Every fan who understands the ridiculous but fulfilling concept of loyalty to a sports team knows the drill.
You like to think of the whole universe of all those semi-wackos who dedicate a corner of their hearts to what is after all a business enterprise as composing a family, of which you are part not because you choose to be but because your feelings leave you no choice. You share a helpless devotion to the team with people almost entirely unlike you. They know it, too, which leaves everyone with opportunities for conversational ice-breaking. “What the hell’s up with the bullpen over the last month?” It produces a camaraderie kind of like that of addiction but without the shakes.
The addiction, I mean devotion, is generally acquired early in life. If you grew up in or near a city with a major league team, then that team was part of your birthright. If you grew up near several, you might have had to make choices early in life, choices that are usually final. How many Mets fans switch to the Yankees later in life, or vice versa? How many Forty-Niners fans emigrate to the Raider Nation?
Of course, you might be in some sense loyal to all your local teams, one per sport. You might, as I do, have feelings for teams in different cities for different sports based on where you lived when you were most infatuated with that sport. I grew up with the Cincinnati Reds, the baseball franchise that eventually produced the magnificent Big Red Machine; but in football I root for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and in basketball it’s the Boston Celtics and the San Antonio Spurs. Each was a hometown team at some point in my life.
There are philosophical issues at work too, of course. I could, for example, have honorably switched football loyalties to the Forty-Niners at any point in the last couple of decades. And I do root for them, as opposed to, say, the hated Patriots, or even worse, the Cowboys, against whom I would cheer for hovering octupi from Alpha Centauri. I’m pretty sure I’d pick the Cowboys over al Qaeda; but then that’d probably be a gimme. I’m figuring Osama’s knees are not what they used to be, and his scrambles are unlikely to evade the dedicated pursuit of the Cowboys’ defensive line. Or maybe I’m wrong.
But between the Buccaneers of the pewter pants and the post-Eddie D Niners, I have no hesitation. DeBartolo pleaded guilty and testified in the corruption case of former Louisiana governor Edwin Edwards; apparently bribes were solicited and supplied in relation to a casino license that was never forthcoming, so a lot of people were pissed. But he ran a top-flight football organization. DeBartolo’s Wikipedia entry currently says:
During his twenty-two years controlling the team, they won five Super Bowls and had the winningest decade in football history. He was beloved as an owner, many of his former players have donned him to be the most generous owner in NFL history.
I’m not sure that’s a legitimate use of “donned”, but the point is accurate. Everyone knew that Eddie D’s team was the best organization in the NFL to play for. You’d be treated better, some players compared it to a family; you’d play with some of the game’s top stars; you’d have an excellent chance at a ring. In return you had to be part of the team, on board and dedicated, and do the job the team asked of you.
That was a metaphor a philosophical fan could get behind (and San Francisco’s fans, as famous for their love of white wine and cheese as of Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, and Steve Young, are nothing if not philosophical). It was a Left Coast version of the Celtics team approch, rather than the kind of overpowering hierarchical situation imposed by upper management that Jonathan E refused to conform to. There were contrary incidents, but in general the organization avoided the self-destructive track immortalized in Any Given Sunday.
Eddie D’s Niners were instead a sleek modern corporation that had reduced the number of layers between players and ownership to the point that it was actually a group effort. Or at least it convincingly appeared to be so, and as usual it was probably easier to just have it be true than to do it with mirrors.
Eventually, however, legal proceedings revealed some weaknesses in Eddie’s defenses, and he was ousted from the organization which had congealed around his genius. It doesn’t take much of a genius, in a certain sense, to create a great football team, if you can afford it. You hire a great coach and a great general manager. You draft well, you develop your talent carefully, you build for the long term. You expect results over periods beyond the horizon of most American corporations, perhaps as far as (gasp!) five years ahead. Anyone could do it, in theory, but few of those with the money and the organizational talent can see past the dazzling glow of their own egos.
In the end, what is a sports team? I was listening to Reds games on a radio earphone when I was six. Since then the team has changed owners several times. Not only are all the players who populate my early baseball memories long retired, their sons are retired, or near the end of long careers. What remains of the team for me to hold onto over that period? Of what do I speak when I say “Cincinnati Reds”?
Clearly nothing of substance. Not people. The mascot and the mascot’s name have changed. The color scheme, given the team’s moniker, has remained relatively constant. At best the team is an idea, or perhaps a chimera. An atom of consensus reality, an abstraction onto which we fans project the energy of unfulfilled fantasies.
How does such a useless obsession begin? What hooked me to begin with? Well, based on the available data I believe it was the no-hitter Jim Maloney pitched on August 19, 1965, against the Chicago Cubs. In the era of Koufax and Gibson and Marichal it was hard to get recognized pitching for an Ohio team, a complaint with which Aaron Harang can identify today. But in the early 1960’s Maloney’s fastball was clocked at 99 mph; in 1965 he won twenty games, threw the no-hitter, and pitched nine innings of no-hit ball in another game that was called a no-hitter at the time, but the rule was later changed; the game was lost in the eleventh, 1-0.
I heard parts of the August 19th game on the radio as I wandered in and out of my grandfather’s hobby shop. I started to notice that the Reds announcers, usually quite reliable about providing the relevant statistics, were unaccountably skipping over the number of hits each inning. They’d report no runs and no errors, but they said nothing about hits. I think I started to get the picture somewhere around the sixth inning: it’s a superstition, they’re avoiding the number of hits, my favorite Red is pitching a no-hitter!
Sure enough, he did. Entranced by the moment, I wrote a note to my favorite player congratulating him on his achievement. A week or so later, I received by return mail a postcard, slightly larger than average, with Maloney’s face on one side and a signature scrawled across it, with a sentence on the other side thanking me for my letter. Was it really Maloney’s signature? These days it wouldn’t be, but back then it probably was. But it didn’t matter; I had a personal relationship with baseball, and the Reds in particular, from then on.
And this is what leads to the archetypal experience for the dedicated sports fan: following a team from the lower reaches of the standings through years of slowly building the farm team, generating both offense and defense, eventually emerging into the spotlight and standing among the truly great. This for the fan is vindication of the long struggle, the years of rooting for a team without a prayer, the hopeful springs and the depressing falls, the young prospects either failed or traded, the old warhorses moved on to spend their last few years with some other team that hasn’t yet given up on the playoffs.
Then, after years of wandering in the wilderness, things start to look up. Perhaps new ownership comes along, and for the first time in years you start to indulge a hope. One of the young prospects turns out to be a Johnny Bench or a Derek Jeter. Maybe you make a smart trade, and suddenly you’ve got more pitching than your team has seen in a century. You begin to see a bit of light in a tunnel that previously appeared endless.
But an injury here and a rough patch there, a pitcher’s strained muscle and a shortstop’s shattered kneecap, and you start to realize that this is not the year. You know that for sure when the team trades an outfielder in the off-season who proceeds to lead the other league in several categories for much of the year. Then you trade a perennial All-Star and likely first-ballot Hall of Famer, and a week and a half later trade the leading home-run hitter in the majors, whose expensive contract expires at the end of this year. For the two of them, plus some cash, you get a middle reliever, a triple-A third baseman, a double-A pitcher, and two players to be named later.
But there’s no blow lower than the pig-out promotion. When it reaches the point that the club can sell bleacher seats for $30, complete with all-you-can-eat hot dogs, popcorn, peanuts, and Pepsi products, you know it’s time to start dreaming of spring. Once again.