Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Being a Fan

The blogs have been ringing with the demise of the Yankees--between that and the late-season collapse of the Mets (which I have to bring up as often as possible), it's like heaven for everyone outside the NYC orbital cloud. While it's moderately annoying to have more attention devoted to a team that lost than to all four teams that are moving on (combined), it has sparked some interesting conversations, and one dialogue in particular about what it means to be a fan that interests me specifically.

It started with Joe Posnanski, a recent addition to my blogroll, talking about the "irrational fan":

[...]somewhere along the way, I did lose some of that irrational fan I had been as a boy, the one who believed that Rick Waits would win 20, the fan who sat in bed and stared at walls for hours when the Browns lost, the fan who screamed “Get a damn rebound, one damn rebound, just one,” over and over at the television when the Cleveland Cavaliers were playing. I guess I believe that most people outgrow that fan much in the same way that most people at some age stop going to keggers and stop pretending they get today’s music.

We talked about being irrational fans. There are some people I know who have not yet outgrown that phase, and some who have. But that's all tied up with love of the team and how much influence sports has over your life. The important part of that that I took away was that the team for these people was like family. When they succeeded, you felt like a part of that success, and their failures were your failures. Growing up, for many of us, the family we grew up with becomes less important and the family we create ourselves takes precedence. The sports team, at this time, drifts back to a second tier of importance. We'll cheer their victories and lament their failures, but we don't feel them as our own. But still, that bond is there. Win or lose, we love our team.

Unless that team happens to be the Yankees. Jeff Pearlman, on ESPN's Page 2, chimes in with this interesting observation:

Like the Yankees, [Marion] Jones had invested heavily in the modern American way of thinking -- that nothing but first place can be considered a success. That's why Barry Bonds allegedly broke the rules to snap the single-season and career home run records, why Floyd Landis and dozens of others apparently wouldn't mind winning the Tour de France with cheater's gold flowing through their veins, why Shawne Merriman can be suspended for using steroids and named a Pro Bowler in the same season and we're not shocked. It's why, whenever I pass a Little League ball field or a Pop Warner scrimmage or a gymnastics meet for 7-year-olds, there is inevitably a parent (or 10) chewing out his/her kid, not for a lack of effort, but for a lack of results.

It's not just Yankees fans, of course, but they are the most glaring example, and on an individual level, being a fan of winning has started to supplant being a fan of the game. We were taught growing up that "it's not whether you win or lose; it's how you play the game," and jokingly we would change it to "it's not whether you win or lose; it's whether you win," or, if we were feeling more lofty, quote Vince Lombardi (himself quoting Red Sanders of UCLA) in response: "Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing." Somewhere along the way, the easier, more personally rewarding and selfish phrase morphed from a twist or a joke into a real credo.

Being a fan isn't supposed to be about the results. It's supposed to be about supporting your team, when they screw up (let me run down the last ten years as a fan of Minnesota sports in a nutshell, shall I? Clem Haskins, Gary Anderson, 41-0, Joe Smith, Fred Smoot's boat, contraction), and rejoicing with them when they win. You're not a stockholder in the team, to demand results or else; you're family. You don't give up on family.

Again, lest you think that all columnists are stereotypers who don't know how the real fans think, here is a portion of a comment from a Yankees fan on Will Leitch's NYT column of 10/9:

To root for the most successful franchise in the history of professional sports is not a difficult thing. In fact, if you divide up the years by the 26 WS titles the Yankees have won somewhere in between 1 out of 4 and 1 out of 5. Our time is coming. We will be champions again.

I just wonder how you can be an Astros fan, or a Mariners fan. And I’m not sure what is worse, never winning, or winning once, like the Angels.

The extent to which this person doesn't get it is breathtaking. Of course it's not "difficult" to be a Yankees fan--that's why they make it difficult by demanding more and more of their team. How can you be an Astros fan, or a Mariners fan? You grow up with the team. You learn the players, you watch the game. You appreciate the small successes. You never forget that Alex Rodriguez and Randy Johnson were Mariners once, that epic NLCS game against the Phils in 1980, Joe Neikro (or was it Phil?) and Luis Sojo and Craig Biggio and Ken Griffey, Jr. Every moment doesn't have to be a championship; every playoff victory is a gift, not a right. That's how you're a fan of any team--including some for the Yankees. Just not many.

Because when you come down to it, sports teams really are a family. Love them, hate them, but always come back to them, win or lose. Which makes me wonder if those of us with less idyllic childhoods might be more prone to "picking up" new teams to root for, or why moving to certain cities might or might not inspire you to root for that city's teams, but that's another post for another time. They will never be that perfect family you remember from childhood, but they will always be there for you.

Unless they move to L.A. That's where it all breaks down, of course.

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