Saturday, September 26, 2009

No, You Were Not "Born" A Fan

As many of my friends know, I love sports. I love watching them, reading about them, wearing clothing associated with them and can talk about sports for hours. Whether it’s a big home run hit by Alex Rodriguez, a solid tackle made by Ray Lewis or the passion a guy like Kobe Bryant brings each time he has the basketball, I can talk about it all. No one’s a thorough expert on games, but a lot of us can speak on sports for hours. (I’m sure my brother and sister might disagree since they’re more casual about it than anything.)

I’m also pretty passionate about the teams I follow. I have been a New York Yankees fan for 30 years, a New York Jets fan for 23 years and have followed the New York Knicks and Rangers for 25 years each. I’ll probably root for these teams until my time on this planet is over.

But I was not “born” a fan of these teams. And frankly, you were not born a fan of the teams you follow. I know it’s a silly expression that’s usually used to espouse your deep devotion to a team. But it’s kind of annoying to me.

Yet I’ve heard it mentioned by friends, colleagues and other associates for years.
“Yeah, I was born a Redskins fan!” (Heard from a young lady I used to see.)
“Oh, no doubt, I was born a Dodgers fan!” (Heard from an old college friend.)
“ You know it! Lakers since the day I was born!” (Heard from a guy I knew in Virginia.)

Stop it. No, you weren’t.

No matter how many autographs you have, how many different jerseys of your favorite team you own, no matter how many games of that team you’ve watched, you didn’t pop out of your mother’s womb chanting “Let’s Go Giants!”

Pardon me for being a smart-ass, but here’s how you really became a fan of your team.
- You grew up living in or near the city/state the team represents. (Most people are this way and I’m happy about that.)
- Your dad, mom, uncle, cousin or other relative was a big fan of a particular team and you followed suit.
- Your uncle rooted for a particular team, so to piss him off, you became a fan of the rival team. (I’ve heard this from two different people. No lie.)
- You liked the colors of a particular team’s uniforms or the look of their logo. (I’ve heard this from at least five people.)
- You liked a particular player for his or her ability or what they stood for. (My mother, God rest her soul, was a Dodgers fan because of Jackie Robinson and his being the first black player in Major League Baseball. I have no qualms about this. Nor should you.)
- A hometown hero played on a certain team, so you and everyone else in town became fans of that team. (Now you know why there are so many Yankees fans in Commerce, Oklahoma. Their most famous native son is Mickey Mantle.)
- You saw a certain team on television a lot because they’d won a lot and they became familiar faces to you. (Another reason why there are so many Yankees fans. And why there are more Boston Red Sox fans now. The latter is a lot more detestable. Trust me.)
- You became attached because they play a style that appeals to you. (Whether it’s a strong, physical defense or an exciting, pass-happy offense.)

There are other reasons, too. Maybe you dated a girl (or a guy) and they liked a particular team, so that team became your favorite. Maybe you hate that previous love interest and root for the team he or she hates the most. Yeah, that’ll show ‘em!

Regardless, you did not come to be a fan of the teams you like because it was preordained. That’s especially true for people who live in cities or states with more than one team in a given professional sport. Like New York, for example. As a Brooklyn native, I could have gone any number of ways in my allegiances in the four major sports. To many outsiders, I should have been a Mets fan since the Mets are “supposed to be” the team that folks in Brooklyn and Queens root for. But most of the kids I grew up with were Yankees fans. And this was in the 1980s, when the Yankees were mostly mediocre and the Mets were the “cool” team with Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry, Gary Carter and Keith Hernandez. No one would have blamed us for being fans of the Amazin’s had we said so. I became a Yankees fan at 4 years old for only two reasons and neither had to do with a history of championships. One was because they were a New York team and I was a New Yorker. (Hell, I still am! No matter where I am.) The second? I thought Rick Cerone and Graig Nettles looked awesome in those pinstriped uniforms…in a McDonald’s television commercial. (If I recall correctly, if you bought certain food from Mickey D’s, you could get a Yankees hat for 79 cents. Hey, I was four! Don’t you judge me!) Don Mattingly and Dave Winfield pretty much solidified my Yankee fandom. There’s no turning back now.

