recognizing the passion of the fan while not comprehending a word they were saying, even after I’d adjusted to Australian vowel-sounds. (Which sound something like "Strine veyouwll see-yoons.") "Wouldja just LOOK at those fools behaving like lunatics just because their stupid team scored a stupid run?" or a point, or whatever their scoring system was. (I forget.) At the same time, it seemed perfectly normal to me, which gave me some perspective on my own lifelong behavior as a fervid rooter for a baseball team. I was a fool, a lunatic, a nut-case, too.

What does rooting accomplish? Well, it makes you focus on a very specific goal, your team winning. You know for sure that goal is what you want, and anything that moves your team closer to winning a game, or a season’s competition, is virtuous, which is simplicity itself. OTOH what do I want now? In theory, it’s to watch a good game, regardless of who wins, and to appreciate excellent play whether it helps "my" team or hurts them.

You often hear that "my" questioned, don’t you? When fans speak of "our" winning (and usually "their" losing, true loyalty being proportional to a team’s won/lost record), they’re often criticized for over-identifying with their teams’ accomplishments.  "Oh, yeah? What exactly did you do to contribute to the team’s success?", and the answer is something like, "I paid their salary, or some small portion of it, anyway, what with the high price of hot dogs these days, and three times last year I cheered them on in person, and I sometimes buy the car insurance advertised on their broadcasts, so there! We RULE!" As silly as it sounds, fans find it hard to speak of their team (when it’s winning) as "they" rather than "we." As someone who has switched from Dodger Blue to Mets Blue and more, I can assure you my blood actually remained the same sanguine shade, whatever color I persuaded myself it currently was.

I won’t pretend rooting for a good game is easy. For one thing, I’ve found that when I’m watching a good game between two teams I have little rooting interest in, I’ll tend to root for the team that’s behind, if only so the game stays close up to the end. I’ve found myself switching teams in mid-game, as the lead changes hands, so that a player I’m rooting to get a hit in the third inning has become the player I’m rooting I’m to strike out by the 7th. I realize how easily the behavior I’m describing here could be mistaken for crazy behavior. But that’s what you get when you root for a close game—sometimes one team, sometimes the other, rarely both simultaneously.

One consequence of rooting in this bifurcated way, though, is you do look at the umpires differently. It’s always amazing how strongly two opposed groups of rooters will each feel that the umps are jobbing their team. I was monitoring a Mets’ fan-site  in the 2015 post-season (I can’t post there anymore, though I started the site, which was the source of my trauma, so that’s a story worth telling) (elsewhere) and the fans on it were united in judging Chase Utley’s take-out slide that broke Ruben Tejada’s leg an utter outrage, a reckless act of criminality at best, and I was pretty sure that any Dodgers’ fan-site counterpart would be judging that play as a gutsy, hard-nosed clean "old-time baseball" play—further, I was equally sure that if Tejada had taken out Utley on the same exact play with the same exact results to Utley’s leg, the two fan-sites would have taken the opposite positions without a single thought.

"Without a single thought" is the key phrase—there was no real thinking going on there, though the fan-site is populated by smart, informed analysts of the game. In part, there’s peer-pressure in an environment like that—if you dare opine that maybe Tejada’s injury could be classified as an unfortunate outcome rather than a malicious act, you can expect to be ostracized among Mets’ fans, so if you feel that way, you’ll take your feelings off-line. But peer-pressure doesn’t cause your brain to shrink or to fly away. Fans must consciously (or usually less than consciously) suppress the thinking process when it won’t support the emotional process. Sometime years must pass before a loyal fan can allow himself to accept a thought that judges his team harshly. Sometimes it’s only weeks or days, but a while back, a BJOL thread about Jackie Robinson’s steal of home some sixty years earlier still drew some partisan heat—in that case, decades were an insufficient lapse of time to allow a dispassionate interpretation of the play.

So why do you root for your team?

I mean to question here the whole larger issue of why we have loyalties to various entities, large and small, but for now let’s examine this one perhaps self-evident question: why do we root at all?

Why is it so important to our identities that we’re Red Sox fans, or Dodger fans, or Yankee fans? It’s practically item #1 in how we define ourselves. If you get introduced to someone as "A big baseball fan" the first bit of data exchanged is usually "What’s your team?"

