Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Buy Me Some iPads & Cracker Jack

I’ve been a Yankees fan for 35 years now, ever since that Sunday afternoon in June when my mother drove me to the ballpark in the South Bronx for the first time. It was Bat Day, 1977, and I was handed a wooden bat with Thurman Munson’s name and Burger King’s logo engraved on it. It didn’t matter to me that the Yankees lost to the Minnesota Twins that afternoon. As I stared out at the vast expanse of green before me, and as I heard the crack of bat against ball, I was hooked. A Yankee fan for life.

Since that day, I’ve chatted about the Yankees all the time with my mom, brother, grandparents, friends and wife. Even my dad, who grew up rooting for the Brooklyn Dodgers and was deprived of the chance to bring his sons to the ballpark that sparked his childhood dreams, has come around to talking Yankees with us. And my daughters, despite their marked preference for Webkins and Glee, have their moments of joining in some pinstriped passion.

When talking baseball with others, it can be uncomfortable to share the fact that I’m a Yankees fan. There are, of course, those 27 championships to gloat over – 16 more than any other team in baseball history. With the Yankees sporting baseball’s highest payroll every year, it’s easy to assume that I’m a front-runner. Here in New York, Mets fans may have more misery, but they can always claim the integrity of sticking with their team no matter what the outcome.

Yet, I came of age in the 1980s, the one decade in the past five in which the Mets can clearly say they were New York’s team. I watched the Yankees go 14 consecutive years without making the playoffs, and saw the Mets claim a World Series title and a division crown during that same stretch. Had there been a Wild Card team during those years, the Mets would have made the playoffs six times in seven years. Meanwhile, the Yankees were stumbling along with a variety of managers, general managers and high-priced veterans. So I know what it’s like to see your favorite team implode in front of you while other local club gets all the press.

The past 17 years have changed that landscape quite a bit, though, as the Yankees have made the playoffs every year but one since 1995. It may seem a bit outdated to use the old cliché that cheering for the Yankees is like rooting for U.S. Steel. So to update it a bit for 2012, cheering on the Bronx Bombers is more like cheering for higher quarterly reports from Apple. Ho-hum. Buy me some iPads and Cracker Jack.

But with all honesty and understanding, I ask you this: What can I do? Must I feel guilty for the Yankees’ success? Should I stop rooting for the Yankees simply because they have won too often? Do I push aside my memories and toss that old Thurman Munson bat in the trash because of my adult awareness of economics? Is competitive imbalance enough reason to turn aside the rush of childhood joy that accompanies the sight of an interlocking NY? Aren’t all of our baseball passions much more about feeling 8 years old again than about thirsting for victory?

In recent years, Major League Baseball has taken important steps to level the playing field somewhat in terms of team revenue, thanks in large part to revenue-sharing and luxury taxes. In addition, changes to the way the game is played and scouted have turned baseball into a sport dominated by the best young players teams can find. The Yankees have won just one championship over the past 11 years, and their 2012 club is just like all the others they’ve put together over that time period – very talented, but with clear weak spots. They might win, and they might not.

So I’ll cheer for the Yankees in 2012, just as I always have. But at age 41, I’ve matured to the point where my heart no longer breaks if the Yankees’ season ends with a loss. Because I know that whenever my team loses, there are other fans, with their own passions and memories, who are delighted over their team’s victories. Last year, as the St. Louis Cardinals claimed their 11th championship, millions of Redbirds fans were glorying in their unexpected triumph. That’s pretty awesome to see, no matter what the team. This year, I’ve got my eye on the Royals from Kansas City, who have not made the playoffs since their championship season of 1985, and who are unveiling a team filled with some of baseball’s top young talent. It might not be this year for the Royals, but it may be quite soon. I’m also watching out for the Nationals of Washington, who have even more young talent than Kansas City, and could contend for the playoffs as soon as this season. Washington has only seen one baseball championship, and that was nearly 90 years ago. Perhaps it’s about time for a second.

A new baseball season is set to begin this week. I’m hoping to get to a couple of Yankees games this year, where I can see that big green field and hear those bats and balls connect. The season will unfold, and I’ll follow it like a novel I can’t put down. But no matter what happens in the end, it will have been worth it. It always is.