Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Brotherly Love and Hate

No Met fan wanted to see this World Series match-up. The Philadelphia Phillies, formerly as mediocre and innocuous as their green pear-shaped mascot, have become our hated rival to the south. They stand poised to become the first National League team to repeat as World Series champions since Cincinnati’s legendary Big Red Machine won in 1975 and 1976. All that stands in their way is the New York Yankees – the Evil Empire. I was tempted to compare this match-up to Hitler vs. Stalin but decided that this kind of hyperbole would be tasteless and inappropriate. This is baseball, not soccer.

But let’s be honest: hating another team is almost as essential to being a sports fan as loving your own team. Certainly, it makes for a more enriching experience. Just ask any Yankee or Red Sox fan about that rivalry. Mention Bucky Dent or Aaron Boone to a Red Sox Fan. Or Pedro Martinez or Schilling’s bloody sock to a Yankee fan and watch carefully. Their body language changes and you can sometimes detect a slightly wild look in the eye, an exciting suggestion of the violent impulses lurking just beneath the surface.

One Yankee fan I know considered my predicament: “For you, it’s probably the same as I felt in 1986 when the Red Sox played the Mets. I wanted both teams to lose.” I appreciated the remark - empathy is the rarest of traits in Yankee fans. But the analogy only goes so far. Yankees vs. Red Sox is an ancient and eternal rivalry, the best and most bitter in all of baseball, if not all of American professional sports. By contrast, Mets vs. Phillies is a recent phenomenon.

As cities go, Philadelphia and New York are natural rivals and have been since colonial times. Yesterday’s New York Post ran one of those humorous “Tale of the Tape” pieces (26 championships vs. 2, etc.) which dismissed Philadelphia as a second-rate city, whose greatest culinary contribution is a cheap steak sandwich covered in Cheez-Whiz, whose greatest sports hero is a fictional boxer, and whose boorish fans suffer from an eternal case of New York envy. But it’s not just the New York Post. I came across a New York Times article from 1852 expressing a similar sentiment.

That, under the quiet and subdued jackets of Philadelphia hearts should beat, so tumultuous with envy, so swelling with ambition and fretted with indignation, as the last few years have exhibited, might seem incredible to one who had not seen their desires incarnated in outward acts. That city has evinced a feeling bordering on positive malignity toward her sister of New York.

Nice! Now, I am a proud New Yorker who has always liked the city of Philadelphia. I enjoy visiting, I’m fond of my family and friends from the area, I’m a fan of the first two Rocky films and I highly recommend a stroll along South Street, a visit to the Museum of Art and a drive along the Schuylkill on a clear fall day. I’ve never harbored any particular animosity for their sports teams. The notable exception is the Eagles. OK, come to think of it, there’s no love lost for the Flyers either. But the Phillies?

The Mets and Phillies have been divisional opponents since 1962 but despite efforts by the media to create one, no real rivalry took hold. When the Mets were bad, the Phillies were good and vice-versa. The Mets first real rival was the Cubs, competing with them first for the 1969 division title and then for futility. In the 1980s, it was the Cardinals. A decade later, it was the Braves. And now, all of the elements of a heated rivalry have taken shape with the Phillies. For now, it has it all: the regional element, two closely contested title races (2007 & 2008), bad blood between players (Billy Wagner & Pat Burrell), arrogant boasts (Jimmy Rollins & Carlos Beltran), obnoxious fans (theirs), historical collapses (ours) and most of all, the pain and bewilderment of blowing it and then watching the other team go on to win the World Series. (At least Yankee fans also know what that feels like).

But, the Yankees. The reasons for hating the Yankees are of course too numerous to cover adequately. Their brand of “moneyball” represents perhaps the worst aspect of professional sports. Their arrogance represents what is most obnoxious about New York. Then there is A-Rod, who represents what is worst AND what is best about New York. And it is this: It doesn’t matter how much of an asshole you are, if you can perform, you can play here. Well, let’s see how he does now.

If I sound bitter, well, I suppose I am. But it’s a bitterness that is part of a proud tradition. My father grew up rooting for the Brooklyn Dodgers and, as a kid, saw the Yankees win the World Series six times in seven seasons. His beloved Dodgers lost four of those series, usually in heart-breaking fashion. Heartbreak builds character. Only in 1955 did the Brooklyn Dodgers finally break the spell. I was raised in this tradition and inherited an appreciation for the underdog, a love of the Mets and a healthy dislike for the Yankees. The old saying that "rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for U. S. Steel,” always rang true for me. Imperious, bullying and soul crushing.

The Phillies manager, Charlie Manuel, also grew up as a fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers. He talked about his memories of the 1952 World Series, when the Yankees beat the Dodgers in seven games. My Dad used to talk about the same series. "I thought I was going to die," Manuel said. "I couldn't believe Gil Hodges went [0-for-21]." For some reason, reading this made me smile. Maybe it’s the way that childhood memories of baseball wins and losses stay with you more than 50 years later. Maybe it’s because my father shared the exact same experience. Whatever the reason, I liked Manuel for saying it and I was reminded of something that I’ve known in my heart ever since these two teams advanced to the World Series.

I’ll be rooting for the Phillies.


weber said...

I'll be rooting for the swine flu.

jwharding28 said...

As a Yankee fan, I don't understand how 1986 posed any kind of problem. It was automatic for me to root for the Mets. Besides hometown loyalty, (a quality apparently utterly absent from the tiny hearts of insecure Mets fans) it was as simple as the fact that I root for two teams: the Yankees and whoever is playing the Bosox.

As for Mets fans rooting for the Phillies? Enjoy cheering for Jimmy Rollins and watching Pedro Martinez pitch brilliantly for another team. It's beyond my comprehension.

Big Eddie


Seriously? It wasn't even a tough decision.

Cheering for Rollins is a cinch, I'd root for him over A-Roid any day of the week.

As for the "hometown loyalty" nonsense, that's for politicians, not real sports fans. Are you going to root for the Jets should they ever make it to the Super Bowl? How about the Rangers for the Stanley Cup?

jwharding28 said...

A-Roid. Listening to The Schmoozer on WFAN lately?

Jets? Yeahsurewhynot. As long as they aren't playing the Giants. The Rangers? Absolutely not. They're the agents of Satan.

But that's the thing. I don't see Yankees-Mets as a rivalry of any sort. I've always had a soft spot in my head and heart for the Mets.

Jets-Giants? Does *anybody* see that as a rivalry? Besides, what are the odds of the Jets ever reaching the Super Bowl?