Thursday, October 4, 2012

Out to the Ballgame

As I mentioned last time, I've wanted to talk about sports for awhile. As baseball season winds down, football season picks up, and hockey season is cancelled, it seemed like a good time to broach the topic. Now, this is normally the territory of fellow Gentleman Max Nova, but as I seem to carrying the banner solo for the time being, I'll step in where he would normally fill the gap.

Besides, he only talks about soccer, and that's lame.

Don't be bringing that noise in here, Max.

This summer I was given a challenge. Follow a sports team. I should clarify; I have "teams," I guess, and like pretty much anybody else they're the teams my family told me to like. My ancestry dates back to New York since the hipsters of the day were telling everybody how New Amsterdam was just so over, so the Giants, the Yankees, and the Rangers have been pretty much all I've ever been required to pay attention to for the sake of familial obligation. Actually, nix the Rangers from the list. No one in my family cares about hockey.

No, for the sake of this challenge, I was given two very specific rules. First, I had to follow a team. Watch their games, learn their players, and keep up with their standings heading into the playoffs. I thought that would be pretty easy; I'd just keep up with the Yankees. Then came the second rule. No Yankees. The Yankees, I was informed, don't count. It's not really being a sports fan if you follow the Bronx Bombers, for reasons I'll get to later (since I didn't understand at first myself).

So at first I thought, "okay, I'm living on Long Island, the heart of Mets territory, I'll root for the Mets." Then I quickly had the follow-up thought "why would I ever, ever do that to myself?" A better candidate immediately came to mind - the boys from my adopted state of Maryland, the Baltimore Orioles. Also, since the Yankees used to be the Orioles, I thought this was a clever work-around of the second stipulation.

Those pinstripes aren't an accident.

Now, the Os have had a fantastic season. At the time of this writing they're still in the playoff race, had just as good a year as the Yankees did, and gave me some really good moments and good stories.

They also made me realize why I will never, ever be a real sports fan.

Towards the end of the summer, I got to do something I never thought I would. I went to a ballgame with my old man. It only took him around 30 years, but he finally offered me a ticket to go to Yankee Stadium with him and watch our boys play.

I was already keeping up with the Os at this point, but I wasn't going to pass up what was probably a once-in-a-lifetime chance. It also gave me a chance to see the new Yankee Stadium, and compare it to Camden Yards, the only other major league ballpark I'd ever been to. The difference is obvious from the get-go. Oriole Park and Camden Yards are like a cathedral. It's a stately, venerable construct, beckoning to its followers from its dominating point on the Pratt Street skyline. By comparison, the new Yankee Stadium is like an evengelical megachurch. It's like stepping into a miniature model of New York City itself. It's all flashing lights and huge television screens, and merchandise store after merchandise store, endlessly hawking the constant stream of Yankees wardrobe and memorabilia. I never got to see the old park, but I could tell just by looking across the street at where it once stood that there was a huge difference not just between the ballpark I knew in Baltimore and the one I was seeing here, but an enormous distance between the House That Ruth Built and the House That Steinbrenner Bought.

We were playing the Angels on a gorgeous afternoon. The Yanks were bringing the thunder, with Jeter, Granderson, Teixiera, Swisher, and Cano all on hand to make A-Rod look a little less terrible. Meanwhile, on the Oakland side of things, Mike Trout was making me stand up and take notice. This 20-year-old kid was going hit-for-hit with Jeter, and cementing in person the talent I'd already seen him exhibit on TV. You could feel the murmur pass through the crowd on-hand whenever Trout stepped up to the plate, as people anxiously edged up to see if he was about to put one over the fence.

The best moment of the day came when, at the top of the 9th and the Yankees in the lead, the crowd stood up in unison as the final pitch of the game was thrown. It was a full count, and when the ball zipped across the plate and signaled a victory for the Bombers, an explosive breath was let out in concert. A cheer erupted from the stadium, and the New York fans went home happy. Dad told me he was happy I got to see a win, and we talked about the game as we headed home.

It was a good day.

However, there was a big difference between me and everybody else in that stadium when Trout stepped up to the plate. Or anybody on the Angel's roster. I was really hoping he'd knock it out of the park.

