Sympathy For The Devil?: What’s Missing In Yanks Fans

10 11 2009

Last Wednesday, at the very moment when the New York Yankees defeated the Philadelphia Phillies to clinch the 27th World Series in team history — 17 more than the closest ‘competitor’ — the lone sound prevailing on 11th Street in the East Village of Manhattan, less than nine miles from Yankee Stadium, was a car alarm left chanting after a garbage truck had veered too close.

It was a peculiar few minutes, to be sure, especially for anyone who’d experienced the recent postseason runs in Boston and Philadelphia in which the streets flooded, thick and mad with life. And not just the streets around the stadium. Streets across the city. Streets in the suburbs. Streets on campuses 500, 800, 2,000 miles away.

But right around midnight as November 4, 2009 slipped into winter, a neighborhood 30 blocks south of the viewing party at Times Square carried on in silence, or whatever approximation of silence Manhattan can muster.

Hold on, you’ll say: New York is simply too big for the whole city to erupt; the celebrations were kept indoors. And some of that is true. But the clean streets, the ones that would have been pounded by thousands of feet across all of Philadelphia (even for a repeat championship), or anywhere else, meant something more.

They told a story of entitlement. Of a fan base* that has long been a given whatever it wants – and more – by an acquiescing ownership. Of a collection of individuals who, by blind chance or cowardly preference, chose to support the New York Yankees and the decisions made by their management. It’s story of people who chose to support a team that attacks baseball the way analysts and traders and i-bankers attacked the American financial system: with the wink-wink implication that just because something is legal (NINJA loans were, after all, not illegal; neither is putting up a payroll over 200mm), it isn’t disgraceful.

*Note: there are, of course, a ton of real Yankees fans who understand the game and have an appreciation of the team for the same reason we have ours: because they’ve long been fans of baseball and, by proxy, the Yanks. This essay is not about you guys. It’s about the other Yankees fan, the one that celebrated the title, unblinking, and attended the parade for reasons beyond an excuse to get out of work. In fairness, this Yankees team was pretty likable. Even Tex. So, congrats to you guys and the collection of Yanks for winning the WS. It was a hell of a series. Enjoy a year of being dicks. We sure did.

We resent Yankees fans for their complicity in all of that, certainly, but what makes non-Yanks fans so spiteful toward the Pinstriped Poseurs is our sense that they will never know the pain of aligning with any other team. That they’re somehow spared the agony that attends the rest of us. To be a fan of any other team requires the willful acceptance of borderless agony. To be a Yankees fan requires the $18.95 for a Jeter t-shirt.

But maybe, when those fans are seen this way, our venom is misdirected. Maybe being a Yankees fan is a form of existential punishment in itself. Maybe, in the end, we should look on them with the same approach that we turn toward child actors who grow up and never seem fully connected to this earth we all share.

As far as sports go, the greater mass of New York Yankees fans will never know a deeper form of joy, the one still possible in the minds (or the eternal fantasies) of the 29 other teams in Major League Baseball. More, they’ll never know the kind of pain and anguish it takes to fuse a fanbase together, to cement them with a bond stronger than the shared, benign pleasantness of a good ballclub.

And without the lows ascending to peaks, the highs are nothing but hills. Existence is a mundane exercise of elevated expectation and sanded-down sensation. And if sports are simulations, or possibly distillations, of life, the average Yankees fan is a flatliner, going without those dramatic, bruising but beautiful swings that sweep through the common fan. Worse, he’s a pretender.

“You can hold back from the suffering of the world,” Kafka wrote. “You have free permission to do so and it is in accordance with your nature. But perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could have avoided.”

So this essay isn’t attempting to attack Yankees fans, but rather, call into question on what goes missing when one submits to Yankee fandom. To ask whether a Yanks fan takes on a sort of spiritual poverty, as a buddy of mine puts it, as a trade-off for success. And we have to be reasonable: if the point of playing sports is winning (arguable, I guess, but let’s agree), the Yankees are quite possibly the world’s best organization at doing just that. So, you can’t fault Yanks fans too much — what fans would reasonably turn away from that kind of tradition? The ones, I’d say, that understand that without the hard ups and harsh downs, life’s nothing but a Valium bender.

Celebration, in all its types, requires two central things: (1) Success and (2) The recognition of impermanence. To actually celebrate, one must welcome the knowledge that this all, no matter how beautiful, no matter how bright, will all come to an end. Eat, drink and be merry, the saying goes, for tomorrow we die. A party every day ceases to be a party; a vacation gets its spark from its infrequency.

The rest of fandom finds it natural internalize that famous Grateful Dead line: When life looks like easy street, there is danger at your door. That kind of mentality raises the stakes. It provides a base state for heightened emotion – it, in short, gives us the forum in which to scream, to yell, to hum with the mania that sports, for better or worse, allow us. Life’s short, we know. To hold back is to die early.