"Why is that your team?" never comes up, and if it did, your answer like everyone else’s would probably be a rambling story about geography, or family, or, if you’re soul-searchingly honest, "I don’t really know—I’ve always been." Yet your loyalty to that mutable group of individual players is tenacious. You will defend their foolish decisions, rationalize their mis-steps, optimistically assess their chances in almost any given situation, and if your loyalty is questioned, you will defend the concept of loyalty itself, as if loyalty to a baseball team were a holy virtue.

When someone switches loyalties, especially from a losing team to a winning team, that newbie fan must withstand accusations of being a "front-runner," a "bandwagoner," a "Johnny-come-lately," and is regarded even by other fans of his new team with suspicion, and by every other fan with open derision. But why should a choice you first made when you were seven years old, or a choice that was made for you in the womb, rule your decision-making process forever? You’ve changed almost every belief that you held dear when you were seven, probably (I know I have), but this one is inviolable? Why is that? 

I have tried, in recent years, to examine my own biases, as a sort of intellectual exercise, just to find out what they are, and when I’ve discovered those biases to have a shaky basis, or no real basis I can respect, I’ve tried to eradicate them. It’s not easy.

At the risk of annoying you, I’ll share some of those biases with you. One that I’ve found easy to wipe out is my regional pride. I am from Brooklyn. Born there, raised there, schooled there—experiences I’ve found useful, enlightening, and entertaining, but recently I noticed some of my childhood friends posting all over Facebook their strong feelings about being from Brooklyn, feelings of superiority to lesser mortals, feelings of being special, feelings of pride.

The concept of "pride"—isn’t that supposed to be a sin? One of the cardinal sins? (I always thought of it as more a Yankee sin than a Cardinal one, but not exclusively, I guess.)  "Pride" is a bad thing, right? But we often speak of it as a cardinal virtue: "I am proud to be an American!" "Wear it with pride!" "That was my proudest day," etc. Is it a meta-sin to be proud of one’s pride? What exactly are we proud of when we’re boasting of our pride? Anyway, these Brooklyn buddies are really obnoxious, and the worst of it is that they’re only kidding a little bit. On some level, they really seem to believe that being from Brooklyn, even from certain neighborhoods of Brooklyn, marks them as being set apart from the rest of humanity, which strikes me as more than a little sick. I’m sure that Brooklynites do share some things (syphilis? jail cells? needles?) but so do people from other places, and I can’t understand what exactly these people get out of bragging about where they’re from.

It’s a bonding experience, I’m sure, meant for other Brooklynites to respond warmly to (and for people from elsewhere to regard quizzically—but screw ‘em if they can’t take it, right? Fucken A, right!) but it seems more than a little insecure when I take a step back and examine it.

"Geography," in a sense, seems like a species of "laziness" when it defines your rooting choices.  "I grew up in the shadow of Ebbets Fields, so I had to root for the Dodgers" seems to ascribe my fan loyalty to mere convenience, doesn’t it? (BTW, there isn’t a shadow on this planet long enough to reach my neighborhood way across Brooklyn from where Ebbets Field stood—that was just a "frinstance.") If the Giants or the Senators or, God forbid, the Yankees played a type of baseball you liked better, are you saying that the convenience of where the Dodgers played would trump (excuse the expression)  every other reason for your choice of team? What does that say about your decision-making process? Nothing very laudatory, I’m afraid.

But maybe physical proximity and convenience isn’t all there is to that sort of rooting? Perhaps you root for the Dodgers because your friends and family do? Perhaps your rooting loyalties stem from your desire to be accepted in the group of Dodgers fans you grew up surrounded by, and your choice of a team reflects your desire to fit in rather than mere convenience?  I was particularly susceptible to group-pressure myself: my dad was a Brooklyn Dodgers fan, and I wanted to be like my dad in any way I could, so: Dodger Blue runs in my veins. One of my earliest memories is begging to be taken to Ebbets Field to watch the Dodgers with my dad, and another is being told that the Dodgers, and Ebbets Field, are no more. I turned five during the 1958 season, so my dad was probably showing good judgment in telling me to wait until I was older—I didn’t take my own kids to see a game until they were much older than five. I don’t remember who I rooted for in 1958, 1959, and 1960. Probably no one.

