Thursday, August 11, 2022

Mets or Yankees? A Very Self-Indulgent Personal Reflection on the Nature of Loyalty

by Michael C. Dorf

I begin with an apology to my readers who are not sports fans or to those who are sports fans but, like Prof Segall, think baseball unbearably boring. I don't entirely disagree with Prof Segall. My first love (both to play and to watch) was and remains basketball, but today I'm going to write about baseball--and some broader themes with which it connects. I'm the Dorf in Dorf on Law; it says right there at the top that we cover law, politics, economics, and more. Today I want the distraction of baseball. And as I hope becomes clear, I'm using baseball at least partly as an entry point to talk about free will, human relations, and . . . well . . . more.

So . . . the Yankees and Mets are both having outstanding seasons. Although the Yankees started stronger, the smart money is on the Mets to finish with the better record and to fare better in the postseason, now that they have two of the best active pitchers in the majors--Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom--anchoring their staff. The Dodgers are currently the best team in baseball, but two aces gives the Mets a better chance to get past them than the Yankees' chances of besting their recent nemesis Houston. Indeed, although the Yankees were having a truly historic season until the All Star break, their poor record since then suggests they might lose a first-round playoff series.

Still, the Yankees' best player--outfielder Aaron Judge--is putting up MVP numbers and, absent injury or a prolonged slump, will be the first player to hit 60 or more home runs in a season since Barry Bonds hit an astounding 73 home runs in the 2001 season. Bonds's record is tainted, as are the single-season marks of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. All of them were were juicing. Really, no one other than Yankees Babe Ruth (60 in 1927) and Roger Maris (61 in 1961) has had 60 or more untainted home runs in a season. Purists might say that Ruth still holds the record, as he hit his 60 in a 154-game season. Maris broke the record in the first year of the 162-game season. Still, 60 has been rightly treated as the magic number even in the 162-game era. Meanwhile, the steroids era thus tends to obscure the closest thing we've seen to the feat in recent years--then-Marlin/now-Yankee Giancarlo Stanton's 59 in 2017.

That's a lot about the Yankees, despite my acknowledgment that the Mets are probably the better team this year, not to mention that that former NYC-team, the Dodgers, were projected to be, and now are, the best team in the majors. Why my focus on the Yankees? Partly it's a result of my having just read David Halberstam's wonderful 1989 book Summer of '49, which chronicles the 1949 season's thrilling pennant race between the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. It's hard to come away from the book without some affection for its protagonists, especially the supporting casts.

Still, Halberstam is appropriately highly critical of both teams for dragging their feet on racial integration and for their outright racism. By comparison, the Brooklyn Dodgers--who lost to the Yankees in the 1949 World Series--already had four Black players on their roster: Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, and Dan Bankhead. The Yankees would not field a Black player (Elston Howard) until 1955, refusing even to recruit stars like Ernie Banks. The Red Sox were the last team in the majors to break the color line, in 1959.

In addition, Halberstam paints a disturbing portrait of Yankees general manager George Weiss, who nickeled-and-dimed his players, including greats like Joe Dimaggio and Yogi Berra. Contemporary Yankees ownership under the Steinbrenner family pays lavishly but then turns on its stars. George Steinbrenner's treatment of Dave Winfield was particularly deplorable and reminiscent of how Weiss handled his stars.

By rights, I should hate the Yankees. They're Goliath and, as Wilt Chamberlain memorably said, "nobody roots for Goliath." And I should love the Mets. I grew up on Long Island, just a 20-minute drive from Shea Stadium. As a young boy, I was a Mets fan. I was five when they won the 1969 World Series and nine when they lost a heartbreaking seven-game Series to the A's in 1973. I can still recall a pitching rotation featuring Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, and John Matlack. Watching Tommie Agee, Cleon Jones, and, for a while, the great Willie Mays taught me that some of the most exciting plays in the game are made by great defensive outfielders. And that's to say nothing of 1986: Doc Gooden, Darryl Strawberry, Keith Hernandez, Lenny Dykstra, Mookie Wilson, and to the horror of Red Sox fans, of course Bill Buckner.

But then I lived in Manhattan in the 1990s and early 2000s, when the Mets were bad and the Yankees were ascendant, led by Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Andy Pettitte, David Wells (I could never accept Roger Clemens), Jorge Posada, and the greatest closer of them all, Mariano Rivera. It was easy to take the subway to the Stadium--much easier than taking the 7 to Flushing--and so I did. I've also told myself over the years that I had a childhood connection to the Yankees, which I did. My father was not much of a sports fan, but my grandfather was a Yankees fan. I watched games with him even in the dry years--and I was at Yankee Stadium in 1976 when Chris Chambliss hit a walk-off home run to clinch the ALCS.

So I could be one of those rare New Yorkers (okay, one-time New Yorkers--Ithaca probably doesn't count) who are both Mets and Yankees fans. And yet, if I'm being honest, I'm a Yankees fan who will root for the Mets if the occasion presents itself, but much in the way that if I'm watching a playoff game between two teams from out of town, I'll pick one to favor (unless the Lakers are playing the Celtics in the NBA Finals, in which case I'll root for them both to somehow lose). Why am I not more strongly attached to the Mets? Why can't I be even a fair-weather Mets fan, so that in this season when I predict the Mets will ultimately fare better than the Yankees, why can't I take at least as much of an interest in the Mets as in the Yankees? When the Yankees and Mets met in the 2000 World Series, why was it so easy for me to back the Yankees, even after Clemens threw a broken bat fragment at Mike Piazza and later claimed that he thought the bat piece was the ball? Why do my loyalties not match my values, given what the teams represent? The Mets are (or at least were) the plucky underdog and the Yankees are the evil empire.

Here's my wholly unsatisfying answer: I have no idea. Sports fandom is mysterious in the way that romantic attraction is. The heart wants what it wants, as Emily Dickinson said.

Or perhaps it's more like tribalism or religion. Perhaps that bond with my grandfather really is the driving force of my loyalty to the Yankees. We don't necessarily know our true loyalties cognitively. They reveal themselves in our actions and emotions.

I'll close with a personal story having nothing to do with sports. In 2002, on a trip to China, I had the opportunity to visit a Buddhist temple. It would have involved making a small offering to the Buddha statue at the entry--I believe an orange slice that would be handed to me as I entered and then I would deposit at the statue's base. I declined. I had studied Buddhism in college and found (and continue to find) many of its core insights (especially about personal identity) and practices (especially meditation) quite attractive. But even though I've never been a believer, I was raised Jewish and identify culturally as a Jew. I had happily attended my Catholic friends' communions and confirmations, but as an observer, not a participant. Here I was being asked to violate the Second Commandment: no idol worship. I reacted viscerally. I didn't think I would be struck dead or even that anyone would think the worse of me. I just knew I couldn't do it. Placing that orange slice in front of the Buddha would have been like rooting for the Red Sox.