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.





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.





Fandom

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)





Homecoming

16 10 2008

I’ve been gone a long time. And thanks to popular demand (well, the demand of three people) and the longing to write again (due largely to the Phils’ win tonight), this is back. And I apologize for the absence, loyal readers – it’s flattering to know anybody ever read this. Summer has stolen me away, largely because I’m in New York and if you’re spending too much time writing and not enough time living you’re wasting the summer and your youth (and your rent money) and, as far as I can tell (because old men always say it), you’ll end up regretting it.

So in this first post back after this long, too long, hiatus, I want to tell you all about so many wonderful things. I want to tell you about so many wonderful people who’ve made this summer-into-fall an electric, fizzing one, and so many late nights and achy mornings, so many trips to dirt infields and dive bars or pristine ballparks and beach houses or race tracks, and the many train rides to and from Philadelphia for Phils games all summer, the ones that stole me out of New York in the afternoon and deposited me back, confused and blurry and still qualifiably drunk at 2 in the morning, happy and headed to work in seven hours.

But I’ll get to all that.

I’ll get to it later, hopefully, but I want to tell you about the way that the sunset is always red and then orange and then a rush of gold over the city (perks of pollution); or the way when you look out of our windows in our new apartment you can see flashes on the Empire State Building that look like flickering stars but are actually tourists’ cameras; or the way that no street ever looks the same over two weeks; or the pure, unadulterated joy of a train arriving at the subway station the instant you come down the steps and the daily sensation on rush hour trains that you’re part of a muscle, one fully contracted at first as the train’s stuffed with people, then relaxing as the fibers loosen back onto the subway platform; or the way that a beer looks when it’s set against a backdrop of thousands of young people all buzzing because they’re together, and all buzzing because they can tell each other the same stories over and over again while creating new ones all the same; or the way that conversations are always waiting to be had (and you’re a fool to miss out on any of them, if you can manage), whether they’re with a man leaning on a cane perusing the same bodega for some Czech beer, who happens to be a scholar of early American presidents’ drinking habits, or a man who was once a psychiatrist but has since started a now-successful country band on a whim, or a group of girls who are all math teachers about what their favorite equations are (y = mx + b won by a landslide); or how, despite what everybody tells you outside the city, New Yorkers are more friendly than almost anyone I’ve ever met, as long as you (1) don’t inexplicably stop on the sidewalk; (2) don’t bumble an order at a café; (3) smile; or how, we’re all tiny fish in the big pond, but it’s a big fucking pond and we’re all happy to pool together in schools, just as long as everybody’s cool with buying a round;  or how when you find a restaurant or a bar that you want to show your friends and family you do everything in your power to get the staff to remember your name (and try not to drink so much that you forget theirs) so you’ll have a chance in hell at getting a seat when you want to go between the hours of 5:30 p.m. and 1 a.m.; or how the movement of pedestrians is so angular, so Pythagorean, due to the grid system that it must look like a bunch of swirling squares if you looked down from space; and that it actually does look like that if you look down from the Empire State Building.

I want to tell you about German beer halls where people actually wear lederhosen and dirndls and the beer clangs together in liter mugs and we almost got kicked out for starting a big, hall-wide who-can-yell-the-loudest match; or the pizza place we’re banned from because we all got called Crackers and then Jon threw his soda in the air; or the way that having a friend with a back deck on which you can drink is the same as striking a pocket of gold; or how proud and emasculated at the same time it makes you when your girlfriend carries your side in bar foosball; or how there aren’t any parallels in this world that I’ve found yet to rival the way that girl looks at you when you cook dinner and it doesn’t taste like your furniture; or how every girl in New York must be issued a few sundresses when they move in to their apartments; or how they all want to talk – have I mentioned how everybody wants to talk?? Like they’re just amazed that they can live here – and will gladly talk your ear off about everything and anything as long as you buy a beer, and even if you don’t; or how about bar crawls that start with grand intentions and become two-bar bar-hops because somebody gives you a good deal on Sam Adams Utopias; or of places that can be pumped full of people on Friday nights and then empty as a freezer on Saturday night, due quite possibly to the change in wind speed; or bars where you can get 10-cent wings or dollar beers or free PBR (as long as you ask for it) or the chance to flip a coin to get every drink for free or maybe high-end cocktail lounges extending like a shelf from a Chinese restaurant andsports bars that are most likely scouted-out by prostitutes; or how you can stay out until 2 or 3 on a work night and wake up the next morning feeling the same as if you’d gone to sleep at 10, because you know – and you’re damn proud – that you didn’t miss out.