Then an older cousin, whom I wished to emulate more than my dad, I’m afraid, rooted for the Cincinnati Reds vehemently and often through the 1961 season. The Dodgers having left town three years before, I spent that summer wishing well for Frank Robinson and especially for Vada Pinson. (55 years later, this is all I have in common with this particular cousin: nowadays, at family gatherings, once we’ve finished exchanging fist-bumps, and cries of "Vada!", we have nothing to say to each other.) Truth to tell, NL fans all across New York were in a terrible rooting fix during this entire period—indoctrinated from before birth that the Yankees were to be despised,  we were a bunch of baseball fans with no attractive options. Some forgot about geography and its conveniences, remaining loyal to the Giants or the Dodgers (my dad was one of these poor souls), going to bed at night clueless how their team, whose games were just beginning as bedtime loomed, did that day, compelled to wait for the morning paper to reveal the score. This was a thwarted kind of loyalty and, I think, a very unsuccessful one. Few fans remained loyal to their team a continent and a day away, and fewer still remained once the Mets came along. 

I could claim to have rooted for the Mets since their inception in 1962, but I would have to lie to pull that off. Shamefully, after the 1962 season began, I was a Yankee fan, at least for that one season.  The 1962 Yankees were the first team I rooted for on a daily basis. (Coverage of Cincinnati and Los Angeles games being very spotty in those days.) They were the first team whose lineup I knew well, and to an extent, I can credit the Yankees with giving me my start as a writer: in the spring of 1962, my family visited a cousin (a different cousin from the one who rooted for the Reds) whose family moved upstate that year, and this cousin had a typewriter in his basement, on which my 8-year-old self was invited to amuse himself. The first word I ever typed was "Richardson" and the second was "2b."

After typing out the batting order, and seeing how easy it was to do, I became hooked on writing about baseball. I was overjoyed when I saw (on TV through my uncle’s front porch window) Willie McCovey line out (to "Richardson, 2b") to end the 1962 series, which I celebrated by jumping off the stoop onto the front lawn. It was a joyous day, for me and Yankee fans everywhere.

By the next spring, mysteriously, my loyalties had shifted. I can remember the April day that rookie Ron Hunt doubled in the winning runs of the first Met victory of 1963, and whooping and hollering over this miracle, which I heard on the car radio of my mother’s car, I think as the car approached the Lincoln Tunnel (and impending radio silence) so some mysterious event must have occurred over the winter to shift my loyalties like that. Being not yet ten then, I can’t remember what that event was.

In case you’re thinking of me as a fickle little boy,  I tell this saga here to illustrate a point apart from confessing my fickleness: we don’t really understand whence come our rooting loyalties, or at least I’m a good example of someone who’s completely clueless.  And it turned out, I remained a loyal Mets fans for the next forty-odd years, with only a slight vestigial affection for the Dodgers, out of some kind of loyalty to my dad and, more, out of some man-crush (boy-crush, really) on Sandy Koufax. He was not only a Dodger, but a Brooklyn Dodger in the sense that he was from Brooklyn, and from my neighborhood in Brooklyn. Koufax had played basketball in the Jewish Community Center two blocks east of my house, he now (mid-1960s) dated a young woman who lived two blocks west of me, and he once had played baseball for Lafayette High School, where everyone I hated and loved had graduated from. One graduate I spent my summers with had been Koufax’s catcher in Brooklyn’s Parade Grounds. Most important, though, for purposes of my boy-crush, was the fact that his father was a regular customer in my father’s luncheonette. (I wish I could remember if this customer was Koufax’s biological father or his adoptive father, but that distinction was lost on me at the time. If I had to guess, I’d say it was Koufax’s adoptive dad, whose name Koufax used after his mother re-married.) I had a very personal connection to the Dodger superstar just as I was becoming a lunatic baseball fan.

This may explain another path to fan-ship, the personal connection, or the connection to a particular player, through identifying with him, somehow (I had a weak but accurate throwing arm, which let me connect to second basemen like Hunt and Richardson, because second was one of the few positions I could play well myself.)  When we start to follow teams, don’t we select a few players on that team whom we admire, whether because we play like them or look like them or want to play and look like them, a choice that links us further to that player’s teammates?

