Where have you gone, Bernie Williams? - Andrew Burton
Is there such a thing as too much winning? As Bob Dylan sang, "There's no success like failure," and learning that is an essential part of building character.
I used to be a Yankee fan. Putting that in the past tense is a recent development and might come as a shock or even a betrayal to those of you who know me as the former co-author of Bronx Banter and the Pinstriped Bible. It wasn't all that long ago that I believed myself to be one of the biggest Yankee fans around.
Taking that fandom to the Yankee Stadium bleachers via a Sunday season ticket package in 2003 and the internet via my first baseball blog that August quickly disabused me of that notion. The extremes of fandom I came across in those two places were, frankly, frightening. They were also, I realize now, incredibly valuable, as they shifted my focus from being a cheerleader to being an opinion leader. I was never going to be the most passionate Yankee fan, but I could be one of the best-informed, and, in some ways, most influential.
With the benefit of some fortuitous timing, that's exactly what happened. After 18 months of building a small but loyal audience on my own blog, Alex Belth asked me to become his first co-author at Bronx Banter, which was the premier Yankee blog at the time and was later picked up by SNY.tv. Almost exactly four years after I started my first blog SI.com asked me, on Alex's recommendation, to eulogize Phil Rizzuto, one of my childhood heroes. Roughly 18 months after that The New York Times tapped me as a "top Yankees blogger" for a roundtable season preview on their Bats blog. Eighteen months after that, Steven Goldman, who, starting with his Monument Park Project column in the late 1990s, was a steady source of inspiration, influence, and encouragement in the intervening years, brought me over as one of the first co-authors of his Pinstriped Bible at the YES Network. If you had asked me in 2002 for the five endorsements that would have meant the most to me as a Yankee blogger, I'm not sure I could have come up with a better list than Belth, Goldman, the YES Network, Sports Illustrated, and The New York Times.
Along the way, however, a strange thing happened. My Yankee fandom began to fade. The reasons for this were diverse, and it would be a mistake to assign too much weight to any one of them, but they include:
- Familiarity breeds contempt: I spent roughly eight and a half years blogging about the Yankees, analyzing every minor transaction, profiling every non-roster invitee, previewing series, recapping games, breaking down postseason matchups. They say if you love something set it free. I went the opposite route and smothered it until it stopped breathing. Of course it didn't help that:
- The Yankees are boring: They have missed the playoffs once in the last 18 years and won 89 games in the lone exception. They have had 20 consecutive winning seasons. They are perpetually the most expensive team in the majors and one of the oldest, as a result their collapse is perpetually nigh yet never actually arrives. Actually, that might be the most interesting thing about them.
- The new stadium: Put simply, the Yankees showed a lot of fans the door when they built a ballpark tailored to the interests of corporate and high-end luxury customers rather than the working-class fans who put my own fandom in perspective in the bleachers across the street. Nothing in the screed I wrotee about the new ballpark in September 2008 rings false to me now, more than four years later. The Yankees showed a lot of fans the door in the winter of 2008 and, almost without realizing it, I am among those who took it.
- Personal affronts from the organization: Would I feel different if the move to the new stadium hadn't cost me my bleacher ticket package? Would I feel different if I had been shown more respect by the team in my capacity as a blogger? Would I feel different if I hadn't heard horror stories from peers who worked for the team in non-media capacities? It's hard to say, but those things certainly helped to tip the balance.
- The journalistic duty to remain as objective as possible: The piece I wrote on Rizzuto got my foot in the door at SI.com, which is now my primary outlet as a baseball writer. Every baseball writer had a favorite team growing up, and some still hold those allegiances. I see nothing wrong with the latter as long as the writer in question doesn't allow their fandom to color their writing about that or any other team. That's not easy, but I'm fairly objective by nature. As I wrote above, I was never going to be the most passionate Yankee fan, and when I joined Bronx Banter my primary role was to serve as the objective analyst to Alex's fanboy, the logical left brain to his emotional right brain. That's my natural inclination; I tend to think critically not emotionally. My best friends from high school call me "robot" and subject me to tin-man jokes. In my defense, I don't so much try to write dispassionately as I try to write as a fan of baseball in general and, on some level, as a fan of all 30 teams, which in a way I have become (well, maybe not the Marlins).