The Yankees fan knows, for him, the opposite is true. When things are bad, look up, because another purchased player is around the corner. They have a permanent life raft; they play, with risk forever mitigated, a lifelong game of bumper-bowling.

So maybe that’s why we revile Yankees fans so much. That they just don’t seem to ever earn the good times – they just sort of hang around and come back out when the time’s right. We see them screaming ‘We did it!’ and we wonder, why, exactly that ‘NY’ hat looks so new. But depth of fandom is simply not something valued in the Yankee universe as it is elsewhere. Maybe it’s the daily accommodation of tourists that New Yorkers endure – although the greater majority of people who go to Yankees games hail from Jersey, according to a 1998 survey (;s=3;site=1). But whatever the case, there’s a strange tolerance for the passing fan, the hanger-on, that seems to betray the average Yankees fan’s desire to just fit in. And what better way to fit in than to craft yourself around the cool kids? (like, say, the guy dating Minka Kelly)

The closest modern Yankees fans have ever gotten to the genuine, crushing weight of failure came in 2004, when one incredibly rich baseball team from Boston beat another rich team from New York after falling behind by three games in the ALCS, effectively inverting the entire baseball world. That series did a number on Yankees fans’ psyches. The shortstop on our men’s league team – note: he’s a tremendous kid, prone to actually meaning statements like this – calls it the worst moment of his life.

But let’s examine that statement for a second. His rationale was that the loss completely decimated the relationship between the Yankee and Red Sox faithful, knocking Yanks fans off their pedestal and ending the ‘1918’ chants they showered on Sox fans for the better part of a decade. But nowhere does he talk about the series itself being cause for disappointment. It’s as if the World Series didn’t matter. All that did was holding on to that condescending posture.

So, for this guy, the sadness didn’t come from a season ending. It came from the fact that he had to see the baseball world like the rest of us. He had to suffer with us pedestrians.

And, in the words of the guys from the 90’s Brit rock group The Pulp:

You’ll never live like common people,
you’ll never do what common people do,
you’ll never fail like common people,
you’ll never watch your life slide out of view,
and dance and drink and screw,
because there’s nothing else to do

It’s just not in the makeup of the Yankees fan to endure the bad. To watch, as Pulp sings in the previous verse, the roaches climb the wall. So, in the absence of real feeling and real adversity, what Yankees fans must do is, well, fake it.

1 – They have to fake failure.

We’d heard all year long about the Return to Glory, how this team was the one to break that nearly 10-year drought that had plagued Yankeedom. Nevermind that the Cubs haven’t won the World Series in more than 100 years, or the Pirates haven’t won in 30 years now, piling up a run of unprecedented futility that saw the Buccos become, in 2009, the first team in American professional sports to record 17 straight losing seasons.

Yes, the Yankees had not won a World Series since 2000. But during that same time, they also compiled the best record in all of baseball, putting up 944 total wins in the 10-year period dating back to the ’00 win. Wilt Chamberlain had longer ‘droughts.’

2 – They have to fake antagonists.

During postgame interviews, Yankees players talked about the adversity the team overcame this year. And what’s crazy is that people bought it. Check out this story from

‘Alex Rodriguez, the most dangerous threat in the lineup, sat up in bed in a rehab center in Colorado fighting off nightmares that his injured hip would keep him from getting on the field this season.

Starting right fielder Xavier Nady felt a pop in his elbow, the beginning of what would become a season-ending injury. Chien-Ming Wang, one of the team’s starting pitchers, couldn’t find the strike zone, his lower body weakened from an injury suffered the year before. Brian Bruney, then one of the team’s best relief pitchers, sat for an MRI on his bum elbow.’

A-Rod came back a month into the year. Nady was easily replaced by a combination of outfielders and, well, the productive, $180-million-dollar bat of Mark Teixeira. Wang? It didn’t hurt so bad with $243 million of new arms in CC Sabathia and AJ Burnett.

The only adversity the Yanks overcame this year was playing with the entire section of Yankees Stadium closest to the field virtually empty. And it wasn’t until people like Kate Hudson started filling those seats that they really turned it on, anyway (playing .700 baseball for the last half of the year).

3 – They have to fake passion.

A friend of who lived in LA, talking about the things she found strangest about moving to the West Coast, told a story about fashion in Southern California. Evidently, people still dress for the seasons as if they live on the East Coast, heedless of the omnipresent 70-degree temperatures. Shorts and short sleeves in the summer. Parkas in the winter. Still 70 degrees every day. An emulation of practicality as a way of adorning the ego, detached completely from the original reason behind adjusting for the seasons.

