Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Where is Howard Spira When You Need Him?

In a piece for Esquire a few years ago, pop culture guru and occasional sports columnist Chuck Klosterman argued that rooting for one team your whole life is a foolish and outdated concept. After all, the argument goes, you end up simply rooting for a uniform and a logo, with no regard to the players, management or style of play of a particular organization. It makes more sense, according to Klosterman, to shift allegiances based on who your favorite players or teams are at any given moment.

I dismissed the argument out-of-hand upon first reading it, and wrote Klosterman off as just another smug, soulless hipster who jerks off to his own pop culture allusions. Which he is. But in recent years, it has become harder than ever to root for my favorite team, as the Yankees' brass seemed to make a point of acquiring every player in baseball I despise, starting with Roger Clemens in 1999.

This off-season, flush with a newfound sense of purpose stemming from his victorious power struggle, GM Brian Cashman excised some of the worst cancers from the roster by getting rid of Randy Johnson, Gary Sheffield and Jaret Wright. 600 pounds of dead weight gone, not counting Wright's chaw.

Still, when compared with the 1996-2001 dynasty, or even the less successful teams of the '80s and early '90s, the 2007 Yankees contain several players for whom it will consistently kill me to root, which makes me worry that Klosterman might be on to something.

  • Alex Rodriguez – I know, I know. He's one of the greatest players of all time, and clutchness can't be proven, and gay jokes aren't funny and blah blah blah. But you know what? The guy's just a dick. He gleefully signed the biggest contract in baseball history, then submarined his team and forced a trade when – surprise! – the weight of his contract burdened the Rangers to the point that they couldn’t compete. Suspiciously polished, he still takes every opportunity to lift himself up in public at the expense of other players. I hated him when he was a rookie in Seattle and I hate him now. Seeing him remain ringless has been the silver lining in the Yankees' recent run of postseason failure.
  • Jason Giambi – A cheater. Also: greasy.
  • Johnny Damon – Seems like a nice enough guy, but he was the face of the most loathsome group of players ever assembled. An adulterer, a self-confessed idiot and the subject of one of the most asinine episodes of MTV Cribs of all time. (Hanging in Damon’s dining room was an enormous painting featuring the 2004 Red Sox as the apostles at the Last Supper, with Johnny himself as Jesus, of course. And something tells me he doesn't mean it in a campy way.)
  • Carl Pavano – Gutless, a liar, and not a good baseball player.
  • Phil Hughes – He is getting my hopes up way too high, and there's no way he can deliver what I expect from him in his career. I blame him for this.

Despite all of this, despite the egos, steroids and ill-conceived hairstyles, I’ll still live and die with the Yankees this year. Why?

I guess it’s because I’ve rooted for them for the last 30 years, no matter what. I stood by them through the 1980s when they failed Don Mattingly by not giving him some decent pitching. I stood by them through miserable no-chance seasons like 1982 and 1989 when all hope seemed lost. I stood by them after heartbreaking Game 7 losses, when I wanted to stay in bed for a week and shave my eyebrows off for no reason. I have been steadfast through retirements, trades, career-ending injuries and woeful mismanagement.

Sticking with a losing team is easy. Forcing yourself to fall in love with a bunch of jerks is not. Still, there is something fundamentally unsound about Klosterman’s argument. Abandoning the team you grew up rooting for because you hate a few of the players is a douche move. Maybe I am just rooting for a uniform now, but maybe that's the point.

There's much more losing than winning in fandom, even for Yankees fans. Most seasons end without a championship. But the payoff when your team does win is immense, from the feeling of community the win engenders to the immense personal satisfaction that all the dark days and tough losses led to something great.

Switching allegiances every couple of years to follow a favorite player or style of play can't possibly offer the same reward, because the suffering is gone, and the connection isn't as deep.

So, come on ARod, let's do this!