Thursday, April 23, 2009

How I Could (and Do) Like the Yankees

Over the weekend, while seeing relatives I see on average once every ten years, there were some questions that kept getting asked:

"So what are you doing?"

"Do you enjoy grad school?"

"Sports? Really?"

"Ugh, the Yankees? How could you like the Yankees?"

Both sides of my family, if you go back far enough, have Brooklyn--and thus Dodgers--connections. When the Dodgers were replaced by the Mets, the transition was (or, seems to have been) seamless: Dodgers fans, who by the very definition could never become Yankees fans, switched to the Mets instead of trying to keep track of a team all the way out in California.

So the question becomes: how does someone in this family become a Yankee fan?

The answer-the long and true answer-is a complicated thing, with direct and indirect causes.

For example, consider this: the very first Yankee game I ever watched on TV was the 1996 Jeffrey Maier game, and I remember it only because at the time it was unheard of for our family to watch baseball at the dinner table. My brother must have said something, the game went on the TV and I was momentarily transfixed without understanding its real significance.

I hadn't much cared for the Yankees except for that my fourth-grade teacher, the one we all said was a witch and hid a dead cat in the cupboard hated the Yankees and would make those wearing Yankee shirts turn them inside out, so on the last day of school we all wore Yankee shirts, just to spite her. It was so worth it, even as it is fourteen years later.

Still, when the Yankees made the World Series that year, somewhere along the line I had to realize what was happening.

I knew nothing about the Yankees except that they had some rookie shortstop named Derek Jeter, and a young pitcher named Andy Pettitte, and I knew nothing about the Braves except that they were supposed to be unbeatable. Still, my mind was a little too rational at the time: I knew it was a best-of-seven series.

When my dad drove me to school the morning after game two, I asked if the Yankees had won the game the night before-I wasn't allowed to stay up and had yet to learn as I would in not-so-much later years that games are, in fact, also broadcast on radio, and since my clock was also a radio...

My dad's response was simple: "Of course not." Of course the Yankees didn't win. There was no way they could win.

I was confused. "Isn't it a best of seven?" I asked.

"Yes," he said.

"So doesn't that mean that they [Atlanta] have to win four games?"

"Yes," he said, "but the Yankees aren't going to win."

Chances are, if you're reading this post, you know how that turned out.

I didn't follow baseball much after that until 1998, when I came home from summer camp and asked my brother how the Yankees were doing.

"If they don't win the World Series," he said, "it would be a major shock."

So that October, I watched.

I watched them sweep Texas, I watched them fall behind to Cleveland (thank you Chuck Knoblauch) and then overtake them, I watched as my brother decreed the new Cuban import El Duque as his favorite because of the leg kick (I picked Paul O'Neil. It was the hair.).

I watched as my math teacher's mood was solely based on how the Yankees performed the night before--and I must admit, I picked up the habit.

I watched the Yankees fall behind in game one of the World Series to San Diego, with my parents in the family room. I watched as Tino Martinez stepped up to the plate and my dad said that his .125 postseason batting average was really good. I told him it was not, and one full count later, I watched as Tino launched one into the right-field upper deck. I wanted to scream for joy, but my other brother was fast asleep, so I screamed silently, trying not to jump up and down too much so the dog-we had one then-wouldn't bark.

I watched as El Duque shut the door early in game two, and I watched as the Yankees took two on the West Coast to nab crown number twenty-four.

You could say that the rest is history.

You don't not become a Yankees fan after watching that, even if you don't entirely understand what is going on or why Scott Brosius is the most unlikely of all playoff heroes or what's so special about Trevor Hoffman or what going 125-50 really means.

I didn't understand why the Yankees traded David Wells, who had pitched a perfect game, to Toronto for Roger Clemens in the offseason, but I remember the look my brother gave me when I dared to express my opinion.

I had a lot to learn, but I was hooked.

We all know what happened since then: a threepeat of championships at the cost of an impoverished farm system that led to the current "drought" (something other teams might consider a minor dry spell).

I cried in 2001, not just because the Yankees lost but because of the circumstances surrounding it-by then Mariano Rivera had filled the role as favorite player. The best memory from that year was Game Five in the world series, thinking there was no way the Yankees could hit another bottom-of-the-ninth two out two run home run...and then they did. There was still some baseball magic in New York.

In 2003, Aaron Boone provided such jubilation-and such a catharsis-that the only thing I remember about that World Series is Jorge Posada making the final out. Even six years later, the World Series seems almost trivial when compared to Aaron Boone.

In 2004, I didn't cry. I couldn't cry. I was angry and at the same time, once the Yankees lost game four, some part of me knew it was going to happen, and once it did, there was a release. The Red Sox had won and the world hadn't ended, and once the curse was broken, it was broken. No longer could Sox fans retain righteous indignation and the downtrodden loser identity that had been theirs for so long.

As a Yankee fan I've never known bad years, not in the ways I have as a Nets and a Jets fan, or in the ways that Cubs fans have for so long.

Last year was a disappointing year, but all things considered, in the end not nearly the collapse some would have you believe.

The thing is, however, even if the Yankees went and lost 100 games in a season, I would still be a Yankees fan.

Becoming a fan of a sports team is more or less, in my mind, like becoming right-handed or left-handed. There's a brief period of time at the very beginning where you can choose, but if you're serious about it, once the choice is made, it's final.

So I've developed an affection for Brooklyn, and Jackie and Pee Wee and Branch, and even for the Cubs, and Ernie Banks and the Ivy and Harry Carey, but I will never be a Dodgers fan or a Cubs fan.

Being a Yankee fan has become as much a part of my identity as there is Brooklyn in my grandmother.

It doesn't take a whole lot to become a fan of a certain team-just the right thing happening at the right time-but once it happens, there it is, good and finalized. You may as well have been genetically altered.

I suspect when I die, should they do an autopsy, you'll find navy blue pinstripes coursing through my veins...