It’s kind of like this for Yankees fans. They see people seized with emotion, acting out of glee (or, in Philly, some boiling stew of rage and joy and booze-soaked testosterone – we’re really awful fans, but we’re still better than people at Yanks games), and recreate it. They’

But it’s the fans who understand, again, how damn close failure is to success that stand up for the entire at-bat when there’s a guy at second with two outs, because we know that the smallest mistake can end a year – and, quite possibly, the decade. Not the people who show up and sit down for nine innings and make a stadium sound like a morning subway train.

Sure, it got loud when the Yanks won the Series. But by that time, the crowd recognized what was going on. A crew of pretenders highly conditioned to begging for TV time, they sprung into action, taking their cues from the thousands of fans who had cheered for World Series before them. It doesn’t take a fan to cheer when everybody else is. It takes someone just willing to imitate – and when that imitation’s in front of a national audience affirming every move, well, that’s what actors do best.


Comfort The Killer

17 12 2008

Word-finding, like archaeology, requires a special touch. A method focused by years of effort and input both designed to give the brain (or the hand) the ability to map out and follow to perfection the best possible path. You dig too hard, you lose track of the sentence, fracturing and thus destroying the meaning of the passage like you would crack a fossil; you dust too gently, and you’re stuck with nothing of more than passing interest. Which is to say, nothing more than the dust itself.

For archaeologists, the training tends to stay more regimented: a college program featuring hands-on work, then apprenticeships, then methodically working one’s way up the hierarchy in digs. For producers of language, the training shrinks down to the personal. It involves the constant, almost gluttonous digestion of written material – selective only to a degree: the gourmet should be savored, but the bad stuff has its place.

But they both share a central necessity: upkeep. Dulled eyes can miss the signature glisten of fossilized prehistory; an errant mind will unravel in a turn of phrase. And nothing so blunts a sharp edge than a life of comfort.

Our generation has enjoyed a brand of comfort unparalleled in the world’s history. We are the recliners, the coddled, the children for whom the once-implausible, if not impossible luxury of immediate satisfaction became commonplace. We get our information at a speed rivaling – and often outpacing – our own brainwaves, our TV on demand. The connection between work and goods has never been more invisible, and the emphasis on work itself never lighter.

It’s the sort of comfort that dulls broadly, removing quietly and stealthily from a generation the drive to create and the willingness to fight to make it happen. It’s the sort of comfort that makes us now ask, Can happiness, comfort and creativity all breathe in the same space? Or does one – maybe, do two – of the other forces have to give up their supplies of air so that creation can suck in a full breath of oxygen before embarking? In the long run of artistic and professional achievement, the answer has been, largely, no. For greatness to arise, a base state of desperation and unease appears to have to precede the ascent.

E.B. White, before he became staff at the New Yorker and wrote Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, more or less called Grand Central Terminal home. Hemingway lived in a tiny flat in Paris with his wife, spending little to no money on anything, although he made an exception for the ponies (until he got real good – then he made his money there). Orwell started his writing career at Wigan Piers in England, which was then — and largely remains now — nothing more than a sudsy pit. MLK wrote perhaps his finest work from behind bars. The examples span genres and media: Jonathan Larson was crammed into a flat the size of a SmartCar in the East Village when he wrote Rent; Ken Grossman, founder of Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, told me that he had to work two jobs during the first years of the brewery, just to feed his family.

Comfort, as far as personal elevation is concerned, is a dangerous thing. In much the same way that perpetual winning in sports clouds a team’s ability to recognize its own shortcomings – the ones that may prove ultimately to be their undoing – comfort and security provides men* with a toxic sense of well-being. They sate hunger, quench the thirst for more. In an effort to stay in comfort’s good graces, men are quick to slam shut the mental doors that hold it in.

The status quo is thus embraced. Questions about truth, reflection about one’s own self and one’s own life and certain, less immediately beneficial passions, are pushed aside. To maintain a state of comfort, everything beyond that central concern becomes superfluous. To the end of keeping up a milquetoast, bland sense of happiness, taking a risk to achieve something of lasting greatness has no place.

Happiness and comfort, too, have become confused in American life. To defer back to Aristotle – which seems a firm enough thing to do – happiness exists as state of ‘soul in accord,’ as the realization of our own abilities, longings and potential. For him, happiness exists when we flourish and fall in stride with The Good. He includes nothing in his definition of happiness about accumulation of goods or other trappings, the likes of which produce the feeling of comfort. In fact, he writes that those externals cannot truly be factored into happiness because of their essential transience – we can quickly be stripped of our wealth and our prestige.

And that transience, of course, places those agents of comfort in great demand. When achieved, comfort is clung to – by nature, comfort implies a reticence to change. Imagine yourself in a chair: in an uncomfortable position, you feel compelled to change; once you hit that comfortable arrangement, you stay. There are enough ass indents on this country’s couches to make this point by themselves.

As such, comfort removes the mandate of creation – and more, it strips from men the will to finish the job, as important as the inspiration itself. One can want to create, one can even try to create, but both aren’t enough. Without completion, none of that matters – a thought without expression dies on the vine. A building that goes only halfway up is forever derelict.

