Monday, September 28, 2009

New York, or New York?

As the Yankees sent Boston home winless for the weekend, put on their AL East champion gear and nerdy-looking eye-goggles, and sprayed champagne all over each other, their fans turned to the internet to offer hearty congrats to the team and one another. I found Yankee fans cropping up from previously-unknown corners of my Facebook friends list, and at one point it got me to thinking about just how I and many of us ever became Yankee fans in the first place. As opposed to, say, the nearly-unrelenting suffering that is the existence of the fans from the 'other' team over in Queens. It makes you wonder: when two teams reside in a city this big and fight for the hearts of millions of followers, how do people ever come to back one team over the other? You might think it's as simple as which team is winning, or which is closer to where you live, but for many of us in this city, it's not quite that simple.

(We are, of course, ignoring the double-agents who claim to support both teams, those folk that say they "just want to see NY win" and other similar cardinal sins of sport. Just last week, I and many of my Facebook friends were horrified to see a high school friend claim, and defend, her allegiance to both the NY Football Giants and the Dallas Cowboys. There should be laws against this level of waffling.)

Long ago, I developed a little theory as to how many NY baseball fans came to choose between the Bronx and Queens. It came to me in a frightening self-realization: had I been born a few years earlier, I would in fact be a Met fan. I am an early-70s baby, so naturally, by the time I was old enough to understand the use of the potty, the Yankees were smack dab in the middle of the Steinbrenner Renaissance, and the Miracle Mets magic had turned into dust, their team of Cinderellas into a field of rotten pumpkins. The Yankees stayed relevant as I moved into middle school, at which point I'd settled on all the teams -- Yankees, Islanders, Knicks, and 49ers -- that I'd call "mine" for the remainder of my days. Meanwhile, the Mets organization was in a mess, and the basement was where they received their mail for years. But was it all about wins and losses for me? As I said before, not quite.

My dad is, in fact, a Met fan. To this day I am tickled pink by a picture I have of myself at 2 years old proudly wearing a Mets cap. Which father wouldn't want is only son to root for his team right along with him? Sadly -- for him I mean -- I grew up a pretty independent-minded kid, and I remember being downright confused as to why my dad would root for such a pathetic band of losers. But he was still dad, still able to wield some influence over me. The Knicks weren't all that much better at the time -- I was definitely too young to experience the championship years -- yet I grew to offer my allegiance to them long before Bernard King came to town.

But dad was a product of the 60s in a sense; when he immigrated to New York, the Mets were new and fresh, the lovable losers, the polar opposite to the corporate, rigid, and, yea, I'll say it, mostly Caucasian-American Yanks. The 60s was the time of resistance, rebellion, revolution; I can completely see how anyone of colour in New York would take to the new Mets over "The Man" that played in the Bronx, even if said man was winning -- and winning, and winning. Back then, the wins didn't much matter; neither did the team's location (dad lived in the Bronx at the time). You take that foundation, and compound that with the Yankees' well running dry mere months after the Civil Rights Act passed, then add the sprinkling of pixie dust that fell on the Mets a few years later, and it becomes more or less a given than a child (or immigrant) of the 60s would call the Metropolitans "their" team. But even without the Miracle, I think the Mets picked up legions of fans simply by being not-the-Yankees. Push my birth certificate a few more years into the past, and I can't see how I wouldn't have been equally swept up in the fresh new lovable team, regardless if they were winning or not.

By time Steinbrenner snapped up the Yanks, and did everything within his power to make them relevant again, us now-30-somethings were just starting to become aware of the world. But, something else happened around that time, something just as important as wins and losses, if not more so. The Yankees become less corporate, less "The Man"; became more New York, became -- colour. A guy by the name of Reggie rolled into town, and, perhaps single-handedly, made the Yankees palatable to every brother and sister living in the Blaxploitation era. I don't know if Mr. October was the first, but it's a foregone conclusion that he was the biggest and brightest. So, all at once, you had a team that was winning, led by a star that looked like you with an afro just as big as yours.

As it turns out, the 1980s became a decade of disappointment for me as a baseball fan, but little did I know that suffering through all those 15-14 debacles, those heavy-hitting and light-pitching teams of the Dave Winfield years, would be paid back in full once I became an adult. That, instead of one fleeting flash of fun before the coke era started to take effect, I would get a whole decade and a half -- and counting -- of memories. And all because I was born at just the right point in time.

I've got younger friends now, late 70s and early 80s babies, who grew up just in time for the Mets mid-80s resurgence, who reveled in the 'cool' of Strawberry, the Doc, and others, who celebrated the miracle of Buckner, and who now find themselves wondering just who it was that put an evil hex on their beloved team. (And if they're not wondering, 19 disabled-list players tells me they should.)

If only they were a bit older.

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