It isn’t easy being a Yankees fan. Try to stop your sarcastic laughter long enough to let me explain. It’s hard to consider yourself a good, moral person and still root whole-heartedly for the Yankees. It goes against so many other cherished values—distrust of large corporations, notions of fair play and equal opportunity. And after all, every decent human being shares an innate dislike of George Steinbrenner. Lurking within the hearts of many otherwise contented Yankees fans is a secret shame.
Mets and Red Sox partisans will probably have little sympathy for this dilemma, and who can blame them? But the Yankees, with all their free-spending and blatantly unfair dominance, are as alluring as a roster of 25 sirens. Your politicians may always lose elections, you may never get that good high-paying job, your lover might walk out on you and your dog might get hit by a car, but at least your baseball team will always win a lot. The Yankees have managed to become one of life’s precious few constants in a scary, ever-changing world.
I started watching the Yankees thanks to my father, himself a recovering Red Sox fan who, as he puts it, “just couldn’t take it anymore.” When he moved to New Jersey, he committed baseball heresy by switching allegiances. To this day, when discussing the Sox, his eyes take on a distant, haunted look. “They always seemed to have a chance,” he’ll say, “and then … every year … I dreaded the fall.” Then he shakes himself out of it and soothes the pain of old memories by watching Jason Giambi hit another home run. Being a Yankees fan is good for one’s mental health and, arguably, blood pressure. But how do you reconcile it with healthy egalitarian values?
Some people say that Americans like winners, and some people say Americans like underdogs. The truth, of course, is that Americans tend to like underdogs that win. When you apply this to current New York baseball, the problem is that the Yankees are never underdogs and the Mets aren’t winning. As a result there are lots of Yankees fans, but even more people who hate the Yankees passionately (a fundamental value that untied large parts of the country).
This hostility, along with my natural aversion to powerful organizations that trample those less fortunate underfoot, has caused me to rationalize desperately on many otherwise pleasant October nights. Lots of teams have money and don’t win, I’ve said (true: look at the Mets). New York is a uniquely high-pressure market and so its teams deserve more money (questionable). The Yankees are actually helping all of baseball by being so fun to watch (highly questionable). Despite these comforting thoughts, I often find myself fighting the sudden urge to donate money to charity in early November.
No, there’s no denying it—the Yankees win more often than any one team should, and that is precisely why I love watching them. Sure, it’s painfully obvious that the system is off balance, when the salaries of a few key Yankee players are larger than the combined payroll of various teams. But when people complain that there’s no fair competition in baseball anymore, that the Yankees always win, I (normally a very nice person, I swear) think: damn right they do, suckers. Now why don’t you go home and watch your video of the 1986 Mets World Series victory one more time?
Baseball does something strange to me—my Yankees fan persona doesn’t fit with my usual personality. People are often surprised to begin with, that a girl like me is such a passionate baseball fan, and not just because I think Derek Jeter is cute (not that he isn’t). I’m fairly knowledgeable about the game, though not the kind of obsessed fan boy stat-freak who will turn to you after a game and say, excitedly, “That’s the first time a left-handed American League power pitcher has thrown a shutout in any away game—after eating trout—since Whitney Ford did it in 1961.” But while in general I like to think I have a fairly strong value system, it’s one that just breaks down faster than a Tampa Bay Devil Rays pitcher when it comes to baseball.
Uncomfortable with all this winning, I’ve tried to atone for my summertime sins by being a New Jersey Nets fan in the winter. This has generally been considered an overt act of martyrdom, like wearing a hair shirt or self-flagellation. The Knicks are underdog enough for most New Jersey basketball fans. But now George Steinbrenner owns the Nets, too, and this past year they won too often to serve as an effective penance (though not often enough to beat the dreaded Lakers, now routinely referred to as “the Yankees of basketball”).
Steinbrenner is a strange character, an old-fashioned self-made tycoon who answers to no one and couldn’t seem to stop creating total chaos on his own team until Joe Torre arrived (these days it’s only partial chaos). Meanwhile, though I’m not normally a religious person, I’m convinced that Torre is some kind of deity—possibly the reincarnation of Buddha. His preternaturally calm demeanor during every single game, every single year, no matter what the situation, is a soothing and stable presence in my life.
I’m in Steinbrenner’s debt, especially for the YES Network. Many people bitch about having to pay to watch the games, and certainly YES has many flaws: the low budget local ads, the oft-repeated “Center Stage” and “Yankeeography” shows, the constant references to the team as “the premier franchise in sports.” But like all addicts, I’ll take inferior product if it’s the only way to get my fix—and it turns out I’m not alone. Boston is probably one of the only markets outside of New York that could support a cable network solely dedicated to a baseball team, but an all-Red Sox channel would be too depressing, like all-news network that covered only famines.
Steinbrenner also insists that his players be clean-shaven and neat, which strikes me as unnecessarily dictatorial, even as I appreciate this policy for making the Yankees one of baseball’s more attractive teams. Hey, I told you I was a girl, and if I’m going to spend 3 – 4 hours watching a game, it should at least be aesthetically pleasing. John Giambi looks a whole lot better without that awful Oakland goatee, and I shudder at the thought of Andy Pettite with a moustache.
More significantly, however, George Steinbrenner has money and spends it lavishly and without apology—something that never fails to anger people if they aren’t benefiting. Steinbrenner’s spending is unfair in the way that capitalism in general is unfair, but people look to their sports as a kind of idealized world, and thus it hurts to see old economics intrude. In this vein, the Yankees’ recent acquisition of Raul Mondesi is a prime example of both the joy and the moral quagmire that is Yankees fandom. There were already three acceptable outfielders splitting time in left and right field, but it was still the weakest position this season, when following the Yankees is a little like watching an All-Star team all season long. And so the Boss went ahead and essentially bought Mondesi from the Blue Jays, who are so far behind the Yankees in the AL East that they look like tiny ants from here, for $12.5 million over two years. Because, hey, why not?
Chris Russo, the Mad Dog of WFAN’s “Mike and the Mad Dog” sports talk show, is a lifelong Yankees-hater who spoke for many others like him the day the trade was announced. Sputtering and yelling, completely beside himself, the Dog raged against the arrogance and imbalance of it all, making dire predictions about the future of the game, until some callers began to fear for his health. I saw his point. But I also saw Mondesi’s stats. By now I’ve given in to the Yankees’ ethos: if you could be in any way a better tam, and you have money to spare, shouldn’t you do something about it?
In baseball, even the very best teams lose about a third of the time, and the best hitters never average more than two hits in five at-bats. That’s one of the things I love about the game—absolute dominance is essentially impossible. Thus, even the Yankees will, once in a while, lose to the Devil Rays. And as great teams tend to come and go in cycles, I know there will probably come a time when I will have to watch my Yankees lose for years and years in a row. I’ve been lucky to be in the right place at the right time as a fan of the right team—blessed by the baseball gods. There are few times in life when I’ll be able to be this smug about anything: I might as well embrace the arrogance while it lasts.
Emma Span has written for the Yale Journal of Contemporary Culture. She lives in New Haven and Brooklyn.