I became a Knicks fan for that same loyalty to New York and because Bernard King, a Brooklyn native, was on the team. I had made that choice when I was 10 years old, seeing Knicks game on WOR-TV, Channel 9. (Remember when Knicks games came on free TV?) The love for my city also factored into my being a Rangers fan, but a snotty kid I met at a learning center further fueled it. This kid, named Jacob, loved the New York Islanders, the Rangers’ primary rivals. Whenever hockey was mentioned, he would always say negative stuff about the Rangers. He had a right to gloat, I guess, seeing as how his dad was a big Isles fan and the Al Arbour-coached team had won four straight Stanley Cup championships. Still, I didn’t like hearing someone talk bad about a team from New York. I got into hockey, checked out the Rangers for myself on TV and thought, “I like these guys! I’m gonna cheer for them.”

My allegiance to the Jets is probably the most humorous – or painful, depending on how you view things. In 1986, I didn’t like football that much. Baseball was my true sports thing. Eventually, I started taking to football, but I liked both the Jets and the Giants, still proud of my city as I could ever be. But in New York, that’s a no-no. The unwritten rules are you pick one team and follow them. (Although there's not nearly the angst between Jets fans and Giants fans as there is with Yankees fans and Mets fans, the rule still applies.) The Jets went to the playoffs that year, but lost to the Browns in a divisional playoff game. A game any Jets fan worth his salt will tell you - when he’s calm, of course - that the Jets had won for damn sure. The Giants? Well, they went on to win Super Bowl XXI over the Denver Broncos. If I was going to pick one, this was easy, right?


I didn't want to feel like I was taking the easy way into football, just bandwagoning my way on to a winning team. So at 12 years old and expecting a promising football future, I became a fan of Gang Green. I didn’t know then that the choice would lead to disgust, anguish and tons of teasing from my college buddies more than two decades later. Thanks for nothing, Ken O’Brien!

So why did I decide to craft this wonderful piece of writing? No real reason. Except to tell you and anyone that calls himself or herself a sports fan that you learned to become a fan of the teams you follow. Looks, mannerisms, that laugh your mom has that you share? Those are hereditary.

The teams you came to love? Not so much.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

An Ode (OK, more than that) To September

For those of us in the Northeast, the summer, such as it was, is apparently in our rear view mirror. We didn’t have many days above 90 degrees in these parts in 2009 and we likely won’t see them again until the middle of next June or July. I was reminded on Monday morning that the lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer had passed us as I felt cool breezes making their way through my living room and bedroom windows. Though the sun was shining, the temperature outside could not have been higher than 55 degrees. A solid indication that autumn is approaching. Quickly.

Not to wax poetic or anything, but I’m sure here in Connecticut that we’ll soon hear more about frost advisories and see the leaves on our trees lose their deep green color in favor of shades of red, yellow, orange and brown. School buses are again loaded with children returning to classes and fewer folks will be seen wearing short sleeves unless they are headed for the gym.

September has arrived. One of my best friends in this great world couldn’t be happier, knowing he can walk the streets and enjoy the crisp air of the fall instead of the muggy, humid climate of summer. I’m also pretty happy about it. After all, it’s my second favorite sports month of the year.

For those of us that crave football (American style), the arrival of fall means we’ll get to see big warriors in helmets and shoulder pads taking the fields of high school, college and National Football League gridirons across the country. Sure, we had some NFL preseason games to tide us over, but any true football fan is not satisfied to see games when the outcome doesn’t mean much beyond determining who gets the last four spots on a professional team roster. We want the games to matter. We want to see packed stadiums, fans yelling, “defense!” as the home team tries to make a stop on a third and 12, and we want to see the guys we know and trust banging heads all the way through the playoffs.