So what I discovered is that I really love sports. Baseball, football, even golf - I can get into it with the best of them. I learned what all those positions I only knew the names of before actually do. I kept up with scores and standings and figured out who was good and who's going to keep being an industry punchline.

Knock, knock,

At no point, however, did I ever develop any attachment to the Orioles greater than what I already had for the Yankees. Or the Angels. Or the Mets, or the Rockies, or the Blue Jays, and so on and so forth. See, that's why I'll never be a real sports fan as the concept is held in today's society. Because I just can't bring myself to root against anybody.
Well, with one exception.

Nobody likes a sore winner, Boston.

Since I compared ballparks to houses of worship earlier, and the sports team you follow practically is a religion for a lot of people, can't you just see the scripture of the Red Sox? Follow now as I read, from the Book of Ruth, "Lo, the Bostonians shall abandon the Bambino, and thus they shall be cursed for four score and seven years, and the LORD will turn his gaze from them, and their ring fingers shall go unadorned."

Yeah, but seriously, screw the Red Sox.

Anyway, that's my disconnect with the world of sports fans as I see it. I guess I don't really get behind the idea of rivalries and grudges. I really liked watching Mike Trout play, he was an amazing talent. It didn't really matter much to me that he was playing against the team I was supposed to cheer for. Rivalry in sports is a big part of being a fan of a particular team. Not just the "age-old rivalries" fans and broadcasters like to tout, but the simple every day "I will root for my team over other teams" mentality. I guess I just don't share in that. I kind of just like watching the game. It was great watching the Orioles have a fantastic season, but by the same token I was constantly impressed by the Rangers and the Nationals. I felt bad for Houston and Chicago, despite having no reason to. I just wanted to see people go home happy.

Don't get me wrong, when the Giants won the last Super Bowl I was thrilled. But I was thrilled when Green Bay won it, and when the Saints won, and I probably wouldn't have really been upset if the Patriots had pulled it out. I like watching the victory celebrations, and I always feel bad for the other team, shuffling off the field, making me feel out of place as the people around me call them names. And this brings me back to the Yankees, and how I came to understand the admonition that if you're a Yankees fan, you're not really a sports fan (at least as it pertains to baseball).

If you're a fan of the Yankees, you don't really understand what it's like to not be a Yankees fan.

How many other franchises could field an entire team from the list of all-time greats who were on their roster? The worship-level admiration for Cal Ripken Jr. I saw in Baltimore makes a lot more sense to me now. Not only was he one of the best to ever put on a uniform, but Baltimorians can point to him and say "you didn't get this one, Yankees. This one is ours." Of the 108 World Series ever played, the Yankees have won 27 of them. That means on any given year in baseball history, there's a 25% chance the Yankees won everything, and an even higher chance that they at least made it to the big show, since they've also won the pennant race 40 times. They have the greatest record, by a wide margin, in all of baseball, and haven't had a losing season in over 20 years.

Kinda makes you want to just slap this guy.

So how do you think it feels to be a fan of literally any other team in the country and have to know that from an objective standpoint, your team is not the best? That mathematically speaking, the Yankees are the greatest team in baseball? Well, having spent a season off from the Bombers, I'll tell you, it's not such a great feeling. Fortunately, because I have great timing, the season I chose to follow the Orioles was the one they did just as well as the Yankees did, so it wasn't that bad a transition. Also, full disclosure, it might help a little that if there's any team my dad dislikes, it's Baltimore.

My Aunt Theresa though, God rest her soul, was a Mets fan her whole life. I don't know how she did it.

So Yankees fans have never had the challenge of sticking with their team through the bad times. That's the dedication to a franchise that marks a real fan of a team - liking them even when they're terrible. So next time you meet a devoted Cubs fan (like former Gentleman Dizzy Dan Strauss, for example), don't give them sympathy. They deserve respect. Compare what it takes to be a Yankees fan, when literally on any given year there's a 1-in-4 chance you'll see your team beat out 28 others, to the Cubs fan, who hasn't seen a World Series victory in 104 years, or even a pennant in almost 70. Who would you say it takes more dedication to stand behind? I'm being serious, this isn't meant to disrespect the Cubs or their fans. This summer made me realize, sticking with anybody that's not the Yankees takes a level of commitment to a team that anybody who is a lifelong-Yankees fan just can't understand. It also made me realize that commitment of that level to any team is something that I just don't seem to be able to muster up - not when I feel it suits me a lot better to cheer for every team.

