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 (http://www.flushinguniversity.com/cgi-bin/moxiebin/bm_tools.cgi?print=132;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 NJ.com: http://www.nj.com/yankees/index.ssf/2009/11/ny_yankees_overcame_adversity.html

‘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.

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