Comfort provides a cushion, notice that if the quest isn’t accomplished, there’ll be a fallback. In an environment of comfort, failure is always an option. Not great, public failure, but the millions of little daily failures – failures of effort, of conscience, of soul, of courage, of perseverance – that together conspire to make a life nothing beyond unremarkable.

Men are allowed to cut themselves some slack, to wait for the ghostly apparition of the The Right Time; they give themselves the luxury of Letting Inspiration Strike instead of fighting, battling to improve their lot and leave proof that they did exist. And when men in comfort allow themselves to wait for their Muse to whisper in their ears, they’ll do nothing but wait, going to their graves with nothing but years of extinguished dreams and miles of slack cut.

*Men, for the sake of this essay, refers to both genders.

Squirrels In Trees

20 11 2008

There we were, drunk and giddy in the fast-fading remnants of the night, and a few guitars came out, spawning some sputtering discussion and head-nodding, the most our minds and terribly Caucasian notions of rhythm could muster at that hour. It was about 3 a.m. the night Daylight Savings Time ended, and we were upstairs at a house party and a kid intervenes in the conversation.

The discussion had veered toward the topic of classical music (somehow), and he interjects with a rant about how Pachelbel’s Canon (linked here – forward to 1:50, you’ll recognize it) has no musical validity and all and how it’s just ‘garbage pop.’ He argued that it was just a product of the music around it, that it didn’t influence anything at all – it was merely a pleasant and unusually resilient cultural blip, a polished version of music that had once been pioneering and was now entrenched. It was like saying that Pachelbel’s Canon sucked because it didn’t invent the F chord.

And I got to thinking about this nasty condition we have.

Of all the things that pin our generation to indecision and inertia, the rush to criticize, to provide an unsolicited and incomplete critique, should embarrass us most. We have become a nation of amateur critics, of hacks who seek not to enable and encourage, but to maim. Worst of all, that harsh critique we turn on the world turns into crushing self-awareness, of a form so bad that it keeps us from creating, from leaving any proof of our lives except for the airy nothingness of judgment passed.

First, a defense of criticism: We do need it. All of us. Just in doses. Criticism is the scalpel, the sandpaper, the extra touch of paint or the hallowed and underused delete key. Criticism, ingested correctly, only refines our work, whether that work be words or, hell, breakfast quiche. Everything can tolerate a little tinkering, some things more than others. In the proper amounts, and with an altruistic, compassionate mind at the center, criticism makes life better.

On a personality-formation and personality-maintenance level, mental critique is essential and natural. We form the notion of Who We Are as much from what we enjoy and align ourselves with as we do with what we find objectionable, what we rally against. We imitate the good, work against the bad. In high school, the notions of nerds and jocks exist, theoretically, as much because they’re smart/athletic as because they’re not the other. (Yes, yes, they can blend, but you get the idea)

That said, back to the need for a compassionate core. Here’s where we must alter our kindergarten idiom that, unless we have something nice to say, we shouldn’t say anything at all to something along the lines of unless we have something constructive to say, we shouldn’t say anything. Criticism, ideally communicated, should always seek to improve, not to demean.

We need to apply it with an eye toward bettering this race, toward polishing our worlds of art, thought, justice – toward making everything better, instead of just tearing everything down compulsively. We’re in this together, all of us. And if this vision sounds hopelessly corny (it does) it’s better than the reality of what we have right now.

What we have on our hands is a generation of wannabe iconoclasts, unyielding throngs of snarky snipers who throw barbs from afar. It’s the height of cowardice. It’s no longer that those who cannot do, teach. It’s that those who cannot do, criticize.

And why? Has it always been this way? Almost definitely: Keats was rumored to have died because of the stress and despair of his bad reviews. But has criticism always been this loud and this omnipresent? Certainly not.

On a basic level, people react in two ways to their peers standing out. They cheer or they boo, loudly or to themselves. That has, as far I know, been pretty much the case ever since the Romans were going crazy for Russell Crowe (and even earlier, some say!).

People want to be heard. They want to feel strong, even superior. And when others assert themselves, the act of chipping away at the edifice of courage and inspiration needed to create, to lead, to stand out is an easier task – especially when millions of others are willing to lend a hand – than building up the requisite courage and inspiration to push one’s self higher. To tear down means to not have to require more from one’s own life because, without the foil character of the ambitious, confident counterpart, there’s nothing to pale in comparison to.

All around us now, we have a new breed of entitled, enabled critics, bred from parental insistence of uniqueness, by the American party line that Everyone Is Special, not the former line of You’re Only Special If You Prove It method that drove some of our greatest figures to, well, prove it. Andrew Carnegie’s dad didn’t bring him to self-esteem camp.

