My Tribe Can Beat Your Tribe

Lately I’ve been thinking about the diminishing inventory of

my passions. A man north of, say, 39 is prone to take stock during a certain

season of his life (let’s say autumn) and greedily anticipate-especially after

a long winter-the renewal of spring. It’s an overdue opportunity to reconnect

with roots, women in their summer dresses, baseball on home turf. For guys like

me, eager for a few more at-bats, it’s past time these pastimes got going.

Baseball, like all great civilizations, is built from the

ground up. It starts with a fence around a field, separating good neighbors.

Then: a line in the sand, and then another. A river or an interstate or even a

subway may run through it. Eventually, you’ve got boundaries. You’ve got laws.

You’ve got at least two bordering entities, each featuring a populace with differing

theories, views and opinions. And you’ve got fans-passionate believers-whose

attachments are rooted in ancient soil, then steeped, stirred and stored by

subsequent generations.

It’s not much of a leap to trace the roots of fan psychology

to a primitive time when human beings lived a tribal existence, invariably

believing that one tribe (their own) was superior to all others. Think of that

first National Anthem, played more than 2,000 years ago (according to those

hilarious historians, Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner): “Let ’em all go to hell

except Cave 76!”

“We all want to belong, to be part of something greater than

ourselves,” says sports psychologist Harvey Dorfman. “Individuals often gain a

sense of purpose and self-esteem from an identification with their team.”

Harvey is a buddy of mine. He counsels baseball players,

among others, for a living. One of his guys is Rick Ankiel, the St. Louis

Cardinal flame-thrower who famously flamed out last post-season when he

mysteriously began firing pitches-many and often-far beyond any catcher’s

reach. Harvey’s job is to help the young lefty regain control. Harvey says he’s

a good kid with a great arm.

I may be a Mets fan, but I’ll be rooting this year for Rick


I’m a second-generation baseball enthusiast. My people came

from Romania, Poland and Russia, where they had very few fans. My father’s

father settled in Brooklyn, working long and hard to make a living for his

family; he savored few pastimes. His son, however, lived and died for the New

York Giants. I’ve heard it said that Rudy Giuliani was a brave man for being a

Yankee supporter living in Brooklyn. You want true grit? How about choosing the

Dodgers’ hated inter-league rival? That’s what my dad and uncle did. They were

Giants among bums. But they both left baseball when their team left them (for

San Francisco) after the ’57 season.

When I came of cheering

age, I knew that I couldn’t back the Yankees; that’d be like pulling for the

Cossacks. So I picked the new team, the

Metropolitans, closer to my Long Island home. I remain an avid devotee, though perhaps it’s unprofessional to admit

it. I make my living-well, a small portion of it-writing about sports, mostly

baseball. And as the estimable sportswriter, Jerome Holtzman, observed (it was

the title of his book): There’s no cheering in the press box. Which means:

You’re a pro. You don’t care who wins or loses; you care only for the story.

The fact is, however, sportswriters do root, not for teams

but for individuals-for men and women who are stand-up in the face of victory

and adversity, and perhaps not too stingy with a quote.

Some rooters, of course,

reject or rebel against their patrimonial birthright. They may despise

the team’s owner. Maybe they’re in the thrall of a superstation. Perhaps they

prefer another squad’s logo, colors or the cut of their jerseys. (Clothes, in

fact, can make the fan. In tracking memorabilia sales worldwide, MLB Properties

ranks the Yankees first. Several years ago, though, baseball’s bean counters

were baffled as to why the sales of Cleveland Indians paraphernalia were so

periodically popular in selected sites around the globe-including Germany, of

all places. The reason: There was a significant spike in all Tribe merchandise

following the local video release of Major

League , the movie.) True believers, fashion followers, tribal creatures-it

takes all kinds to make a big-league aficionado.

Last fall, as the likelihood of a Subway Series hit the

express track, area residents leaped first and held fast for the ride of their

lives. Token resistance was futile, overcome by primal, deep-rooted passions.

New York was once again the capital city of baseball. Mets vs. Yanks … the only

game in town. And, for the first time in 44 years, ours was the only town left

in the game.

Elsewhere, in the greater baseball diaspora, many citizens

were apoplectic, apocalyptic even. Armageddon was predicted. Fans are bad

everywhere, but those New York fanatics are the worst. With so many houses

divided, an uncivil war was assured: mayhem, riots, the interminable rain of

batteries in right field.

Boy, were they wrong.

Notwithstanding The Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary ‘s

description of fan as “prob. short for fanatic ,”

a fine line of conduct definitely differentiates most partisans from the wacky few

who have, as my sports-psychologist friend explains, “an obsessive

identification with players. Love or hate is attached in an unhealthy or

neurotic way. And there is an inability to distinguish between direct and

vicarious experiences.”

There’s also history here, and we know our place in it.

Since the first modern

World Series in 1903, this great city-state has been the sole host of the Fall

Classic 14 times. (Though these intra-urban competitions have historically been

dubbed “Subway Series,” the first two matchups-in 1921 and 1922, Yankees and

Giants-never left the ballpark. Both teams played in Manhattan’s Polo Grounds

before the Bombers moved north in ’23 to their own stadium in the Bronx.)

In the 2000 Series,

barely a chalk line separated the two teams. The winning margin in each of the five games-the Yanks’ 4-1 victory was

their 26th world championship, and the 11th time they defeated an inter-city

rival-did not exceed two runs. Disregarding Roger (“Rocket”) Clemens’

cracked-bat-thrown-at-Mike-Piazza flare-up (the guy is, after all, from Texas),

the play on the field, as well as in the stands and the streets, was filled

with intensity, grace and no small measure of civility.

As the new season gets underway, it might be too much to

expect another banner year for both New York nines. But we’ll be out there

again, because hope’s eternal in spring. Certainly I’ll be out there at Shea

with my brother for the home opener, his birthday. I took him to his first game

there when he turned 8. He said it was one of the best days of his life (when

we got home, our parents gave him a bike).

What is a ballpark if not a haven from the real world? There

we can act like children released from the constraints of adult comportment. We

can stomp our feet in petulant disgust, whistle and catcall in uninhibited

delight. And the beauty part: So long as we adhere to a few common decencies,

we will be encouraged by our peers (and ignored by the authorities).

In a civilization that changes daily, yet has been little

altered over time, we remain spirited and involved. Forever young. Who among us

does not root for that? My Tribe Can Beat Your Tribe