Saturday, April 18, 2015

Born to Root for the Home Team

For some time, I have believed that baseball is the one sport that cosmically assigns loyalty at birth. Two caveats:  This belief is not based upon any advanced sociological study done at Berkeley or gleaned from a Stamford doctoral dissertation. Even though ice hockey fans will be upset that I don’t include their sport among the majors, I think more of hockey as the exception that sheds light on the rule rather than providing convincing proof of my theory’s veracity. This belief has been formulated generally from various sessions in the shower where much of a guy’s core beliefs and values take shape before that first cup of coffee in the morning.

A corollary to this theory is that as a young fan, should you move out of the area of your birthplace, you cannot transfer your baseball loyalty completely to your new habitat. I have seen it done for football and basketball but rarely baseball.

Why is that? I’m not entirely sure it has anything to do with baseball being the America’s national pastime and a uniquely American experience. Football has threatened in recent years to usurp baseball’s place in the national consciousness and could slowly become the new national pastime.

Please note: Soccer, the other “football,” fades out of American consciousness within a few weeks of the end of FIFA’s World Cup, usually as soon as we can get the buzzing sound out of our ears. The rabid fans will return every World Cup, growing in numbers a few each time.

Some universal questions will forever go unanswered and some fundamental baseball laws continue unchallenged, for instance, “there’s no crying in baseball.” To these add that you are born to root for the home team. You may move, but your birth home is forever your baseball home.

I was born in Laureldale, a suburb outside Reading, Pennsylvania. Reading is a little more than 50 miles from Philadelphia, so that makes me a lifetime Phillies fan. By that same reasoning, I should also be a 76ers basketball fan and an Eagles football fan. For me, ice hockey gets a bit complicated.

Growing up in the 50’s and early 60”s, there were no Philadelphia Flyers. The Hersey Bears, an NFL minor league affiliate, played in Harrisburg, a good hour’s drive from Laureldale. The nearest NFL team, the New York Rangers, was more than 100 miles up the road, and with cultural barriers to Reading that made them seem light years away. Oddly enough, ice hockey was my favorite sport, with baseball and football being in a close tie for second place. Accidental forces that occurred before I was even born brought ice hockey to Reading years before the sport became nationally and regionally popular. As far as fan loyalty, I was like a cell phone far from a signal tower.

Leila and Tuffy McKellen, both veterans of the original travelling ice shows of the 1940s and 1950s, the Ice Capades and the Ice Follies, settled down in Reading after their professional skating careers were over and had a son, Gordie. They turned a nearly square parking car garage into a small skating rink and nurtured their son’s skating skills until he outgrew patch skating at the tiny rink, and began travelling to the larger rinks in Philadelphia. Eventually, as the Men’s National Champion, Gordie represented the US in the Olympics at Sapporo in 1972. Before all that, when I was cutting my sporting teeth, Tuffy maintained the tiny Reading rink and Leila gave lessons and one day decided to put an ad in the paper advertising the formation of a youth ice hockey team. My mother noticed the ad, thought her sons might like to give it a try, and we were hooked.  Eventually, the McKellens moved to Lake Placid and my family moved to New Jersey.

As a young boy, infatuated with hockey, the Stanley Cup far exceeded the World Series. My schoolmates had no idea what the Stanley Cup was. But every Easter time, my brothers and I would lie on the carpet in the living room where the radio dial could be twisted just right to pull in the broadcast of the playoffs. We strained our ears at times to separate the static from the crowd noises and an excited announcer calling the game from either Montreal or Toronto where the finals tended to be in the early 1960s. My team loyalty was melded into place by my admiration of Toronto’s Davey McKeon, a smallish but fast center. His number 14 would adorn the different uniforms that I would wear my entire life and now still becomes part of my computer passwords. Eventually, he would retire and when the NHL expanded from the original 6 teams, the Philadelphia Flyers were born.