This kind of new teaching gives rise to a generation bent on admiring its own brilliance and set on revealing the flaws in others. Confidence in one’s abilities can certainly be a good thing, but only if the brilliance is cultured. The problem is, so strong is the message that You’re So Special that cultivation doesn’t happen; leave that to the pedestrians. Nothing is produced, only consumed.

And now, armchair critics have a forum that allows them to spray as much vitriol as they can muster up. Which is, as we’ve seen, a hell of a lot. The Internet has given us capability to condemn without accountability, repercussion or thought.

You can write a post calling a book that took seven years for the author write an unreadable piece of shit, veiled by anonymity, and then head over to check the lines for that night’s NBA action. Thoughtful critique cannot breathe in this environment, choked off by a cloud of simple, Twitteresque comments that do nothing but feed the famished egos of the critics.

The greatest tragedy in all of this is the harshness with which we judge our own work, a condition that stems from this culture of criticism. Instead of diving headlong into a project, we over-analyze. Then frustration sets in, and so does mental paralysis. The work is, sadly, dead at birth.

The last story in Dave Eggers’ short story collection How We Are Hungry is called ‘After I Fell In The River And Before I Drowned.’ In it, he writes about this dog, this bullet of a creature that loves running, loves the way that the trees blur and the muscles twitch and the wind rips at his cheeks as he and his friends race through the woods every day, a race that culminates in a leap over a ravine, one that ultimately results in his death but until his death is the center of his world, the height of life. But while these dogs are racing, squirrels chirp from the trees, scattering insults, quick ones like ‘That was not very good’ or ‘that is very ugly.’ The dogs sometimes catch a squirrel and kill it, squeezing it between their jaws as the squirrel still chirps with its dying breath. But the squirrels’ numbers never dwindle. More and more squirrels show up, saying the same things. Just louder. And louder.

That leap is the leap that every person who wants to create must make. The willingness to make that leap after racing through the woods, instead of sitting in trees and jeering, is a form of victory in itself. But not making it, not even coming down from the trees, is nothing but a lifetime of deaths, the thousands of deaths that await cowards before their ultimate demise, to paraphrase Shakespeare.

When my late professor, Jack Falla, was in the finishing stages of his novel, he and I sat down for a catch-up lunch at a Chinese place on Beacon Street. He seemed nervous. After thousands of stories, a few nonfiction/memoir books, thousands more hours of interviewing, teaching and generally making everyone love him, he was afraid of how the novel would be received once it was out of his hands.

“Scheity,” he said, looking straight down at his plate. “I just don’t know if I’m gonna be able to take the reviews.”

He decided, as the great ones do, to just point to the scoreboard.

But how many, because of criticism both external and internal, never get up the courage to try to put one up on the board?

Barack Obama. Yes.

5 11 2008

‘And although it seems heaven sent
We ain’t ready, to see a black President’

Tupac Shakur, Changes (1995)

Is this the dream fulfilled?

Is this the day, the day when our country’s little children – and their little children and their little children – have been judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their characters? When suddenly what wasn’t even considered a possibility becomes a reality? When we turn our backs on what’s come before and look to the future and understand, reminding ourselves of the failures behind us, that we can all make a difference, that we can form, after all, a more perfect union?

He spoke and we listened and in turn, we spoke louder, together and fully. A generation that never had a voice has suddenly bellowed.

How could we have possibly seen this, even four short years ago?  Could we have imagined a black man, even in these times, not only winning this election, but defeating a war hero opponent by a landslide?

On this night, we see ourselves atop one of our history’s highest peaks. Of all of the mythologies that galvanize this great continent, few have enjoyed more staying power than the intertwined ideas of the Melting Pot and infinite opportunity, that this country was founded on diversity and possibility, and all it took to ascend indefinitely was a sharp and shrewd mind and a tireless effort.

But before tonight, those allegories have been nothing but words and simple fantasies, tethered to the sad fragments of our past, dark and damning ghosts like Jim Crow, the notion of three-fifths, the bullet inside Martin Luther King, Jr. Over time, the increase of blacks in the workforce and the influx of blacks with college degrees chipped away at racism, while the integration of sports and the importance of blacks in music, from blues to hip-hop sanded more of it away.

But then the Fortune 500 would come out, and as of 2006, blacks occupied only four of the CEO spots. At the end of the same year, median household income for whites stood at $50,673; for blacks, it was $31,969. The stats go on and on, and yes, stats only tell part of the story, but the most glaring message behind these statistics is that, outside of the thin avenues of entertainment and athletics, blacks rose to prominence in so few ways. Terribly few ways.

That mythology of equality, of all men being created equal, had such little resonance under the harsh glare of these facts. Tonight, that idea has roots. Tonight, it is no longer mere floating, hollow words, the preserve of rhetoricians.