Of course, players don’t stay on teams forever, or stay active in MLB forever, for that matter, but by then the fanship has long since been forged. The largest problem in staying a loyal fan, seems to me, if you’ve based your initial fanship on a group of players, is: what happens when a whole new batch of players, perhaps antithetical to the first players’ personalities or styles of play, have supplanted the initial group? Does your loyalty transfer over to the newer group easily, and elide over the complete change in the type of team you used to like so much?

This isn’t purely theoretical: I just finished re-reading Jeff Pearlman’s THE BAD GUYS WON, his account of the drunken, womanizing, drug-abusing, brawling bunch of pond-scum who won the 1986 Series, and whom I rooted for fiercely, despite the fact that my own tastes are for the modest, quiet, business-first competitors such as, for example, Stan Musial or Sandy Koufax. IOW, the team I found myself rooting for in 1986 had the kind of personality I usually despise on a MLB team. How to account for this 180 degree shift? Just because they wore Mets uniforms, I forgave or overlooked or even reveled in their obnoxious personalities?

Well, yes. I rooted, as Seinfeld put it, for the laundry.

My fondness for cerebral athletes stems, of course, for my own lack of physical skills. Overcoming my distaste for the team of bullies sometimes took, sometimes did not. My all-time favorite basketball team is the early ‘70s Knickerbockers, a famously cerebral bunch, but when that team evolved into a very physical and none too bright squad of basketball brawlers, I found it hard to root for them, and eventually I found myself unable to. I stopped watching the NBA, pretty much, when the Knicks became a bunch of loudmouthed head-cases.

This isn’t a complete catalogue of the reasons people root for teams, by any means, just a representative sampling of the variety of reasons, admirable and less-than-admirable. One I haven’t yet touched on kind of creeps me out (or as we say in Brooklyn, "It sceeves me"). That’s the element of sexual attraction to players, which just seems out of place to me. On the Mets’ fan-site I co-founded in 2002, there were a few women (who self-identified as such with names like "Ms. Met") who would start threads with such titles as "The Cutest Met?" or "Things I want to do to Mike Piazza," and I would make fun of them in a vain attempt to discourage such postings. I understood perfectly how women would be attracted to ballplayers, how that attraction would engender a broader interest in baseball, and I think it’s cute when a non-fan woman whom I take to a game finds in sexuality a way to enjoy baseball. I’m okay with it in theory, but in practice, I just didn’t like to read threads about comparative analysis of various players’ butts. I encouraged such posters to take their appreciation off-line, where they could post their fan-fic and their fantasies to each other’s hearts’ content. Nothing wrong with that, no more than I see anything wrong with my ogling the women playing serious beach volleyball games on TV, despite my total lack of interest in the game of volleyball—I just stop short of posting about it on a volleyball fan-site, partly out of personal embarrassment but partly out of respect for those volleyball fans who take their game more seriously than I. (I don’t think of this as prudery, or censorship—it bugs me somewhat to read a website about film, or TV, or acting that features the occasional post about how hot an actress is, not because the post is off-topic, or stupid, or goes nowhere, but because it’s so vapid. You find an actress sexually stimulating? Fine, but why exactly do I need to read about your sources of sexual stimulation? How does that improve my life?) I even suggested at one point that most people would object if a gay man turned up on our website and started going on about the things that he would like to do to Mike Piazza, and that this was no different, really, only more easily tolerated because of the heterosexual focus of the ladies’ comments. So I tried to adopt a policy of "No Sex, Please—We’re Mets Fans Here."

What it comes down to is that fanship is a species of tribalism, a sort of granfalloon, Vonnegut’s term for the artificial, arbitrary units that we join for the purpose of expressing superiority to those unfortunates born outside of our unit. In Vonnegut’s example, as I remember it, people were assigned middle names such as flower-names combined with numbers, so they would feel loyalty to, say, the "dandelion-twelve" tribe because that was their own tribe but to hell with all the "peony-six" people: they stink.  This ridiculous system substituted for the more traditional tribes of families (if I’m not distorting Vonnegut’s idea here) which were fading out in importance—the satirical point I took from this was that people need to feel loyal to a tribe and in this system it was obvious how unnatural the tribes actually were.

