Breaking up with the Yankees

To the uninitiated, a baseball fan in the throes of a playoff or pennant run is a perplexing object to behold. A game that brought such happiness in the heady days of early summer now engenders only anxiety. Instead of giddiness at simply playing at this high level, contentment and fingernails are shorn away in nervous anticipation of the task ahead. When the script calls for one emotion, our fan substitutes the opposite: calmness is replaced by unease, pleasure becomes pain.

The duality of these emotions has led me to reflect over the years on my relationship with the sport. In the first stages of this baseball relationship, it was a desire to understand why a game of all things could elicit so much joy – and pain. Today, it is the weightier question of what first aroused my passions towards my team – those oft-derided Yankees – and more recently, has led to a worrying detachment.

In 1995, the Yankees won the chase for the wildcard spot after a fourteen-year playoff drought. For this newcomer to the baseball fraternity, the Yankees sweep of the first two playoff games (of a five game series) simply served to underline how maniacal I had become. A cap had to be worn just so, a certain shoe tied first, a radio antenna peaked at the perfect angle, all helping to ensure victory – or minimally to stave off internal panic. The closer the Yankees got to playoff series victory – just an inning away in game four – the more restless these actions became. And then, with runners on first and third in extra innings of the fifth and final game with the Yankees just strikes away from clinching, the opposing player hit a walk-off double.

The exact set of emotions that sprung up after defeat is lost to the intervening years. While there were no tears, one can conjure up a number of potential candidates for the moments afterwards: perhaps shock followed quickly by bitterness, anguish, hurt, and then a dull ache. And yet, these emotions heralded a larger change: baseball baptism, the moment when weak baseball ties based on family or civic loyalty is consummated into a deep and direct team loyalty.

New York sportswriter Roger Kahn wrote in a past generation of Yankees ascendance that “you may glory in a team triumphant, but you fall in love with a team in defeat.” Few feelings can compare to the solitude of an October loss when one knows that their team has given its all – even when measured against the lofty emotional heights of a postseason victory. Duality strikes again with the pain of defeat simply vibrant evidence of the passion that has developed.

If it is loss that can lead to faith, then victory – a recent Yankees World Series (in 2009) – is the moment where one may question the relationship. Winning can overcome so much, including sky-high salaries, big egos, and a petulant owner, as the Yankees have shown over the last decade, and especially this past season. And yet, with last year’s free agent splurge of $440 MM, this fan’s loyalty to the Yankees – and indeed his faith – has been finally shaken.

For Yankees fans baptized in the mid-1990s, a few names stand above all others: Jeter, Rivera, O’Neill, Williams, Pettite, Posada, Cone. Beyond longevity, these players exemplified a particular brand of baseball: singles, steals, stingy pitching, gritty defense, clutch plays. They typified the team characteristics that Yankees fans were proud to call their own: team above all else, selflessness, discipline, professionalism, pride, dignity, even valor. Though they were highly paid – even ‘bought’ using the proceeds of the pinstripe mint – they were Yankees in spirit well before they joined the farm system (and invariably, most had come through the farm system).

This last decade led to a revolving door of hired guns, mercenaries for the Yankees: Vazquez, Johnson, Weaver, Pavano, Giambi, Brown, Rodriguez, Wright, Lofton, Sheffield, Contreras, Igawa. The list goes on with the extent of their failures outweighed only by the size of their contracts. The team fell for the quick fix: the flashy home run hitter, the veteran nearing the end of his career, the short-term contract. Never mind that overpaying for players after the best seasons of their lives was bound to disappoint (for some, the disappointment was on the field, for others, off).

Payroll spiraled out of control. Rising from $63 MM in 1998 (an year when the Orioles outspent the Yankees by 10%) to $201 MM in 2009, it grew more than 11% annually. The size of payroll was hardly the primary issue given the financial advantages of playing in the country’s largest metropolitan market, but the growing payroll led to hubris and missteps. Used initially to retain players and then more frantically to reload the Yankees machine, more free agents meant fewer players who had learned the Yankee way in the minors. Formerly successful athletes meant egos that not even the deft touch of an iconic manager could manage. And the financial freedom from an increasingly lucrative television network only further buttressed an increasing ‘win at all costs’ mentality of ownership – and among fans.

