“There is nobody as enslaved as the fanatic, the person whom in one impulse, one value, assumes ascendancy over all others.” -Milton R. Sapirstein
There are few things more aggravating than trying to escape mushrooming media hype of a story you just don’t want to hear. The internet is a demon the day immediately after your team blows Game 7, or your idolized all-star is caught in salacious mischief, or your star QB’s season-ending injury is documented in 14,000 different photo angles.
You’d think that New York City journalism would be so overwhelmed with news that it could avoid spinning out the same stories over and over. But as it stands, the only thing transpiring in Manhattan is the election. And the World Series. And trying to decide what’s less interesting is like trying to pick between sharing a cell with Omarosa or Andy Dick.
I’ve been able to sidestep the burgeoning political smoke and mirrors suffocating the country, but my nagging interest in baseball precludes me from shunning the World Series. After observing the heated lunacy punctuating the election, it made me think that the polarizing and divisive nature of politics that I’ve always scoffed at, is scarcely different from that of the nature of sports fans.
The relationship a fan has with his team is perennially challenged by rival fans, the dynamic is ever-shifting. Love for the players converts to contempt for the opposition’s loyalists. You can’t love both the Mets and the Yankees, or your credibility falls along the ranks of George O’Leary. DC natives are out for blood when the Cowboys come to town. And a little research uncovered an Ohio-Michigan couples group on Facebook…with a staggering 3 female members. (I have a few ideas that explain the notable absence of boyfriends, their failure to exist being one.)
The relationship a voter has with his party’s candidate is a push-pull balance of championing the issues and attacking the other party. While Obama and McCain battle it out in the inaccessible stratosphere of politics, the common citizens are left to either cheer them on, or spit vitriol at each other. The former may be nobler, but the latter is decidedly more gratifying.
And in both pools of sports fans and American voters, there may be people who advocate principles without assassinating characters. But I think the lion’s share of the bell curve houses those whose team/candidate loyalty is overshadowed by animosity towards the opposition.
It’s arbitrary, narrow, and sometimes illogical. But this mentality is also the only thing tethering non-Tampa Bay/Phillies fans to coverage of the 2008 World Series.
On paper, this matchup should be fantastic. But we’re two games into the Fall Classic, and I still can’t find even a small pocket of emotion around who will win. The Phillies are durable and hungry. Tampa Bay is feisty and young. In the words of my mom, “Yeah, Saturday was an exciting game until I realized I didn’t care.”
When your team is out, the only thing left to do is root against the enemy. And when the enemy itself isn’t someone particularly worthy of hatred, you look for the fanbase that is.
Certain cities, usually in the northeast, are subject to this kind of hater mentality. Philadelphia, New York, and Boston are like a murderers row of obnoxious fans, so when the hapless Phillies or golden Pats are in the playoffs, it’s not the team that haters are rooting against. It’s the people in the stands.
And while the Tampa Bay and Philly teams may be in dead heat stats-wise, their respective legions of loyalists couldn’t be more polar.
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Tampa Bay Devil Rays
What do you do with a team that has about as many fans as there are players on the roster? What the hell is a Tampa Bay fan anyway? I can’t wrap my head around this. While my sister’s ex-boyfriend purports vehemently that he has ALWAYS followed this franchise, the fact that he isn’t a middle-schooler makes this argument less plausible.
Is the vague frustration over alleged bandwagoning enough to root against the Rays? If you need a reason to hate this nascent faction, it might be a better idea to direct your attentions to the catwalk, or oddly sterile playoff atmosphere in the Trop, or the blinding effects the brand new fleet of Rays jerseys have on the viewer.
I can understand hating Pink-hat wearers or Patriots fans who popped out of the woodwork post-1994, but the Trop motley crew is inexplicably exempt from this contempt. It’s like in Teen Wolf when everyone gets into Wolfmania when the Beacon Town Beavers start making a championship run, their all-star talent in the form of a 17-year-old werewolf. It’s too weird and surreal to think about.
Not to mention there’s also the age-old adage that you never root against a team whose largest crowd was under 50,000…and for a New Kids on the Block concert.
Sure, the cowbells are giving the Thunder Stix a run for their money in the campaign for All-Time Irritating fan props. The Rayhawks are obscene. The poster signs held up at the stadium read like loose translations of a foreign language. And the Trop’s highlighted feature? “The only stadium in the world with live cownose rays.”