We’d be fools to assume that this will change everything. But we’d be missing out on the moment if we don’t think that we just witnessed a moment that will irrevocably change the course of American life.

A Town Chained To Itself

27 10 2008

The fine and educated people employed at the Philadelphia Art Museum tolerate the runners, the daily thousands who, for some reason or another, are in Philadelphia and because they’re in Philadelphia, succumb to the compulsion to sprint up the Museum’s steps and turn around, staring down into the core of Philly, jump in the air, hands shot skyward, and yell ‘Adrian.’

It’s either a pity or a triumph – much like the city itself – that the most famous sculpture at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is outside of it. At the base of those famous steps, hidden often in shadow, it stands eight feet, six inches tall, and is more than two millenia younger than its bronze brethren inside. It’s the statue of Rocky, Stallone’s character, the character that’s come to represent, for good and for bad, the Philadelphia identity, the Philadelphia spirit.

And in a time when the nation’s turning its eyes to Philly for reasons other than its position as the ugliest city in America, we see just how pitch-perfect and, thus tragic, Stallone’s distillation of the Philadelphia soul was, and we wonder, if the Phillies do manage to break the curse tonight, will Rocky still ring as true? Without a curse to symbolize the role of underdogs, must Philadelphians start to re-define themselves?

Rocky meant, and means, so much to Philadelphia because of its essential compression of the pain of being Philadelphian. Inside the Stallion’s steel jaw and widowmaking blows were packed the accumulated suffering and disenfranchisement and down-and-out futility of living in a city that’s done nothing but crumbled over the past half-century, a city of perpetual underdogs. Philadelphia’s poet would never be a writer; it would have to be a fighter, the tragic figure of American sports, a colossal rat in a maze whose successes are momentarily cheered and then forgotten as he gives his brain, his humanity, his life to the crowd.

Rocky gave Philadelphians a way out of this decay, a ticket from South Philly to center stage at Caesar’s. It was the Springsteen story, the one where getting out is all that matters and as long as you can keep pushing back the sunrise, you’ll be ok. More, it was the Alger rags-to-riches, up-by-your-bootstraps, American Dream story, which has become the most dangerous allegory in our time, as it postulates a virtual impossibility yet implies falling short of The Dream is unforgivable, a mark of weakness and inferiority.

Most dangerously, Rocky told its audiences that all you had to do was work hard, work harder, and one day you’ll be there – an idea that, painfully, no longer has resonance. Nowadays, having guts just isn’t enough.

But what Rocky captured above all and, in turn, perpetuated, is the all-consuming acceptance in Philadelphia of the underdog mentality, the stoic acceptance of a difficult, disappointing fate that manifests in crude hatred. Of other regions. Of other people. Of themselves. Those axes-to-grind sublimate into booing and cursing and fighting fans – sports, of course, offer an easy black-and-white crystallization of a greater phenomenon: Boston vs. Philly, per se, is a gimme, with Ivory Tower vs. Row Home – the same fans who dump nacho cheese and beer on kids without hesitation.

But a city of underdogs also manifests itself in a lack of civic progress, a crime rate that hastens every year and a sad, sad sense among people in the city that they are not, and won’t ever, be destined for greatness.

“Nothing ever gets done here – nothing ever gets better,” said our cab driver, bringing us to West Philly after going out in Center City after Game 4 of the World Series. “It’s that god-damned underdog mentality.”

Playing the role of underdog is at once empowering and devastating. At first, it unites against a common enemy, the single greatest agent of cohesion in a group. It’s easy to hate yourself less if you can project that anger somewhere else, say, Mets fans or Apollo Creed. Underdog status

But at the core of an underdog is the quiet, unspoken acceptance that you’re not quite worthy of where you are – which, of course, makes doing things like playing in the World Series seem like you’re stealing a car. As an underdog, you understand that you don’t belong at the cool kids’ table. So you act out.

There’s a scene in Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Underground in which unnamed the main character attends a party in honor of an old classmate, a soul generally beloved by all but, of course, despised by The Underground Man. At the table, the other guests, who had begrudgingly invited him, attempt to lavish praise on the guest of honor, Zverkov. The Underground Man, his hatred rising up in him like hot tar, lashes out at everyone, holding them all accountable for society’s failures and positioning them as symbols, acting brutally on the occasion of celebration.

Dostoyevsky uses this character for a multitude of reasons, of course, but the two reasons most applicable here are to reveal the unspoken madness inherent in a society (polite conversation being one of them) and to illustrate – and possibly warn against – the danger of inertia, ennui¸ on the part of those kept underground.

This last point is the one our cabbie referred to. Her example was how she couldn’t make a living because, in Philly cabs, it takes 5-6 days to receive the money owed a cabbie from a credit card transaction in the cab, and how, despite her efforts to galvanize support, she found nothing but resignation and a brick wall. She was livid at how few people would wrap their heads around this cause – New York cabs, for example, don’t have this truly absurd problem – and just how impenetrable the fortress of bureaucracy, within which the Powers That Be squash ideas daily, is.