Steroids hurt the Yankees, like it has few other teams. The real failure became not one of simple steroids use – sadly that may have been inevitable for the top spending team in an era when many of the best players in baseball were users – but lies and lack of ownership. Pettite’s and Rodriguez’s contrition were forced codas to countless previous interviews professing innocence. After his own early protestations of innocence, Giambi could only offer a ‘phantom apology’, unable to confess fully due to contract implications.

Still, as much as it used to pain this fan to admit, the Yankees never were the unlikely heroes of a modern underdog story. They dominated baseball, on the field and on the balance sheet, since 1920 when management took a moribund team, acquired a batter from Boston, and turned it into the most successful – and hated – team in the country. A team that would win championships in nearly every decade since would also earn derision at an equally prodigal clip. If the Yankees had in fact charged for the valuable service they rendered to other teams – namely, a fill in for the devil that made the attainment of nirvana all the more prized – they might have been even more successful.

There is James Thurber in the era of DiMaggio: “The majority of American males put themselves to sleep by striking out the batting order of the New York Yankees.” There is Gay Talese in the 1950s: “Wall Street bankers supposedly back the Yankees … God, Brooks Brothers, and United States Steel are believed to be solidly in the Yankees’ corner … who can fall in love with U.S. Steel?” And there is Mike Royko in the 1970s: “Hating the Yankees is as American as pizza pie, unwed mothers, and cheating on your income tax.”

And yet, when this fan started in 1995, the Yankees seemed different – if not quite an angel, at least a minor devil in one of the outermost rings of hell. Perhaps it was the catharsis brought on by a fourteen year playoff drought? Or was it that an immutable Yankees spirit of professionalism, discipline, and honor had existed from the earliest days that only now has begun to evaporate in this era of free agency and lucrative baseball networks? Or has misguided nostalgia from a youthful memory simply clouded this fan’s judgment?

Most observers will see such reflection – questioning one’s team loyalties – as idealism run amok. How can any fan, even one of the hated Yankees, criticize their team? Baseball requires faith – yes, even blind loyalty – in one’s team, regardless of perceived sins. The sacrilege of anything less is heresy to the faith of baseball (and indeed, baseball is a religion to the initiated). Besides, baseball is like any business where profits are the ultimate measure of success, and players, wins, and championships are simply way stations to this goal. The product of this business is an elaborate performance, a dramatic play put on with a leather glove and ball, but it is a performance nonetheless.

To be content with such arguments is to capitulate too easily. We live in a world of inherent inequality where baseball is a business, and yet true fans still seethe when the Yankees scoop up players. Even in a nation where ‘Joe the Plumber’ can be a national icon, true fans still expect that in baseball each team – and especially their team – should have a fair shot on the field, regardless of financial realities. Besides, blind devotion to a cause has never been a replacement for the type of faith borne of free will. Still, to answer the question of whether team detachment is appropriate – just a renegotiation with the baseball gods, instead of an irreconcilable break – we need to understand why it is that we follow our teams with such passion.

To find the catalyst of our baseball loyalties is the simpler task. For most fans, it starts with geographic or familial ties that point one way. Add in a baptismal moment – a key play, a close playoff game, a remarkable season for a soon-to-be iconic player – and a baseball fan emerges. To be sure, exceptions exist: that fan you once met who chose a team far from their home, based on simple intuition or with an understanding that their team’s values matched their own. And yet, for most of us the story of becoming a fan is a simple recipe – in slightly different proportions, but always to the same end. On the other hand, a single answer to the question “why do we continue to follow our team” is a quest destined for heartbreak. External observers – uninitiated friends, well-intentioned spouses – can try, speaking of the meditations on our geographic/family loyalties or the ‘fix’ we get from being part of a larger whole. These are powerful influences, but for most, they hardly seem to scratch the surface of our relationship.

Perhaps each game we see is a form of nostalgia, a reenactment of an incantatory moment from long ago when we first started following our team. It could the memory of a game (often from our childhood) where friends, family, and the magic of the diamond surrounded us. We could sense our mother’s passion for her team, or revel in the view from our father’s shoulders, and each baseball cheer is a remembrance of this moment. Or the nostalgia could be for a single play from long ago. That Keith Hernandez single, that Edgar Martinez double, that Jim Leyritz home run captured our heart, and has held us fast ever since. If this were a love story, that revered play or that family memory would be the opening line in a Shakespearean poem, and simply put, we were smitten.