Sports fanships are a relatively harmless sub-species of tribalism, but perhaps for that reason they’re easy to challenge. You understand that when you’re defending Chase Utley, you’re speaking as a Dodger fan (maybe as a Phillies fan) but you’d feel otherwise if you were a Mets fan, which should tell you that you’re speaking as a biased party. It is not quite so easy to get folks to acknowledge their own biases in other areas, and those areas are pernicious ones that create genuine problems in the non-sports world.

In a profound sense, tribalism is a globally destructive force that causes universal harm, and I don’t see it going away soon, maybe ever. On the "maybe not" side of the ledger, humans do appear to be growing less tribal, very gradually. In the past hundred years or so, for example, the entire concept of "race" seems to have grown from a given to a disreputable concept, and that’s a biggie. When I was a boy, I would routinely hear references to "Japs" and "Chinks," people who now would be more politely called "a person of Asian heritage" or, better, just "a person."  If he is "a person" and you are "a person," then I think that’s a more likely basis for you and him to start off as genuine equals, recognizing each other’s humanity.

Well before Ted Cruz announced that he considers himself a Christian first and an American second, I used to ask my writing students to list the nouns that they considered themselves first, second, third, all the way down to tenth, and I’d put it something like this: "You’ve all got many separate identities—Democrat, or Catholic, or bisexual, or history major, or fraternity member, or musician, or capitalist, or Irish-American, or U.S. Marine veteran, or Yankee fan, or daughter, or Kantian, or white supremacist,  or Bronxite, or scientist, or—I could go on and on, but only you can say which groups you choose to affiliate yourself with.  What I’d like you to do is to prioritize your list of identities, list them from ‘most important’ to ‘least important’: if being a staunch Democrat, say, should ever conflict with your identity as a devout Catholic, which one identity do you consider more important to you?" Then I ask them to write an essay on which choice was most difficult for them to make, and why they think that is. (There were no right answers, of course, and the only way they could do poorly on the assignment would be not to take a position. I hated reading cop-out answers like "I don’t know why I made any choice, I just am what I am" or "They’re all equally important to me.")

The point of such an exercise (aside from getting them to write a thoughtful essay on the subject that interested them the most, themselves) was to get them to articulate things they typically preferred not to think about at all.  The one thing I could promise them (and did promise them) was that if they hung onto these essays for a decade or two, they would see that their priorities had changed, and sometimes radically.

At the risk of offending those who identify as Christians, or even as believers in any God at all, I’d like to acknowledge a section of the New Testament (one of the few that I think I understand) in which Jesus speaks out in favor of tribalism.  Some people choose to take this passage as metaphorical, because of the extremity of the recommendation, but I choose to regard it literally: "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters--yes, even his own life--he cannot be my disciple." In my reading, it says that being a Christian is the most important—the ONLY important—tribe, and we must be willing to cut all ties, even those we’ve felt literally from birth, even our own self-respect, and to abandon them utterly (or Utley) in order to be members of the tribe of Christ’s disciples.

That’s a very tough recommendation to take as literally as I do, so I understand why Christians find it necessary to interpret it as a metaphor, or as a parable, or as anything other than what it says, but I think every leader of every tribe on this planet wants his disciples, subjects, followers, fans, admirers, call them what you will, to feel a personal loyalty to him or to her (or to Him or to Her) that will not be diluted by other, older, conflicting tugs of loyalty.  And I think we have a very hard time, as citizens of this planet and as fans of our teams, accepting that everyone’s loyalty is changeable, and our priority in those loyalties is always subject to the workings of each of our active minds. Changing our minds, to me, is a finer sign of our humanity than is stubbornly sticking with where our minds were yesterday.






COMMENTS (20 Comments, most recent shown first)

Good comment, jwilt. I, a red Sox fan, do know who yiovanni gallardo and Seth Smith are, even if I am not sure how to spell Gallardo's name. That's probably because Baltimore is in the same divisin as "my" team, the American League East. I agree with what you say about belonging to a community but I am not quite convinced that it's harmless. Being a fan of a particular baseball team surely is less harmful than engaging in tribal warfare, though, and maybe that is its value, as a displacement activity.​
8:27 PM Jan 9th
There is value in having common references among your peers. Either at work or in the neighborhood or among your friends. I rather enjoy sitting down for five minutes to discuss the Orioles latest doings with the three or four other active Orioles fans here at work. Sure, I can talk in baseball generalities with the other fans, but it's never the same type of conversation. The Yankee fans don't know and don't care about the reasons Ryan Flaherty continues to have a roster spot. The random Cubs or Dodgers or Red Sox people probably don't even know who Yovani Gallardo and Seth Smith are, or are they interested in the recent trade. And I have to think a generic fan of baseball but no particular team wouldn't have any more of an interest in the minute details of the back of the roster of the local nine.