I loved the Flyers. I enjoyed their Stanley Cup campaigns. I was proudest when they became the only American team to beat the Russian Red Army team when they toured the US and Canada in 1976. I went down bitterly when their glory years came to a gradual end in a Stanley Cup final against the great Gretsky teams of the Edmonton Oilers.  Those Flyers were a team of personalities, intimately known to me.  One by one they were traded away. And then a funny thing happened. Eventually, the team became a team of unknowns and I found myself drifting away. When the Rangers traded away their last goon in 1994, I was able to make the fan transfer to the Rangers side just in time for them to win their first Stanley Cup since 1941. During that time between drifting and transfer, the New Jersey Devils were born. I now find that I consider myself a “student of the game” and really could care less who wins when the Devils, the Rangers and the Flyers play each other. I had the odd reverse experience of going to Stanley Cup games sitting in the infamous blue seats in Madison Square Garden as a Flyer fan and travelling to the Spectrum in Philly as a Ranger fan. Both were strange and uncomfortable experiences, sitting as a loyal minority in a highly hostile environment.

Hockey had been my most intensely loved sport both to play and to watch and after 50 years could produce no enduring loyalty. I was not born into a team probably because my hockey roots were sunken in barren soil. I think intense personal involvement in a sport does not create a barrier to transferring loyalty. Ice hockey for me is the acid test, the ultimate proof.

My grandfather, an avid Eagles fan, retired to Florida. I was shocked at how fast he became a Miami Dolphins fan. Dallas fans are living proof that Texas residency is not required to be rabid members of the ‘Boys Nation. Route 195 divides New Jersey into Giants fans to the north and Eagle fans to the south. My friend lives on that border and says it’s a whole lot safer to be a Dallas Cowboys fan.  The magnificent succession of Super Bowl campaigns of the Pittsburgh Steelers created an army of fans around the nation much like the longstanding success of Notre Dame created a “Subway Alumni” in New York City. My good friend, Harold, moved to Atlanta from Long Island twenty years ago and all his emails were concerned with the Atlanta Falcon’s playoff hopes during the Giants’ unlikely run to the 2008 Super Bowl.

By birthright, I ought to be a 76ers basketball fan. I moved to the New York metro area just as the Knicks were building to championship stature. The sight of Willis Reed limping out to play the seventh game of that 1970 championship series forever inspired me to become a Knicks fan. I enjoyed the Sixty-Six Sixers but I was probably more of a Dr. J fan when Philly won the championship in 1984 than a true Sixers’ fan. Today I can enjoy watching the Nets and I can easily root for the Knicks to beat the Sixers without the slightest tinge of guilt. No problem of loyalty transfer in basketball for me. The passion for me to actually root for an NBA basketball team is gone.

So that might make me a “front-runner” – a pejorative name that no sports fan likes to be called. But following a baseball team that became the first professional sports franchise to record 10,000 losses, wouldn’t that be contradictive if not impossible? My earliest baseball experiences were all negative. Little League baseball didn’t come to my town until I was about 11 and you had to make the team to play. I got cut. When I played my older brother, I always lost. When he and I played some friends, we always lost. The pro team we watched on TV nearly always lost. I finally made the little league team and rode the bench the entire season. Finally got in to play one inning and got one at bat. I struck out in three pitches.

I don’t think intense futility breeds fan loyalty. In my case maybe futility mixed in with some success might because the Phillies got into some World Series games and won some championships. Being a Chicago Cubs fan could disprove that theory because their near success comes about once a generation. I have never met a Cubs fan who was not passionately loyal to them. Usually when asked how anyone could be a Cubs fan, I am never surprised by the answer that they were born there. I’ve come to expect it as the only sane response. Until recently, Boston Red Sox fans could have been a good test case. They were extremely loyal but had never actually won anything. A study of their loyalty would be tainted by the David and Goliath nature of their rivalry with the Yankees. Don Quixote was loyal to an impossible dream, too.

There are many Brooklyn Dodger fans and New York Giants fans that have never followed their teams when the franchises moved to Los Angeles and San Francisco. Those fans morphed into Met fans at about the same time that they migrated from the New York boroughs to the New Jersey suburbs during the 60s. Given my baseball upbringing, I can sympathize with my friend, Joel, who is still in mourning for the Dodgers going west, more than 50 years ago. The West Coast Dodgers have enjoyed some wonderful successes; the Brooklyn Dodgers only once. Joel would never consider moving to Los Angeles. His home is still in Brooklyn but the team he was connected to at birth is 3,000 miles away. That’s a long, umbilical baseball cord which isn’t irrefutable proof, but next to my own personal story, the best explanation I can formulate during a five-minute shower.

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