It’s so sad to see these people, these good, hard-working people that are referred to by politicians as The Backbone of America or The Salt of the Earth or America’s Soul or any other trite, condescending term, feel trapped. You see them ending up, like Springsteen said, like a dog that’s been beat too much. And after a while, they just give up. New Yorkers, Bostonians, Chicagans demand progress. Philadelphians demand paychecks, because they don’t have much of a choice. No one fights for them – they’ve stopped fighting for themselves – so they just push on, basking in the reflected light of the underdog.

That’s the saddest part: underdogs are complicit in chaining themselves to mediocrity and dereliction. Considering one’s self as an underdog means feeling uncomfortable when one is not an underdog. Imagine a runner taking a 10-meter lead in the 400-meter dash. Now see him lose sight of the finish line and start looking over his shoulder, veering around the track. See him slowly lag, as everyone overtakes him – and see him cross the finish line with a smile.

It’s a great feeling, yes, in sports, to knock off a juggernaut – ask the Giants from last year. But when that feeling, so powerful in context, seeps into culture, it rips apart a town.

It spawns problems like abandoned youth sports programs, underfunded and nearly useless after-school programs, never-filled pot holes, gun collection programs that rise and fall in the time it takes to empty a clip, politicians who are more concerned with just keeping their jobs than the well-being of those they represent and the certainty among those they represent that these goddamned politicians aren’t gonna do anything anyway so I better scrape together anything I can to get by because we’ll be up a creek soon no doubt, and low voter turnout, ensuring those eunuch politicians get a free ride into office for the next term, until you see a town that’s famous for its murals and its crime and nothing else, because what else is there?

When there’s no vision, there’s no progress. That’s the curse of the underdog. You never see beyond the next game, the next obstacle. You, from the first day of your life, have been sold short, and you will, for the rest of your life, continue to do so, reveling in infrequent, modest success.

Rocky told its audience they’d be liberated by perseverance, and in the years after the War, that was true. It’s a pretty idea, the supremacy of hard work, and one that levels the playing field – you don’t need to be big or brilliant to work hard. And people believed it, just like they have since their parents told them that that was the only way to get anywhere, believing always in the criminal fable of the Big Break, as powerful as religion.

But as the century wore on, hard work lost its capacity for elevation. Those jobs on the assembly lines, the ones that created a thick, hearty middle class, have gone abroad. Those that haven’t sure as hell aren’t in Philadelphia, just as they’re not in Newark or Peabody, Mass. Hard work requires getting a big break. But no promoter for no heavyweight champion boxer is going to be paging through the Philly phone book any time soon. And without that break – or an education, or a vision for something greater – all that hard work does is dig a deeper hole.

And even though Philadelphians did realize that no promoter would be dialing ‘215,’ Rocky became more than a fictional story. It became an allegory.

He symbolized everything Philadelphia wanted to be, and he stood, unfalling in the face of everything afflicting the city. Each blow delivered to Philly during America’s transition from a country of industry to a country of lawyers and waiters found its articulation in the fists of Apollo Creed.

Boom. Take away our jobs. Left jab. Boom, right body shot as the kids start dropping out of school at record numbers because the schools can’t afford to teach them or hold them and then take refuge in drugs. Bam, left hook – a haymaker this time – as the welfare state fails and they re-zone neighborhoods and kick people out onto the streets.

Rocky could withstand those punches, and his fighting style was no arbitrary point. He would stand, teetering like a tree in a storm, absorbing everything until he finally fought back and won. Philadelphia was to be the same – it was to swallow those reverberating blows and then, finally, fight back and deliver the winning shot.

But now, we see a town content with absorbing those blows. We see a town of sparring partners, of good, strong and capable people who could have been contenders.

And we see a town, just like every town that’s had its heart ripped out, full of people who believe in the same myth that’s kept other good, strong and capable Americans down: that if you just put in an extra hour on the line, if you just get by, your break will come.

And tonight, in Game 5 of the World Series, if the Phillies do indeed win, this town needs to re-define itself. Nothing so pulls Philadelphians together as their baseball team, not even their football team. And if their baseball team can patch together something beautiful, something better than anyone else did this year – something that hasn’t happened in Philadelphia since 1983, a combined 100 seasons between the four major sports – maybe they can get the courage to do the same.


22 10 2008

It fit well, matriculating at BU, as a Phillies fan. We have the same fanbases — ones who feel most comfortable living in constant expectation of historic collapse, ones who feel that optimism is something as foreign as, well, steel. A big lead isn’t a cause for optimism — it’s another rung up a teetering, wind-swept ladder that will topple at any moment, flinging us to the ground yet again.