(Say what you will about the Trop, but at least you’re not taking in a game where the cownoses aren’t live.)
And in the Chutes and Ladders game of team likeability, the Rays were cleared a path to higher grounds. Outside of winning 8 gold Olympic medals, there’s only one other feat that can generate such profound, unanimous gratitude across sports fans:
Taking down the Yankees.
Forget they didn’t play the Yankees in the postseason. Or that the Bombers were one of only 2 AL teams with a winning record against TB. It doesn’t matter. The Devil Rays represent everything the Yankees are not. Low-profile, cheap, young, guileless, raw, and successful. And from the looks of both teams, it may stay this way for a while.
But despite all this, the feisty Rays only give us reasons to not root against them. Is there a reason to root for them?
The Phillies, conversely, are a much more evocative franchise. Their historical record is pathetic, boasting the unequivocal worst, most abysmal history of any baseball team. In 126 years, they have one championship, more losses than any other team, 9 seasons of playing under .300, and 14 seasons of 100-losses or more. Worst of all, they have no excuse. No small market, no ballpark issues, no manager ruts. Not even a curse.
The interesting part about Phillies fans is that most of their notoriety seems to stem from a peripheral stigma–the wildly unpopular perception of the fans tailgating across the street from Citizens Bank Park.
The Philly baseball fans I’ve encountered have never struck me as obnoxious, crass, loud, idiotic, or even bitter. It’s almost as if years of stunning failures have resigned them to an even-keeled approach to baseball: retain fundamental northeastern sports zeal, watch the game without thinking about the season, never let it break your heart.
On the other hand, Eagles fans are the Judd Nelsons of the NFL Breakfast club. They irritate the hell out of everyone. They love the negative attention, mistake their outspoken idiocy for unrivaled fandom, wreak enough violent havoc to necessitate holding cells in their stadium, and worst of all, they won’t be slowed by logic. They’re certifiably insane.
Unfortunately for the baseball fans, Eagles have fostered such abject ignominy that Phillies fans are inevitably guilty by association. If there’s even a slight chance Eagles fans will experience remote pleasure, the general public will work overtime to prevent this.
People will root against the Phillies for the same reason I rooted for the Lakers last spring. If I had any interest in basketball, I would in all likelihood favor the Celtics. But the idea of Red Sox fans celebrating again made me shudder. That’s how powerful my hostility towards Boston fans is. That I could root against a refreshingly talented NBA team to thwart the joy of fans from a completely different sport.
Going even further away from the teams actually playing right now, anyone who hates the Mets–or rather, is entertained by their fans’ Charlie Brown-like misery, is rooting for the Phils. To the Private Pyle of MLB, what’s one more harsh whack with a towel wrapped bar of soap?
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The complex web of fan alliances and discords runs thick and deep. It’s compelling and ubiquitous, and while I sometimes hate its overpowering nature, it fends off apathy. At least towards sports.
I limit my sociopolitical education to Facebook status updates, SNL skits, and cartoons on Page 6 of the New York Post. I only recently nailed down the names of the presidential candidates, because the further I stay away from the philosophical melee ravaging Manhattan, the better.
I don’t particularly need another demographic of people to irrationally hate. I almost killed a man for saying Jeter was one of the worst shortstops in the game, spent weeks arguing with my best friend over the Celtic’s D in the playoffs, and near disowned my youngest sister for rooting for Green Bay last year.
I am already governed by sports loyalties that breed hostility towards certain fan sects, and that’s enough. I am incapable of separating people from the teams they support, just as the politically minded often define people by their red or blue penchants.
Such are the issues tugging at the baseball fan’s loyalties. Twenty-eight teams’ supporters can either ignore baseball altogether or forge a makeshift allegiance to Philly or Tampa Bay. We are now at the mercy of the Laws of Thermodynamics: energy cannot be created or destroyed, but it can change from one form to another.
The rabid devotion that innervated the season cannot be extinguished so seamlessly. Nor can I concoct some test tube passion for either team. Such fanaticism can only be transferred to something else.
Now on the heels of Game 5, I’m still waffling on a team to back. The best solution I can think of? Aggressively, passionately, fervently root for…a 7-game series. If nothing else, it will buy me more time.