Baseball is a sport of rules and rituals, for both fans and players. Probably the cardinal rule for fans is to stick with their team. Even today, when players move from team to team and labor conflicts make as much news as the games themselves, fans are expected to show a fidelity the players abandoned long ago.
This fidelity is even more prized if it is offered to a lost cause. Hence the die-hard Chicago Cubs fan, remaining loyal through a Dark Age that began in 1908 -- the last time the team won the World Series -- is held up as the paragon of devotion, the baseball incarnation of a golden retriever. Likewise, a special scorn is reserved for the New York Yankees fan, whose team has won more championships than any in professional sports. No more divergent paths exist for a baseball fan than to choose one of these two teams. I know this better than most people, since in my day I have rooted for both.
You see, I am a baseball apostate. I have not only abandoned my boyhood team for a new one, but I have traveled the baseball version of the road to perdition -- I grew up with the Cubs but have adopted the Yankees. Most damning of all, I am not sorry about it. On the contrary, I find it one of the most principled choices I have made. Growing up in suburban Chicago, my boyhood was rich with memories of the Cubs, even if most of those memories involved losing seasons. I still remember the batting order of the immortal 1977 team, which got off to a blazing start and occupied first place before finishing 81-81, the ultimate Cub statement of negation.
Wrigley Field was, and is, the most beautiful place in the world to watch baseball. The arrival of a new Cub season was one of the rituals of my youth. More than once, I concocted a sore throat on Opening Day in order to stay home from school and watch the game. Back then, the Cubs played all their home games in the daytime, and the games began before school let out. One of my great memories is of my old pal Tony bringing his transistor radio into school to listen to the game during class (an early attempt at multi-tasking). He put the earpiece in his left ear and covered it with his left hand, holding his pencil in his right. He looked like he was just resting his head on his hand while he worked. Every time Sister Benedicta turned to the blackboard to plunge us further into the miseries of algebra, Tony would turn to anyone who would listen and give game updates in a sibilant whisper: "Buckner singled, it's 3-3. But Trillo got thrown out at third. There's two outs." Someone would always ask a follow-up question like, "Is Forsch still pitching for St. Louis?" And the rest of us would hiss, "Shh!" eager not to be found out.
How could I leave all this behind? Simple. I grew tired of the Cubs ' act. By that I do not mean their losing ways, but their good cheer in losing. It bothered me that I cared more about winning than the Cubs did.
WHEN I MOVED TO MANHATTAN in 1991, such jocularity amidst futility became more difficult to countenance. I couldn't help but notice the disgust with which New Yorkers greeted the performance of the Yankees, who at that time were mired in one of their rare downturns. I went to Yankee Stadium for the first time that year and watched a very weak Yankees team lose. What impressed me most was the presence of history in that building that made the poor showing on the field seem like an affront. I adopted the Yankees as a secondary rooting interest.
But as the years wore on and I watched the Yankees awake from their slumber, I felt the unmistakable weakening of my Cubs loyalty. For a while I tried to tell myself that I would root for the Cubs should they ever meet the Yankees in the World Series, a prospect about as likely as booking a flight to Mars. But eventually I realized that I preferred the Bronx Bombers to the "Cubbies."
This reality was brought home to me in 1998, when the Cubs squeaked into the playoffs as a "wild card" team and celebrated like it was V-E Day. I was embarrassed by the public exhibition of their low standards, like a kid proudly waving a report card full of C's. Fittingly enough, they were bounced from the first round of playoffs in three straight games. Now the die was cast. I was a Yankees convert.
The derision with which my choice has been greeted by "loyal" baseball fans has only confirmed my conviction. Their rage seems motivated less by my desertion of the Cubs than by my selection of the Yankees, even though the former is used as a moral wedge to attack the latter. What Yankee-haters hate about the Yankees, of course, is their success. As accustomed as I am to this sentiment, it continues to disturb me, since it is a symptom of a deeper cultural malady. Americans have a far more ambivalent attitude toward success than is commonly understood. As much as we worship and reward it, we also deeply resent it, and sometimes seek to destroy it.
The "general equality of condition" among Americans that de Tocqueville described creates a leveling attitude in all areas of our cultural life. In politics, it means that we are suspicious of candidates who might have enjoyed success in other endeavors, lest they lose sight of the "problems of people like me," to borrow a common formulation from pollsters. In art, it means that high culture and the classics should be made more contemporary so that we do not have to climb too high to meet them; rather, they should stoop to meet us. And in sports, it means that a Cubs fan is automatically accorded higher moral standing than a Yankees fan.
In a country that put the Protestant work ethic and the free market on the map, such ambiguity leads even clear-thinking people to reach twisted conclusions. Take, for example, George Will. For years, he has told the story of the tragic mistake of his boyhood, when he selected the Cubs as his team instead of the St. Louis Cardinals (the Cardinals have won the most World Series next to the Yankees). All his friends chose the Cardinals and "grew up happy and liberal," while he chose the Cubs and "grew up gloomy and conservative."
But in his effort to identify his baseball team with his conservatism, Will gets it all wrong. There is nothing conservative about rooting for the Chicago Cubs. Rather, the Cubs exemplify liberalism, particularly Great Society liberalism -- the cult of the downtrodden; throwing good money after bad; rationalizing failure with endless excuses; lowering standards in order to claim some hollow victory. Indeed, to paraphrase Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the Cubs have "defined defeat down." They don't even have the decency to be gloomy, as Will does. On the contrary, Cub fans are notoriously cheerful, which is why they should be an embarrassment to Americans everywhere. They find honor in their futility, not tragedy, and believe that losing entitles them to elevated moral stature among their peers. The Cubs offer an eternal childhood with no accountability and no consequences, like the kid who knows he can do better but doesn't care enough to try. What on earth is conservative about that?
If George Will wanted to grow up gloomy and conservative, he should have chosen the Boston Red Sox. Now there is a team that exemplifies the conservative's tragic sense of history: Don't get your hopes up too high, because human aspirations are bound to fail. At the same time, never give up trying. Expect the worst, but hope for the best. Sure, the Red Sox are cursed and will never win another World Series, but they are an adult team with an adult history.
As for the Yankees, they also embody traditional conservative ideals, with the added bonus of happy endings. They set their sights on excellence and do not apologize for doing so. Indeed, it could be said that they care more about winning than their fans do. They make a point to honor their history, which is on prominent display in their ballpark. Their uniforms, gloriously unchanged practically since inception, suggest permanence in the midst of flux. During their latest run of championships, their players have been for the most part gracious and sportsmanlike to a fault.
The Yankees' position in the baseball world is eerily similar to the United States' at the U.N. -- the superpower surrounded on all sides by carping, lecturing inferiors -- and the Yankees, like the U.S., deserve defending. This year, the Yankees are once again poised for a run at the World Series, while the Cubs limp home for another winter of self-deception. The passage from youth to adulthood is supposed to be fraught with pain, as one's cherished illusions come crashing down in the face of hard realities. But in at least one area, my coming of age has been most gratifying. For all those mired in the baseball liturgy of sticking with their childhood team, I am living proof that redemption is possible. If youth can be wasted on the young, then let failure be, too. I'll take the Yankees over Atlanta in six.