Take Me Out to the Ball Game … But Which One?

By Bruce Cherry

Bruce Cherry examines the options available for New York sports fans, and finds that you can tell a lot about a person by the team they choose.

pennantsOne of the best things about living in New York City is choice. From bars to entertainment to variations on Famous Original Ray’s Pizza, New York offers limitless alternatives. So big is this metropolis that it even offers sports fans a choice of professional franchises in all four major sports—baseball, football, basketball, and hockey—a situation unrivaled anywhere else in America.

People from smaller burgs across the country often have no choice. They are born into their team loyalty, tied to it like medieval serfs bound to the land. And just as a life of backbreaking labor in the fields entails endless suffering, so too does being an obligatory fan of a team like the Cleveland Browns or the Pittsburgh Pirates. In the case of Browns fans, the heartache has even included the relocation of the franchise. At least a medieval peasant in England rarely had to face the prospect of his villiage moving to Flanders.

There are even Americans whose geographic remoteness means they essentially have no home team. People in the Great Plains states are as far from a major-league sports franchise as they are from decent Thai food. And what kinship does someone from Pierre, South Dakota, feel with teams in Kansas City or Minneapolis, the closest cities with major sports franchises, but which are still as far from them as New York is from New Brunswick, Canada? And that’s not even the most extreme example. What about people in Alaska? Do they root for Seattle teams because they’re in the same hemisphere? Alaskans may be able to see Russia from their houses, but they’d have to be in orbit to make out Washington State.

If the upside of choice is having a choice, however, then the downside is having to make a choice. How do New Yorkers choose between Yankees and Mets, Giants and Jets, Knicks and Nets, or the hat trick of Rangers, Devils, and Islanders in hockey?

The equation here is complicated by the fact that so many New Yorkers are transplants from elsewhere in the U.S., or immigrants from other parts of the world. American transplants often maintain their loyalty to the sports teams they grew up with. You can see them at Citi Field or Giants Stadium wearing their hometown colors with pride or prickly defensiveness, depending on the quality of the team. Given the relative success of most New York sports franchises, those transplants who do switch loyalties tend to have the sort of bandwagon mentality that will no doubt guarantee them success in whatever field of endeavor brought them to New York in the first place.

Immigrants, meanwhile, tend to either adopt local teams out of a desire to assimilate, or spend their time wandering the streets looking for a bar that shows rugby matches.

Native or long-term New Yorkers, meanwhile, wind up with the enviable choice of rooting for perennial winners or sometime winners, since every current major New York sports franchise has won national championships. As romantic as the notion of a lovable loser is, the closest New York can come these days is a lovable just-occasional winner. Still, if there are no true long-term underdogs in New York, there are teams that are occasional dogs, and the reasons for choosing to support these longer shots are varied. Sometimes it’s a yearning to identify with the closest thing New York can provide to a dark horse. Long-time New Yorker Mike Batistick has family roots in Cleveland and chose to support the Mets and the Jets over the more dominant Giants and Yankees because, as he put it, “My teams have always sucked.” It’s a relative sucking, compared to Cleveland, but in a city that loves its winners, you take what you can get.

Family tradition also often plays a role, in a positive or negative sense. Kris Lo Presto grew up on Staten Island and became a Giants fan because of family ties: “I wanted to stick it to my old man,” says Lo Presto. “He’s a Jets fan.”

For the choice that truly sheds light on the psychology of one of the world’s most complex cities, though, you have to look toward baseball, which revolves wholly around the looming presence of the New York Yankees. The gravitational pull of the Bronx Bombers affects everything in the sports cosmos, and their influence and power inspire the same awe, loyalty, and resentment as the city they represent. It’s almost impossible, therefore, to be a Mets fan without consciously not being a Yankees fan. As Batistick puts it, rooting for the Yankees is “like rooting for Microsoft.”

However you feel about them, the Yankees are impossible to avoid—they’re the Duane Reade drugstores of New York sports. Die-hard Yankees fans have no qualms about backing a winner. Long-time fan Frank Cammarano probably sums up the Yankee fan sensibility best with the quote, “winning is always good,” a sentiment that should probably be posted on every sign in New York City.

If it’s hard to find an offset to Yankee swagger in the current roster of New York sports teams, a perfect one exists in our nostalgic past. The Brooklyn Dodgers counterbalanced steely Yankee dominance with an endearing futility that has outlived the departure of the team by over half a century. If there’s a stereotype of New Yorkers as infuriating and arrogant in the Yankee mold, there’s another popular image of longtime city dwellers as amiable, resilient, and long-suffering—the very image of the beloved “Bums” of Brooklyn.

The Brooklyn Dodgers were so beloved that they have fans today who were born after the team ceased to exist—fans like attorney Jeff Minde, who maintains an expansive and affectionate shrine to his team on the web.

Minde inherited his love for the Dodgers from his father, Jack Minde, whose first-ever baseball game, on April 15, 1947, also happened to be the first major-league baseball game for Brooklyn Dodger Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball’s color barrier that day. During the 1940s and ’50s, the Brooklyn Dodgers lost six of seven World Series match-ups to the New York Yankees, managing to win only the 1955 contest. For Dodger fans like Minde, the Brooklyn Dodger/New York Yankee rivalry is ongoing, even if one of the rivals is not. Minde sums it up as a matter of class warfare. “It’s sort of like two Americas,” he says. “The Brooklyn Dodgers are the working guys, and the Yankees represent capitalist interests. They even wear pinstripes!”

The Brooklyn Dodgers have a continuing appeal that other long-gone sports teams simply don’t. Boston doesn’t pine for the departed Braves, Louisville doesn’t mourn its vanished Colonels, and Los Angeles seems to be thankful that all of its NFL franchises left town. But the legacy of the Dodgers continues—even in a town that already has a cornucopia of professional sports teams. It’s nice for New Yorkers to know that if they can’t live with the many choices they have, they also have the added option of living in the past.

Last 5 posts by Bruce Cherry

Posted on 20 Jul 2010 at 4:27am
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