Sheryl Crow seems to think that “good is good, and bad is bad.” As far as being a baseball fan, she may be wrong.
We are in an age of rampant, unregulated, bandwagoning; an age when more Red Sox fans show up to Tropicana Field than Rays fans. As a response, the collective subconscious of baseball traditionalists (real fans) has deemed it cooler to follow a team that isn’t very good, as if that makes your fanhood more legitimate.
With so many idiotic imposters out there, flocking en masse to away games to ensure “their” team never experiences a real road game, it is easy to see why Orioles fans garner more respect from true baseball disciples than Sox or Yankees fans. They must be real fans, we communally imply, because they like a team that has sucked for a long time.
Arbitrarily deciding to follow a historically popular team like the Yankees, Red Sox, or Cubs—especially when they are winning—is a baseball felony comparable to taking steroids or wearing a Roger Clemens jersey. It’s like committing credibility suicide.
This phenomenon seems to be an inherent paradox: it is unpopular to like popular teams, and fun to root for love-able losers. It means that, in some twisted sense, it is more desirable to be a fan of a bad team, as if the fundamental goal of being a fan were earning as much credibility as possible, rather than following your team to a championship.
Perhaps because only eight teams each year make the playoffs, baseball has become more about you as a fan than the team. Much in the same way affirmative action seeks to repair racism, this reactionary sentiment is a reversed manifestation of the same problem it opposes in the first place.
There are bad teams, like the Pirates and Brewers, and then there are Losers. These are teams that (a) have a celebrated history of losing, and (b) have been successful playoff contenders recently. Losers became lovable in the fall of 2003, when both the Cubs and Red Sox, both of which at the time were known for patently interminable World Series droughts, were in their respective league championships series.
Both teams possessed some supernatural quality in the minds of fans; their consecutive years of losing signaled mysterious Curses. They had mystique, glamour, a story. Something about their cursed identity transcended normal sports, and they became very fun to root for, captivating even. Many people hoped they would meet in the World Series… the same people who eventually formed the next generation of Cubs bandwagoners and Red Sox Nation.
During that postseason and again in 2004, the public was bombarded by images of the Great Bambino in fresh pinstripes, of bloody socks, of Steve Bartmans and Bill Buckners.
As the Sox stole the ALCS and rode the wave of momentum and history over a hopelessly insignificant St. Louis team, the sports media wrote Curse story after Curse story, using the mystique to inflate the event to an impossibly high level of significance.
Everyone had to be as interested as possible in the Series, and frankly, it worked. All of these newly interested “baseball” fans flocked to the Sox, causing the biggest bandwagon emigration in the history of organized sports. Red Sox Nation experienced a baby boom, with all these newborns clad in Ortiz jerseys and pink Boston caps.
It is now four years later, removing the Cubs from their most recent World Series by a full century. With the Northsiders in first place, it isn’t surprising that the “Losers” are getting to be extra lovable these days. Nor is it surprising to feel the vague, general disdain for bandwagoners by real baseball fans grow even harsher in response.
But I ask, should a team’s recent record of success matter at all in regard to being a fan? The degree of one’s fan credibility should be a combination of loyalty, knowledge, and how hard they throw the remote into the wall when their team can’t play defense…you can’t blame someone for liking a good team. That’s what we all want.
I’m not from New York. Even worse, I don’t have any family from New York, and hadn’t even been there until less than a year ago. Until high school, I had never even met anyone else who liked them. There is literally no tangible or traditional reason I have to like Bronx Bombers, and for someone who is morbidly terrified of being labeled a bandwagoner, I am irrationally paranoid about my fanhood.
Here is the quick explanation I give to everyone who asks Why choose to align yourself with the Evil Empire? When I was a kid, I loved baseball. There was practically a glove on my hand when I was born.
I grew up in Indianapolis, in a family that had also lived there their whole lives, to parents who didn’t follow the game. In the early 90’s, when I was obsessed with the national pastime and the relative significance of my little league games could not possibly be overstated, I had no home team to follow.
If The Crossroads of America happened to have a pro team, I surely would have been and still would be a die-hard, as I am for the Colts and Pacers. But as an eight-year-old with no moral compass in these matters, I started following the Yankees. Learning the history of the game, it seemed all the greats played for the Yanks. I loved the tradition, and I loved the uniform.
As I came into my high school years I slowly encountered the horrors of the Evil Empire. The preposterous payroll. The buying of aging star players rather than developing a good farm system. George Steinbrenner. And all that dirty, sexy winning.
Worst of all was the sudden awareness of the awful stigma that comes with being a Yankees fan. It was like discovering that I had been walking around with a “Kick Me” sign on my back for my whole life. I was the least respected, most hated fan in all of American sports.
These revelations occurred in the years following the proverbial last night of the Yankee dynasty. The team was starting to lose, and my Yankees hats and T-shirts were earning me an increasing number of nasty looks from peers who were becoming more knowledgeable as well. The pressures to rescind my allegiance piled higher, but I stuck with them, although part of me started to hate them for all of their crimes.
Not to sound like a victim, but if you think rooting for a bad team is hard, try rooting for a team that you don’t even want to root for. I easily could have started liking Cubs; Chicago is reasonably close to Indianapolis, and their games were always on WGN. The Reds, maybe, because I had been to a few of their games.
But I would have been doing the same thing people assumed I did in the first place, which is to arbitrarily pick a team for the sake of popularity. Plus—and this is what being a fan is really about—I was emotionally attached to the team, and couldn’t stop liking them even if I tried. But is that not the essence of fanhood anyway?
Today’s general notion postulates that fan credibility is derived from the “thin” portion of liking a team through thick and thin, and frankly I agree with this. For a fan, the losing years are like the two-a-days and suicides and puke buckets where championships are won for athletes. But following the Empire from a thousand miles away in the Midwest is a different kind of “thin.”
While you watch your teams lose year after year, my personal fanhood is called into question all the time. I constantly have to justify why I like them, to others and to myself. Your team probably plays about as well as they are paid (unless they’re the Mets).
Mine has had the highest payroll in the league since the Industrial Revolution and still under-performs. I had to deal with the shame of bringing in Roger Clemens last year, then having to rely on A-Rod in October. It’s a different sort of frustration, but it’s frustration all the same.
It’s more personal when the question is always why are you rooting for them. Liking this team is like being married to someone you truly love, but argue with all the time. I hate them constantly, but I still love them. It can’t be helped.
I’m certainly not trying to defend the Yankees. We all know they have earned every amount of scorn and hatred they have received over the years. Just recognize that it isn’t cool to like the Yankees anymore; the Red Sox and Cubs undeniably have the two hottest bandwagons. I will admit it is easier to be a fan of a team that gets 93 percent of national TV spots and makes the postseason every year. All I want is to be respected as a fan.