I want to tell you about baseball and the Phillies and my men’s league team (the Mudhens), now in the playoffs, and how it feels to hit with a real wood bat for the first time, how the bat feels like an extension of your body and how it, like a good woman, refuses to let you get away with any shortcuts; or how handball is almost as fun as racquetball, but it hurts a hell of a lot more, and how your average 13-year-old in Brooklyn is a hell of a lot better than your average 23-year-old Macungie, Penn. kid; or how walking across the Brooklyn Bridge isn’t really as cool as it’s made out to be, but how walking around the Village still is; or how, if you’re playing ball in Central Park, you forget you’re in a city at all; and if you’re playing ball in the Bronx, there’s a good chance your umpires won’t speak a word of English all year and the coach for the other team might get cold-cocked by his first baseman onto cement steps right next to the backstop; or how you could walk for hours because you’re always a block away from unearthing treasures like the Hell’s Angels NY headquarters, or Dave’s Quality Meats (owned by the guy who started Zoo York), or ice cream shops run by neighborhood kids, or stores where you can buy things like a book by Ray Bradbury about writing, on whose back cover he’s wearing a massive turtleneck with plumes of white hair erupting from the side of his head; or how Rachael Ray is pudgier in real life than she looks on TV (but is still pretty damn cute) and Mary-Kate Olsen isn’t, how Woody Allen is looking pretty old and Darryl Strawberry is, too, and how I usually miss celebrities because I’m looking at their dogs.

But I’ll just say…it’s good to be back.





Updates!

21 05 2008

So, I lied. Finally came around and got a Mac a few days ago, but Preakness meant posting (and coherent thought) was impossible. I’ll be out of commission for the next few days, but you can follow along as I cover the NCAA Men’s D1, D2 and D3 Lacrosse Tournaments up in Foxborough, Mass.

It’ll be like this, just with less swearing and fewer references to sex…and sponsored by the NCAA.

Check it out all weekend here: http://slog.cstv.com/ncaa/kevinscheitrum/

And I promise this time that I’ll be up and running shortly after coming home.





Another Casualty In The War On Drugs

22 04 2008

The federal government is apparently making it illegal to even use a play on words about weed. It’s forcing this brewery, based in a town called Weed, to stop telling consumers to ‘try legal Weed,’ in a move that should be cause for national embarrassment.

*Note: Sorry for the lack of posting lately. Laptop died, but I should have a new one by next week, depending on how quickly Apple can dispense of any nostalgia I have for Microsoft.





Monday Question

21 04 2008

I work next to two restaurants whose fame derives not necessarily from their cuisine, but the men from whose minds the dishes sprout. The plates go for around $30-$50 at Morimoto and Del Posto, two bastions of Chelsea fine and hip dining, and the Moet-Hennessy execs who work below me are glad to open their wallets, scaling the price gradient in accordance with their recent sales records.

Around the city, celebrity chef-backed restaurants are blooming. Some scream, like many of Wolfgang Puck’s or Bobby Flay’s. Others are a little more discrete. All seem to draw massive, prohibitive lines.

But the question is: Are celebrity chefs a good thing? For all they’ve done to bring excitement, or at least attention, to food, do they get away with the same thing that, say, Springsteen does in Rolling Stone when he releases a bad album? The personality of the man overpowers the food, and are people just deluding themselves in not letting the food speak for itself?