Add that active effort to suppress my fandom to the other factors above and you get an ex-Yankee fan. The 2012 season was the first since 2002 in which I didn't blog about the Yankees at any point and the first possibly since the 1980s that I didn't watch at least 100 Yankee games on television out of either desire or necessity. It was liberating, but I have a problem.
My daughter turned three in May, and by the time the postseason rolled around she had taken a liking to sitting on the couch with her dad and watching baseball. That prompted the obvious question from her mom, whom I indoctrinated as a diehard Yankee fan when we started dating in the early ‘90s, "What's your favorite baseball team?" and the requisite coaching of "Yankees!" When my daughter was born in 2009, she had Yankees onesies and a Yankees board book (all gifts). The problem is, I'm not so sure I want my daughter to grow up a Yankee fan.
Just a few years ago, it was a given. Rooting for the Yankees is a tradition on both sides of my family. Both of my grandfathers grew up in New York and rooted for the Yankees when Babe Ruth was still on the team. Before the new ballpark was built, I used to take my mom to Yankee games for Mothers' Day and her birthday. Alfonso Soriano got a mention in my great aunt's eulogy in 2002, and her three daughters and assorted family members, including my mom, my wife, and myself, went to a Yankees-Royals game that night in her honor. My wife told me she was pregnant in the bleachers at the final game at the old Stadium, and was seven-months pregnant at the first exhibition game in the new one. I can't break with that tradition, can I?
I wouldn't wish Mets fandom upon my only daughter, but a lack of opportunities to see her favorite team and possible schoolyard bullying would seem to limit her choices to the two New York franchises. I certainly wouldn't want her to have to grow up a Red Sox fan in Yankee territory. The Phillies could be a viable option. We live in northern New Jersey, but my first game was at Veterans Stadium, our neighbors are Phillies fans, and some of our closest friends live in Philadelphia. Still, that leaves me cold. If you ask her now, she has about eight favorite baseball teams, including most of this year's playoff field (that's how she learned the names) and the Red Sox and White Sox (easy to remember), but I imagine that will boil down to the Yankees in time. I suppose my biggest concern is that she'll never see them lose.
That might seem odd to the fans of most of the other 29 teams, but nothing exists without its opposite, and just as the old "Wild World of Sports" intro had it, you can't have the thrill of victory without the agony of defeat. In retrospect, my Yankee fandom was as much a result of the decade-long struggle that climaxed in their 1996 World Series victory as of my Grandfathers' influence. At the time, I lamented the fact that I was among a rare generation of Yankee fans that didn't get to see the team dominate the sport during their childhood (I was in college in '96), but in retrospect, that drought is what crystallized my love for baseball.
My favorite baseball books are about losers, oddballs, and failures, and what draws me back to every new baseball season isn't whether or not the Yankees are going to win 95 or 100 games (they've won fewer than 94 just twice in the last 16 seasons), it's seeing how the teams on the fringes perform. Is that rebuild working? Will this be the year that talented young team coalesces into a contender? Will that big trade acquisition or free agent signing take his new team to the next level? Can his previous team compensate for his loss? Can that talented but star-crossed team can stay healthy enough to contend? Did that perennial playoff loser miss its window for a championship? With that managerial change have any impact? How will that new stadium play? How ugly will those new uniforms really be? How will the new playoff or scheduling format impact the pennant races?
As for the Yankees, I don't worry about them, and that's what worries me. I want my daughter to love baseball, in part because I've dedicated part of my life to it and don't want her to feel shut out of that. Baseball is a novel that unfolds over years, individual teams are puzzles that take years to solve. The Yankees, however, are more of a long-running television procedural. They hit all the same beats and catch phrases, the credits roll, and then they do it all over again. I spent my childhood hoping I'd see the Yankees win the World Series during my lifetime (yes, really). I suspect I'm now going to spend my daughter's childhood hoping she'll see them have a losing season.