Sorry Ortiz - every team that matters.

This was a good year to get into sports. I watched a few Masters Tournaments in golf and found out that the sport can actually be very tense and exciting. The Olympics happened, and not only did I get to watch the opening ceremony with one of our esteemed Guest Gentlemen (and I totally called what the set was going to be, she can vouch for my psychic powers), but I speculated about medal races and individual competitors and discussed how each country was doing as the event - which probably does more for the process of global unity than anybody either gives it credit or or takes advantage of - progressed. I also learned a very valuable lesson that I've been overlooking for too long.

I know fellow Gentleman Jason Heat is of a very anti-sports mindset. He does not get into games at all, does not care to watch them, and has no interest in participating in discussion. What I discovered walking the streets of Baltimore after Otakon and striking up conversations with random O's fans coming out of the game was that following sports opens up whole new avenues of places to go, people to talk to, and conversations to start. I had a whole conversation with a guy helping me out at a car dealership about Mike Trout, Stephen Strasburg, and Tsuyoshi Wada. We talked about the Jets chances this season (none!) and even a little bit about basketball (which I'll admit I still know nothing about, except that the Knicks have been awful for years).

It's just a great way to connect with people. Sports are a part of this country, a part of this planet, a part of the human experience, and it's a whole lot more interesting to be a part of that conversation than standing around watching it happen.

So it's been a great summer for sports, and now I think it'll be a great fall, too. And who knows, maybe this winter, provided hockey season happens, I'll follow the Rangers, or maybe the Caps (if I want to get that Mets-fan experience), just to see how I like it. One thing I already know, the biggest lesson I took out of all this - it sure is fun to go see a ballgame with your old man.

Wherever I end up, whatever city I put down roots in, and whenever they end up actually being born, I know I can't wait to take my own kids out to the ballgame.

Take me out to the park . . . buy me some peanuts and cracker jack . . .I don't care if I ever get back . . .


jbrinke said...

As far as I can tell, sports (baseball specifically) can be a link between generations - Europe may be able to say they have 10 generations that have lived in a county, or have a castle. I grew up in civil war country - it's great to have that connection to history, but you know what battlefields are? big open stretches of nothing where a bunch of people died. I prefer the romanticism of sitting in a seat to watch guys participate in something virtually unchanged in 100 years (we will not discuss the DH, if we ignore it long enough, maybe it will go away).
I've been to fenway & it's tiny green seats and big green wall. I've been to wrigley, with it's sadly retrofitted lights and seats on buildings across the street. It's a nice way to slow down for an afternoon that doesn't involve walking over empty hills where a generations of people shot at each other.
I'm not entirely sure where I was going with this comment but there is definitely a connection that happens at sporting events that doesn't really happen anywhere else - in an ideal world you're all pulling for the same team, or at least civil to those who are not on your side.
And you can argue about the infield fly rule...

David Pratt said...

Can we argue about the infield fly rule? Because it seems like nobody understands what it entails.

I made a brief religion analogy, but your comment reminded me that another great comparison for sports (especially football) is a battlefield with two warring tribes competing for territory. It's definitely a more civil way of bringing people together than actual gladiatorial combat or warfare.

jbrinke said...

Infield fly rule is a judgement call - but it does have rules attached to it. It *has* to involve an infielder.
The recent one was controversial b/c it also involved the center fielder, who, etiquette states, rules the outfield. If the 2nd basemen or shortstop has backed up into the outfield, is called off the play by the CF and the CF doesn't make the play... then it should be a base hit.
if the 2b backs up and intentionally drops a pop-up in order to turn a double play then infield fly applies.
Even in the middle of center field.
it's a hard call, and an odd rule. but one that keeps the game a bit gentlemanly & human.