It could be our connection to a certain player or core group of players. We don’t simply follow a team name, but the underlying cast – not the Yankees but Mattingly’s Yankees, or Puckett’s Twins, or Ripken Jr.’s Orioles. Not only were these players the face of their teams, but they took what some would call a children’s game – after all, we follow a sport where the goal, in its most simplistic form, is to bash a ball with a stick as hard as you can – and turned it into the sublime, both on and off the field. In this explanation, we need not be ignorant to the retirement or departure of favored players, as long as replacements can be found on our teams. Still, what to make of teams that change overnight – think of those 1999 Marlins – with a rabid fan base that continues with equal – nay, greater fervor?

The truth, by alternate turns exhilarating and disheartening, may be that if we had another team’s players try on the uniforms of our team for a season – perhaps, those scruffy Oakland Athletics or those rakish Kansas City Royals don Chicago Cubs pinstripes – true Cubs fans would follow them regardless. We’re set free by the fact that it is not simply wins or players that we follow, but rather the entirety of the broader team: its history, its culture, its connection to a city, the communion with our fellow fans.

Certain observers – pessimists or realists depending on how you look at it – may argue that baseball loyalty is really just a cover, a disguise for the fact that the real reason is no reason at all. Somewhat dispiritingly: we continue to follow our teams because we always have, chosen by the fickleness of fate and then hardened into rote by the passage of time. The free will of yesterday – or rather, the perceived free will – has become a force of habit.

The optimist in me is particularly attracted to an alternate explanation where following our team is a way of reflecting, meditating, on our own private histories. This is baseball in its most selfish, and therefore its most personal form: baseball as a spectacle to inspire the fan in his or her own journey. The true fan sees the battles of his team as an extension of his own battles, and she sees in the self-spun story arcs of her team, her own lessons.

For the fan who needs to convince themselves that hope springs eternal, the unexpected brilliance of a Joba Chamberlain or the September revival of the Rockies or the heroic October exploits of the Angels is evidence that it is alive and well in our time. The fan that needs to build the perseverance to face tomorrow’s challenges despite past failures, finds inspiration in the years of dogged determination by the Red Sox or the Cubs (or yes, even those Yankees of 1995). We choose the theme or values or stories we need, and then find it in our team, or vice versa – as long as it fits our own needs.

To this fan, the story of those Yankees of the 1990s spoke to that fantastical American capacity for reinvention, especially for self-made men and women. In 1995, Rivera, Posada, Pettite, Jeter, all recent call-ups from the farm system, could take a despised team, and through persistence, discipline and strength of character, seemingly remold the story of the Yankees, even if only for a short time. For this son of immigrants, raised on the stories – the hopes – of what American migration could enable, following the Yankees was simply a way to hear that old immigrant story of American lore – reinvention in a new world – told in another form. If so, Jeter, Rivera, Williams, Pettite, Cone, Posada, were not simply players, but stand-ins, actors, that existed to represent a greater set of values regardless of the reality on the field. In a brief paroxysm of idealism, this fan’s vision of the Yankees had outshone the actual, and by doing so, it had become reality for this fan ever since.

Through this lens, the reasons for this fan’s elation in 1995 and his newfound distance in 2010 is suddenly clear. This fan may never have been a Yankees fan in the traditional sense of the word, where being a fan is equated with blind zeal to a certain team name over a lifetime. Instead, the loyalty was to a certain set of values and the recent decay in Yankees ardor is not a worrying lack of faith in my team, but a reminder of the reason this fan follows, a reaffirmation of the values of old. New Yankees storylines do of course appear (the postseason redemption of Rodriguez, the continuing brilliance of Rivera), but reinvention and persistence and strength of character seem largely lost memories in this past decade of financial, moral, and personnel failures.

Despite the risks, I think that there is hope in baseball yet if this – baseball loyalties driven by our private needs – is even a small part of the reason why so many of us continue to follow. Yes, our team allegiance may be much weaker than we ever imagined, but in its own peculiar way that seems a celebration of the sport of baseball in all its glorious possibilities, rather than a refutation of our teams. For some, the truth may be that we scream the names of our teams as a shorthand for the set of characteristics and personal needs we seek to remember – and meditate on. And that perhaps, is the most remarkable duality of all.

Originally published January 2010

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