We’re like Charlie Brown, trying to kick the football that keeps getting pulled away. Except instead of the humor being the sole preserve of Lucy, we’re kicking through an imaginary football in front of a national, heckling audience. To be a Phillies fan is to never, ever feel safe, and to convince yourself in full that any feeling of safety is an unforgivable, unconscionable flaw.

Here, the Wall Street Journal explains this phenomenon. (Courtesy of the Just-man)

The Fall Classic

20 10 2008

What one of my favorite baseball bloggers, a Mr. Tim Malcolm of, remembers most from the 1993 World Series isn’t the crowd fizzing in Veterans Stadium, or the way the runs were scored or the atmospheric rip of a bat connecting with a ball on a late October night.

What he remembers most, as he writes in the blog, is the bunting (not the offensive strategy) – the flags draped from the rafters all around the stadium, dressing the game with the aura of regality.

We lost that year – we lose every year – but the sense still lingered in Malcolm and the scores of the kids who gave their lives to baseball that year (myself included) that they’d been part of something bigger, a chapter in the ever-changing novel of American existence.

I can’t ever imagine feeling the way with the Super Bowl, the grand and almost invariably disappointing culmination of the American machismo, compared to the World Series’ culmination of the American soul. If the Series has an air of royalty, the Super Bowl has an air of carnival, with everything ballooned up to epic, almost cartoonlike proportions, providing you with the sense that you’re part of something prefabricated. For all of the innocence that baseball has given up, it still remains the main attraction at its own event; it stands for itself. For all the ground it’s lost to football in terms of popularity, baseball can still boast the certainty that it’s a bigger deal to win the World Series than it is to win the Super Bowl.

First, there’s the link to history. World Series champs are tied to all who came before. And in terms of history, there’s no comparison here. Winning the World Series puts a team in the company of the 1927 Yankees or the 1906 Cubs, whereas winning the Super Bowl puts a team in the company of, at best, Lombardi’s Packers or the 1972 Dolphins. But you know who Lou Gehrig is, you know who Babe Ruth is and you might even know who Tony Lazzeri is. Who, exactly, (without checking Wikipedia) did Bart Starr throw his passes to?

Baseball is woven into the American existence in a way that football may never be. The best football players are celebrities. The best baseball players, even now, are heroes.

Second, there’s the basic requirement of consistency. To win the World Series, you have to win often. To win the Super Bowl, you have to win once. And while, yes, those stakes mean that the Super Bowl has greater ramifications than any individual WS game, save Game 7, they also ensure that more often than not, we’re left with a wretch of a game purported to be the sport’s pinnacle. With the Series, you have to string together performance after performance; no series comes down to a fluke, not even Buckner in ’86.  A city seethes one night and rejoices the next, undulations of emotion that are, at the most generous, compressed for the Bowl.

Psychologically, the Series represents, above all, the end of summer. With it go our long, warm nights and our barbecues, our summer flings and our conversations that run on until morning, our softness of being and our tanned skin. Baseball keeps us young – when it ends, we roll back into adulthood. When the Super Bowl ends, we wait for baseball.

The Super Bowl represents, above all, unabashed commercialism.

The event has been so stuffed with hyperbole that it’s actually reduced the game itself. The sideshows – the commercials, the halftime show (and the nipples involved), Media Day, gambling, the Puppy Bowl – have overshadowed the main act, like bringing in the Stones to open up for MGMT. Save last year and a few other anomalies, the games themselves have done little to warrant anything more than their relegation to secondary status. They play merely the role of host.

It’s along the lines of an entourage, where a cluster of clingers-on get their one chance to shine because of the prominence of one central figure. The same thing goes on whenever a Wal-Mart drops on a town, as a Cold Stone, a Quizno’s and a dry cleaner’s aren’t far behind. Thousands of events crop up in the week before; supermarkets start stocking more queso dip and advertising products for the Perfect Super Bowl Party, and so on.

With the World Series, the games happen so often – most importantly, plurally – that they remain the story. A series produces myriad subplots, like acts in a play. Here, we see Curt Schilling’s bloody sock and a comeback from down 3-0 in a series, or Josh Beckett and the rest of his overmatched pitching staff in Marlins teal out-dueling a Yankees lineup that pelted balls off the Yankee Stadium façade all year. A one-game event doesn’t have that luxury. So, the media and other profiteers are forced to create them. See: Namath, Joe and his prediction; or Peyton finally getting over the hump and winning a championship (the hard and fast media barometer for athletic success, providing Trent Dilfer the ability to flip off Dan Marino at NFL alumni cocktail parties).

So what it all comes down to, for the Super Bowl that is, is foreplay and then no follow-through. And it’s not that hype doesn’t exist in baseball. It’s that whereas the Super Bowl has 5,000 people instructed to dance around the stage during the halftime show and mouth the words to the song, baseball has bunting.

The games take care of the rest.