And that devotion to the details of the local nine, well, that's why we have professional sports. I'd guess that the whole pro sports construct wouldn't exist or at would be radically different without our tribes. If you didn't care about the ol' home team but just was interested in a great ballgame why would anyone ever buy a season ticket to a team that wasn't expected to be in contention? Without somewhat irrational tribalism the 1990-2010 Orioles, Pirates, Royals don't exist.

And one more thing... I'm someone who believes you root for the home team just as a way of belonging to your community, sharing a relatively harmless commonality with your neighbors. What really galls me is the people who choose to root for either the rivals of the home team or some other far-off Goliath. You're telling the world you may live here, but you're not of here, you don't like it here, and you're going to taunt most everyone around you by your choice of team. For that very reason Mark Teixeira will always be my least favorite player, ever since his "I grew up in Maryland but wore a Yankees jersey to Memorial Stadium" quote.
7:19 AM Jan 9th
Steve161: you raise an interesting point about those old AM stations. I think you could hear KMOX from a thousand miles away. How many fans did that help create? And a few other powerful clear-channel stations. Intersting you mention the Yankees. I was watching a Yankees-Orioles game in some public place a few years ago and someone asked me which team I was rooting for. I replied that I wished they could both lose.
9:36 PM Jan 8th
Tthanks for the clarification, Evanecurb. What you describe sounds counterproductive to me.
9:31 PM Jan 8th
My question about Democrats and Republicans is a reflection of my belief that some voters (I have no idea how many) favor their party of choice and actively root against anything proposed by the other side. These types of voters are similar to loyal sports fans.
9:17 PM Jan 8th
Just to be clear (wish we could edit these remarks): I mean the Flyers who won two Cups in the 70s.
7:46 PM Jan 8th
Steven, you and I have agreed on some things, disagreed on others. I don't think there is a single sentence in this piece that I disagree with.

You and I came to the teams of our youth in almost exactly the opposite way--in fact, your team tried to become mine when the Dodgers moved to LA, but I was no longer available, having become a Cardinal fan in the late 40s, first through being able to hear games through the static on KMOX, then through developing the boy-crush on Stan Musial (and it is one of the minor satisfactions of my life to have discovered as an adult that he deserved the admiration).

My loyalties wore thin as a result of moving to Germany 40 years ago, though my attachment to the game has remained undiminished. In the last ten or fifteen years I've actually had a resurgence of feeling for the Cardinals, as a result of attending games in St Louis: in more than 100 of them, I have only once seen a fan interfere with a ball in play. And I can't count how many times I've heard applause or even cheers for a play well made by the visitors.

Good point by fish on negative rooting: as long as the owner's name is (or owners' names are) Steinbrenner, I will hope the Yankees finish last, and I will never understand how New Yorkers' loyalties weren't even dented by his miserable behavior. I suppose winning really does trump conscience. (Dent? Trump? Did I really write that?) And I still haven't forgiven the Philadelphia Flyers for the way they flung down the rule book and danced on it, nor the NHL for letting them get away with it.
7:44 PM Jan 8th
Steven Goldleaf
That's interesting. I hadn't thought about rooting AGAiNST teams you dislike. I still do that. A day can't be TOO bad if the Yankees are losing, I always figure.
6:49 PM Jan 8th
Evanecurb: I root for Democrats to win because I much prefer their policies and practices to those of Republicans. I can't think of another reason that makes any sense at all. Steven: I forgot to add that my chicago Cubs fan friend introuced me to baseball and Cubs fandom when we both lived in Chocago. I'll add as well that there are teams I root AGAINST beccause I don't like their owners, such as Washington DC's football team, the Miami Marlins, and the Baltimore orioles.
4:42 PM Jan 8th
My dad always had been a Dodgers fan for as long as I can remember. I thought it was a curious thing, since he remained in central Illinois his whole life; he didn't have the typical Cubs or Cardinals loyalty. I asked him about it, and he said he saw the Dodgers destroy the Cardinals during a game at Sportsman's Park in 1955, when he was only 10. That ended up being the lone Brooklyn Dodgers team that won the World Series. "I thought it was the best baseball team I ever saw," he said, but noted: "Stan Musial was the best player on that field."

