Tuesday, October 07, 2014

I Support Narrative

I thought I grew up a Yankee fan. I mean I did, I guess. I knew all the stats, had posters and pennants. I know who Snuffy Sternweiss is, for crying out loud. My favorite all-time baseball player remains, to this day, the great Lou Gehrig - and I can explain to you all the reasons he was far more valuable than Babe Ruth.

I became aware of baseball in the 1980's and adored Don Mattingly - the kind of guy who just showed up day after day and worked hard. It was easy to transition seamlessly to the late 90's Yankee dynasty, full of similar guys. Some of my favorite baseball moments are Jim Leyritz out of nowhere three run homer and, of course, Charlie Hayes catching the last out in 1996.

For all the Yankee history and dominance (and arrogance), they hadn't won or really been very good at all, in my lifetime.

I thought I grew up a Yankee fan - then I met some. Now, obviously there are plenty of fine people who root for the Yankees, but a lot of them are ridiculous, condescending jerks, people who really enjoy the sense of superiority that comes with being a historic winner (and fans always forget, they aren't actually on the team). I thought I grew up a Yankee fan - then Steroids and Steinbrenner. The team just wasn't fun to watch anymore. I still revere the history, but the present didn't have much pull.

I gave up. I became an unaffiliated fan. I found watching the games with no real investment in the outcome was so much more fun. I was able to follow my heart, choose a team to root for in each individual contest or just root for no one and enjoy the game. It literally made my life better.

Then I heard an interview with Malcolm Gladwell - who, despite his erudite, intellectual reputation, is a pretty big sports fan. He talked about how he followed the local teams growing up, but that he had no compunction to stick with a club simply out of loyalty. He said the names and narratives change all the time - why wouldn't our allegiances.

Gladwell, essentially, challenged the underlying assumption of sports: pick a team and stick with them. He asked why - and the answer is really: for no reason at all.

Now there are certainly some reasons. People who've lived in the same place their whole lives have connections to local teams. In some places - like Liverpool, in England - the sports team has taken on an epic connection to the fans far beyond what happens on the field.

But, for most of us, there's really nothing tying us to a team outside of obligation and peer pressure.

Gladwell talked about enjoying the early Kareem Lakers and the Bill Bradley Knicks, even though those teams played in the same era and often against each other. It's not a marriage, he said - you like who you like. Some stories are just compelling.

Ultimately, that's what sports is - a story. We don't actually know any athletes. We know the narrative they present to the media or the media concocts to explain them. We know image. We know story.

I've gone into games with an intellectual rooting interest - I want Clemson to win this game because of Steve Spurriers smugness at South Carolina (despite the fact that I really enjoyed his 90's Florida teams - Go Danny Wuerffel!) for example - only to find myself drawn to the opponent during the course of the game (although never to South Carolina-era Steve Spurrier).

The heart wants what the heart wants.

There are some sports I enjoy watching, especially when they're being played well. Cycling, skiing, track and field, soccer, baseball, basketball, whatever. Sure, I have favorites, but they're really just narratives built up over time.

I was rooting for the Red Sox to lose against the Yankees in 2003, when Pedro Martinez got left in too long - and I was rooting FOR the Sox the next year, against the same Yankees, because they just seemed the team of destiny. It was an extremely compelling narrative.

It doesn't always mean your a front-runner - but, let's face it, if your team is at the bottom of the standings, you pick a contender to root for through the playoffs. Underdog stories are often far more compelling, especially in this day and age where rich men buy championships (or, more appropriately, championship contenders) so often.

The sport I follow most fervently these days is soccer - or proper football, you could say. I don't have a particular team I like, although I have my inclinations. That doesn't keep me from rooting for Everton one week and Liverpool the next, because ultimately I root for the narrative.

Call me a hopeless romantic - or perhaps just a hopeless hopeful - but I like seeing something play out in ways that can only be described as beautiful. There is something quite satisfying in witnessing cosmic justice (at least as defined by my perspective), there's something comfortable, grounded, in the fruition of a well-lived narrative.

So, "Go Team!" Just don't ask which one.

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