It was a key divisional game in November 1994. The Jets had led 17-0 and 24-6, and were poised to claim not only victory, but also a share of first place in the AFC East. Instead, their rival Miami Dolphins rallied back, and in the waning seconds of the game, Dan Marino faked as if he were spiking the ball to stop the clock, and instead kept the ball and connected with receiver Mark Ingram in the end zone. Not only did the Jets lose the game, but they went on to lose every remaining game that season. And over the next two seasons, they would only win four of 32 games.
In 1996, the same year the Jets went 1 and 15, my other favorite team, the Yankees, found themselves down 6-0 in the pivotal fourth game of the World Series, and facing the Atlanta Braves’ intimidating pitching staff. The Yanks slowly chipped away at the lead, cutting it to three runs. Then in the 8th inning, Jim Leyritz, the defensive replacement for catcher Joe Girardi, stepped to the plate and drove a slider over the left field fence to tie the score. The Yankees would go on to win the game and the Series, beginning a run that would see them win four championships in five seasons.
Such is a snapshot of my life as a dual fan of the winningest franchise in professional sports, and one of sports’ perennial chokers. While one team is associated with triumphant nicknames such as the “Bronx Bombers” and “Murderers’ Row,” the other is known as the “Same Old Jets” — a phrase capturing the football team’s propensity to tease its fans into thinking things are looking up, only to disappoint again and again. I’ve often thought about how these contrasting experiences reflect my personality.
Though they’re both New York teams, being a Yankees and Jets fan isn’t the most usual combination. Generally, Yankees fans tend to be Giants fans and Jets fans tend to be Mets fans – owing in part to the Jets and Mets sharing Shea Stadium for about 20 years before the Jets moved to Giants Stadium (another reminder of my team’s second-tier status).
While the Yankees are the most storied team in sports and won the World Series the year I was born (1978), they would not win another championship until I made it into college. Throughout my childhood, while both of my teams were losers, I’d grow up reading about Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, and Mantle, and hear first hand accounts from my older brothers about Reggie Jackson’s World Series heroics. At the same time, I would watch old footage of Super Bowl III, in which Joe Namath guaranteed victory and orchestrated one of the greatest upsets in sports history. This helped reinforce my already budding romanticism for the past, and a sense that everything great had happened ages ago. It’s a sense that extends to art, literature, movies, music, and world events.
Over time, as the Yankees started winning again, the competing fortunes of my teams came to reflect the conflict in my personality between pessimism and optimism. The Jets side of my personality expects the worst so as to brace myself for inevitable disappointment, while the Yankees side sees a world where everything will eventually work out for the best. This conflict pours over into how I view our nation’s various challenges. On the one hand, I see contemporary leaders as being completely incapable of addressing the looming entitlement crisis that is poised to deprive my generation the future that my parents’ generation came to expect. At the same time, I tell myself that, somehow, the nation will persevere.
As I write, the Yankees, predictably, are in the playoffs again. Yet less characteristically, the Jets are off to a promising start. Suddenly, when I walk down the street wearing a Jets shirt, I hear shouts of “Good game this week!” as opposed to, “I’m sorry.” Part of me is waiting for the “Same Old Jets” to resurface and collapse in dramatic fashion. But my other side that’s gazing, Gatsby like, toward that green light, hopeful that the future is bright, and convinced that this time will be different.