by Todd Barmann
There’s something about being a sports fan that loves a loser. Be honest: at some point, haven’t you found yourself involuntarily squinching your buttocks in anticipation of the Chicago Cubs—whose consistent ability to come unglued during even the best of seasons constitutes a weird source of pride for a city that banks its identity on a tradition of animal butchery and organized crime—finally making it to the World Series after a 66 (soon to be 67) year drought? Closer to home (and sadder to contemplate), perhaps some of you are even Mets or Knicks fans.
Conversely, there’s something about the ham-n-eggs sports fan that hates a winner, especially a big winner. An entire generation was turned off to the Dallas Cowboys after a string of ’70s Super Bowl appearances morphed into a national marketing wank that framed them as “America’s Team.” Their fellow Southerners the Atlanta Braves would commit a similar act of hubris, building their own legacy of resentment, and fitting neatly into the odd trend of claims to embody the qualities of the United States in an area famously and eternally ambivalent about remaining in the Union.
You’re reading this in a city that has never had a history of sporting disappointment. There have certainly been seasons when a specific New York team has performed abysmally, but you’ve never been saddled with dynastic failure across the spectrum of professional sports like Cleveland or Philadelphia, the angry, second-tier city I now call home. And the gleaming buckle holding up that championship belt is the winningest team in North American sports: your New York Yankees.
They were once MY New York Yankees, too. Having lived in and around the NY Metro most of my life, the Yankees were as much a part of my genetic make up as the family tendency to blue eyes and ear hair. My 103-year-old great-uncle was a regular when the Yanks played at the Polo Grounds before Ruth built his Bronx residence in 1923. When I was a wee lad, anyone who wanted to flip baseball cards with you but held back his Yankees was considered a grade school confidence man; in such cases, an atomic dead arm was considered fitting punishment for such crimes.
We lived in a bubble. Mets fans were a shadow people, a sad tribe prone to mustaches and beat up Mercurys with AM radios. Even in what we considered the “lean” years, 1987-1994, we muddled through let downs by clinging to the security blanket woven with the fabric of most Series wins, most AL pennants and the overall best record in history. The Yankees weren’t just the best team in baseball, they were baseball personified.
Then I moved to Philadelphia, and my world was turned upside down. Finding myself in a National League town, I made the adjustment by attending a series of games in the summer of 2005. This was during the Phillies’ mid-decade ascendency that culminated in victory at the 2008 World Series, which—combined with Philly’s foulmouthed charm—made my transition a fairly painless one. This was aided by the fact that the only time any Yankees information penetrated down here was during scattered interleague play or when there was chance for us to face them in the post-season.
It was approaching the 2009 Series when I finally had my crisis. This was it: Phillies vs. Yankees. My adult allegiance against my childhood idols. The preceding weeks saw local sports journalists dusting off every possible criticism. This was going to be a battle of flash against substance; the soulless corporation who used its money to snatch up all the hot talent versus a team of cultivated talent. And just who did they think they were, with their non-trash talking, respectable demeanors? And the whole personal appearance clause dictating players’ hair length and shaving habits? Were Garry Sheffield and Mariano Rivera somehow better players than Mike Schmidt and Jayson Werth by dint of how they groomed themselves? The conclusion we came to in post-industrial, unemployed Philly was inescapable: ‘Nem New York jerks think ‘ey’re better than us!
And, finally, I saw it; I understood how the heroes of my youth were really nothing more than an ugly machine designed to reap championships like one of those huge rotary mowers that harvests wheat and mangles the stupider field mice.
I won’t bore you with the rest, because you know how it plays out. Like the brutal organized crime gangs that helped make New York’s reputation, no one turns their backs on the Yankees. In the cold, rational light of day, the best team is almost always the one that wins. And the Yankees simply are the best. Though the rest of the country complains about their bankroll, they forget that Jeter and Rivera came up through the organization in the early ’90s, making them the offensive and defensive pivots, respectively, around which the rest of the team was built using the very best players the organization could afford. And the only thing the Yankees organization does better than win games is perform as a for-profit business. While the rest of the major leagues were scratching themselves and creating mosquito breeding pools of chaw drool, the Yankees’ head office was busy creating a regional broadcast network and forging ties with Chinese and Japanese professional leagues in an effort to further broaden their access to talent. The end result is that the Yankees aren’t just the best sports team in North America; they, along with the Dallas Cowboys and European kickball favorites Manchester United, are one of the three most valuable (and successful) sports franchises in the world.
As for maintenance of personal appearance, the Yankees’ roster answers not just to the coach, manager or whichever jowly representative of the Steinbrenner clan happens to be in the driver’s seat. The Yanks make it a point to answer to tradition. In an era when professional athletes’ behavior resembles outtakes from “The Warriors”, they aren’t afraid to reference a time when pro athletes—baseball players specifically—were role models. And not just for kids. Considering Derek Jeter’s cool, gentlemanly mien together with his ability to land Jessica Biel and Minka Kelly, would you rather be paired with him or John Kruk on hotel assignments?
So the Yanks beat Philly in ’09. In the end, while not happy, I made my peace. Fast forward three years, and my Fightin’ Phils have steadily declined and returned to their place on the standard list of Philly bellyaches (right between the Parking Authority and overly long lines at Geno’s Steaks) while they who will not be named consistently returned to the postseason. I can’t root for the Yankees anymore, but I have to love them because I love the game, and to hate the Yankees is, in the end, to hate good baseball.
There is, however, nothing that keeps me from hating Yankee fans. You bums don’t know how good you have it.
Todd Barmann is a spiffy guy.