For some reason, I resisted the Cardinals and evolved into a baseball-only fan for many years (no doubt thanks to Bill James' early Abstracts). For about 20 years, I did hold a detached admiration for Jack Buck, the Cardinals organization and Tony La Russa. I'd hear a lot of people grouse about La Russa, but I'd be thinking: "Do you have any idea how hard it is to be in contention almost every year?" I finally surrendered myself as a Cardinals fan during Game 6 of the 2011 World Series. I'd never seen a game like it, and I thought I was going to have a heart attack with all the craziness. I'm still, however, a Cards fan at arm's length. I remain startled how doggone irrational fans in general can be about their team.
12:03 PM Jan 8th
Very well said. I've also recently orphaned myself from my lifelong rooting interest, the Braves. My family moved to Atlanta from Buffalo in 1973 when I was six years old. Dad was a baseball fan and this was of course during Aaron's chase of Ruth. That year I began mimicking his poring over boxscores and asking questions. For Christmas I was given Aaron's autobiography, and the appendix consisted of the dates and opposing pitchers of every one of his 713 home runs, with blanks to fill in the appropriate info for nos. 714 & 715. This led to 4 months of eager anticipation, and a rooting interest was, well, rooted (is that where it comes from, a tree metaphor? Anyway....)

Flash forward to 2014, and my priorities, as you put it, had evolved, though I remained a Braves fan. I came to care more, though, about the civic health and future of the city I know and love, and I have my opinions about what civic health looks like. And so, when the new stadium deal was announced (having been negotiated in secret, encumbering enormous public funds, and punching a yet larger hole in the donut city by moving from downtown while citing justifications ranging from dubious to insulting), I said to anyone who would listen that my fandom was to expire after the 2016 season. Well, then the fire sale of the team's young and popular stars commenced, and my timetable advanced along with it. My younger self could and would have rationalized continuing to root for IMO bad actors, and I recognized this trait in many postings on the team blog to which I used to contribute. And to go through the process of choosing a new rooting interest just seems silly -- I'm too old and re-prioritized. And while the game itself has lost some luster for me in the process, it still attracts the best writing and thinking of any sport, and so that's the focus of my fandom going forward.
11:07 AM Jan 8th
Steven Goldleaf
Here's a link to the Baseball Joe novels:

I remember looking at them, and finding them boring, though they were about baseball and were written almost identically in plotting and in style to the Hardy Boys series which I devoured. Skimming through this one, I was a bit surprised to find that their baseball content was relegated to only a few chapters and most of the novel was in solving the mysteries, evil or malicious acts visited unfairly upon Baseball Joe, working out the personal relationships, etc.
10:01 AM Jan 8th
Why do people root for Republicans or Democrats to win?
9:09 AM Jan 8th
Steven Goldleaf
Also, MattGoodrich makes a fine point about fantasy baseball and its effect on rooting for teams. I never quite saw it like that, but that's got to have some sort of effect when you're rooting for 19 different guys on 15 teams to do well.
5:57 AM Jan 8th
Steven Goldleaf
These are great stories about our histories of fanship--keep 'em coming.

I had a lot that I omitted or couldn't fit in, just asking people how they came to root for the teams they did. I asked Joe Stern, that 94-year-old WWII fighter pilot who lives near me, how he became a NY Giants fan, living in Brooklyn as he did, and he told me that he did it for literary reasons. His first exposure to the game was the "Baseball Joe" novels, in which Joe Matson (an overt fictionalization of Christy Mathewson, though I didn't put it together until Joe explained it to me) was a NY Giant. I actually read the Baseball Joe books as a boy, and they made no impression on me whatsoever. Go know.
5:53 AM Jan 8th
I grew up in Columbus Ohio as a Reds/Bengals/Buckeye fan. Somehow over time I stopped being a Reds fan, but continue to be a Bengals/Buckeye fan. Some of that was feeling like the people running the Reds (Howsam/Wagner/Schott) were so detestable that I just couldn't continue as a fan. And some was my waning interest in specific baseball teams but growing interest in individual players due to fantasy baseball.