This weekend begins that bonanza. We can thank the folks at ESPN, who will have two college football games on their air on Thursday. (South Carolina vs. North Carolina State at 7 p.m. ET, Oregon vs. Boise State at 10:15 p.m. ET.) The Worldwide Leader in Sports and other networks will have many other college games throughout the Labor Day weekend. Being an alum of Syracuse University, I will likely pay the most attention to the first 2009 game for my beloved Orange, who will host Minnesota at noon Saturday. (Also on ESPN.) Most college football fans without much interest in SU football will be focused on how former Duke University point guard Greg Paulus will perform in his return to organized football after being named Syracuse’s starting quarterback. Of course I will. But I’ll also want to see if the Orange can become a respectable football team again. Those of us who call ourselves fans of the Orange endured really bad football over the last four years under former head coach Greg Robinson. How bad? Ten wins in 47 games bad. Losing to Akron at home 42-28 bad. The Orange have become everyone’s homecoming opponent (read: a sure win to make the host school’s alumni feel good about themselves for a weekend). But under the direction of new Head Coach Doug Marrone (a 1991 Syracuse alumnus), we’re all hoping things change for the better.

While football will likely take center stage, it won’t be alone as we head into the foliage. Pennant race baseball is on tap as well. The New York Yankees, my favorite team of 30 years, have a 6 ½ game lead over the rival Boston Red Sox in the American League East, meaning the Yankees will have something to play for this year. Manager Joe Girardi’s team will likely make the Major League Baseball playoffs this year after missing the postseason in 2008. Speaking of the Red Sox (and I will without speaking too ill of them this go ‘round), they’re leading the American League Wild Card race over the Tampa Bay Rays and the Texas Rangers. That race should be a lot of fun as we start talking more often about magic numbers and tragic numbers. The other division and wild card races are shaping up as plenty of fun as well. Pennant race baseball has always been fun for me. It’s the time when you’re watching the out-of-town scoreboard the most, almost inning by inning to see how every team involved in a playoff chase is fairing that day or night. I’m guessing that joy is lost on New York Mets fans, whom have endured their team collapsing the last two Septembers, allowing the Philadelphia Phillies to win the National League East championship in each of those seasons while the Mets prepared for a baseball-less October. So perhaps it’s a blessing for Mets fans that their team will not have to worry about another ninth month flameout this year. The injury-riddled Mets are comfortably in fourth place in the NL East and will have to find some comfort in playing spoiler as they look forward to 2010.

The fall also means that National Hockey League training camps will open in preparation for the start of the 2009-10 season. After a flurry of trades, it’s going to be funny seeing so many familiar faces in new places. New York Rangers fans like myself will probably be interested in seeing how former Minnesota Wild winger Marian Gaborik will fare at Madison Square Garden this fall and winter as he was the highest profile offseason addition to the Blueshirts. Most camps will start on Sept. 12 and preseason games will be played all over North America for the rest of the month in anticipation of the start of the season in October. (FYI: The season will officially start in Stockholm, Sweden when the Detroit Red Wings play the St. Louis Blues, while the Chicago Blackhawks will face off with the Florida Panthers in Helsinki, Finland.) The National Basketball Association won’t begin its preseason schedule until next month, but basketball fans will likely be jumping with excitement as we move closer to the start of that season in November.

And as a native New Yorker, I can't forget about the U.S. Open. The best players in the game of tennis going for the last major of the season in the World's Greatest City. I know you still remember the epic matches between Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi and how Jimmy Connors had the crowd going crazy in 1991 as he made one more push for glory. Let's hope we have some of those epic moments this year at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

As I said at the start of this entry, September is my second favorite sports month. My favorite? April. So much variety and so many great things are bound to happen. You’ve got the NCAA basketball championship game, (unless its played on March 30 or 31), the beginning of baseball season, the arrival of the NHL and NBA playoffs, the NFL Draft, and the Masters golf tournament. Still, I happily embrace September and the variety it brings to us sports fans. Plus, it’s nice to wear a pair of jeans and a long-sleeved shirt without feeling like you’re in a sauna.