I've also noticed that if I were to start being a fan today, the Reds/Bengals/Buckeyes would probably be the LAST teams I would choose to root for. Arrogant, privileged, above the rules, inflexible, conservative, Goliaths - lots of negatives that I might associate with those teams. It must have been nice being a Cubs fan this year. Maybe I'll start rooting for the Cleveland Browns next year.
12:53 AM Jan 8th
One of the interesting things about growing up in a place that does not have top-tier professional sports teams is that it makes the "fan" thing somewhat different.

I grew up in Indianapolis in the 1950s/1960s. No major league baseball team(AAA, initially a Cleveland affiliate, then White Sox). No professional football until the Colts dumped on Baltimore. No professional basketball between the collapse of the Indianapolis Olympians (as the result of a scandal) after the 1952/53 season and the creation of the Pacers (ABA) in 1975/76). Never an NHL team.

So rooting for a "major league" team was a matter of choice. My first team was the Brooklyn Dodgers, who became my team because the greatest (active) baseball player was a Dodger--Jackie Robinson. I had never seen a Dodgers game; there was only 1 game a week, I was usually outside playing on Saturday afternoons. But I had to root for the team with the greatest player. (My brother was a Yankee fan because--MICKEY MANTLE!)

In some ways, the Dodgers are still "my team." But not so much as between 1955 and the late 1960s. And having any interest in them during the Murdoch and then the McCourt years was really hard. But for probably the last 35 years or so, I've been a baseball fan...I like to watch games on TV, attend when I can, I like exciting games (I prefer relatively high-scoring games to 1-0 games--the 7th game of this year's WS ranks near the top for me). I'm pro-player, pro-union, anti-owner in my attitudes.

I've never been a fan, much, of other professional sports, though. Never rooted for a team in any other sport. Never followed individual sports like golf or tennis obsessively.

Not that there's anything wrong with being obsessed with team. It's just not, mostly, who I am.
7:10 PM Jan 7th
I'm not really a Met fan but I liked the late 1980 Mets. I guess I liked watching Dwight Gooden pitch in his early years, but somehow ended up cheering for the whole team.
5:41 PM Jan 7th
One more thought, Steven, and that is that we're lucky in this country that baseball fans don't often, if ever, kill each other, passionate though they may be. Soccer fans in other countries, now they are a different story, and you go to a soccer match at your peril.
4:42 PM Jan 7th
Steven: Thank you. As you know, I've been waiting for this article for a long time, and it was worth the wait. I think the bottom line is that yes, we're rooting for the uniform, and yes, we do that because we identify with it as being representative of our tribe. I became a Cubs fan because I was introduced to baseball (I'm originally from a country where baseball is a minor activity at best) by a Cubs fan. That person also helped make me a weather fanatic, which I'm still grateful for, and others helped make me a baseball fan (as opposed to a Cubs fan), and I'm grateful to them as well. I have got myself near to trouble by applauding a brilliant play by the visiting team, and I've become more circumspect about doing it, but haven't stopped. For what it's worth, I think Utley was within the rules, and while I understand Joe Torre's motivation, punishing him seemed misguided to me. I was of course sorry about Tejada's injury, and as a Red Sox fan (another story), I remember that Jim Rice's injury towards the end of the 1975 regular season might well have cost the Sox a World Series title that year.

One practical advantage of being a fan of a team is knowing a lot about all the team's players, which actually can help a dispassionate analysis. So I can comment--and did--about how the Red Sox were put together in terms of development of their own players versus trades and free agency, which I can't do for say the Arizona Diamondbacks or the Seattle Mariners. Being able to do that allows me to think and comment more broadly about baseball than I would be able to if I didn't know a lot about Red Sox players, but how much better it would be if I knew about all the teams' players. But then I'd have wasted my youth...

That pyramid of John Wooden's doesn't leave out much, does it?

If you haven't read any of the late Stephen Jay Gould's baseball writings, you might enjoy them. His childhood wasn't unlike yours, culturally, geographically, and in terms of fandom, although I think he must have been more than 10 years older than you.

Anyway, Steven, this is a good and insightful article that goes way beyond baseball. Thanks.
4:15 PM Jan 7th
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