Sunday, October 22, 2006

Another Tragic Case of Yankee Addiction

Before the name was associated with the innovative baseball statistician, “William James” commonly referred to the turn-of-the-century philosopher/psychologist. The original James was the progenitor of radical empiricism, a doctrine that insists on the equal validity of all stimuli--internal or external, real or imagined. For a radical empiricist, whether you burned your finger lighting your grill or you saw Jesus appear in your barbecue flames, no experience should be discounted. Emotional responses and their shaping effects on personality and thought process are the bottom line, and their legitimacy is independent of their causes.

I turn to good ol’ Bill J. for comfort anytime the New York Yankees lose, and the reason is twofold. First, every Yankees defeat inspires in me intense, inconsolable grief. I don’t just mean big games, either; I’m talking trivial mid-summer games against non-rivals. Second, as I lie there mourning, I’m simultaneously fully cognizant of the sheer absurdity of my emotions. It’s utterly ridiculous, my brain attempts to rationalize, for a grown man with steady employment, a loving wife, and fully-functional testicles, to become so profoundly despondent by the fortunes of a group of professional athletes. The contradiction is even more incongruous considering that I have no personal relationships with any of the team’s players, nor any financial transactions hinging on the outcome. Further, I am not overly emotional by nature; I’ve buried loved ones, best friends, and favorite pets without so much as shedding a tear. Yet there is no denying the stark tangibility of my post-loss anguish and suffering: I know for a fact that I will feel aimless and hopeless, I will have difficulty sleeping, and (most disturbingly) I will act sullen and withdrawn around friends and family. Therefore, I seek out James for redemption.

To wit, take a recent mid-June weekend in which the Yankees traveled to Washington, DC for a 3-game series against the host Nationals. Friday night started happily enough with the Yankees emerging triumphant. And on Saturday, when the Yankees opened up an early 9-2 lead, I naively settled in for an afternoon of basking in the burgeoning rout. Unfortunately, what followed was a steady, maddening erosion of said lead, culminating in an eventual 12-9 disaster. My ensuing agony was multidimensional, informed by the loss itself, the wasted afternoon, the emotional exhaustion of dissolved optimism, and the grim realization that a sleepless night was forthcoming.

By contrast, Sunday’s loss was different in execution and my corresponding response but consistent in its emotional output. This time, a soul-crushing 2-run walk-off homer by the Nationals in the bottom of the ninth ended the Yankees’ lead and the game itself with pitiless swiftness. Lying on my bed and listening to radio broadcaster John Sterling’s doubtless description of the home run’s fatal parabola, I froze. I gasped. I think I even laughed. I turned off the radio, turned it on, and turned it off again. I walked around in aimless circles, and then I capsized back on the bed and moaned softly for several moments. Whereas Saturday’s affair was an arduously slow and torturous death, Sunday was a sudden decapitation from a massive scythe out of nowhere. In sum, the weekend’s consecutive calamities combined to challenge the entirety of my coping abilities.

The entire behavioral cycle of Yankee fandom, characterized by self-inflicted trauma, is illogical at best and borderline masochistic at worst, and yet I am clearly not alone. Yankees fans are well aware of the team’s Brobdingnagian payroll and the subsequent resentment it sparks in the hearts of others. And though we make no apologies for the financial inequality, we are uniquely burdened with a high-stakes urgency to win it all or be viewed as consummate failures. Given the financial resources, to win is merely to do the expected; to lose is shameful and inexcusable. The pain is therefore amplified disproportionately vis-à-vis that of competing fans. Even when the Yankees do win it all, the hegemonic feeling is relief rather than ecstasy, a temporary unburdening in this Sisyphusian existence.

I never saw the contrast in fan personas more vividly than the 2004 American League Championship Series. For purposes of my own mental health, I will keep the synopsis brief. In the best-of-seven set, in which the winner would advance to the World Series, the Yankees won the first three games against their fiercest rival, the Boston Red Sox. As the third game wound down at Fenway Park, the television cameras scanned the crowd of Bostonians and revealed an ironically cheerful bunch, shrugging and laughing away what appeared to be a certain loss with a general c’est-la-vie air of dismissal. Of course, what followed was one of the most spectacular collapses in sports history: the Red Sox came roaring back and rattled off four straight wins, taking Game 7 by a landslide at Yankee Stadium. This time when the cameras captured the audience’s reaction, the scene was a colorized version of the JFK funeral procession. Forever burned in my mind are the images of entire families clutching themselves and weeping; young women with their Yankee caps pulled low, unable to watch; a man lying prostrate across the seats and openly sobbing. Through my own devastation, it occurred to me how satisfying it must be to defeat us, because we react exactly how you as opposing fans would want.

The years have been accumulating since the last Yankees World Series victory—six and counting. Each year the team falls short, on the day after their elimination, the echo of nationwide sports talk show pundits gleefully reporting their latest failure is prodigious. Even at my current home in Durham, NC, where the topic of sports radio shows rarely strays from UNC/Duke/NC State-related mudslinging, a one-day truce is called so callers can unite in the anti-Yankee pile-on celebration. Again, because of the money imbalance, the rejoicing in understandable. But couldn’t there be at least one other successful team whose losses catalyze nationwide, unabashed joy? Where, for instance, were the mass revelers in ’99 when the post-Jordan Bulls finished last?

Though I would love to conclude with a positive anecdote or two, nicely segueing to an explanation of why it’s “all worth it” to be a Yankees fan, a) I have none, and b) it’s not. The entire affair is as tragically mysterious as a debilitating addiction, complete with murky origins and helpless self-resentment at being unable to quit. The son of sports fans, I was probably genetically predisposed to the condition. I take my relief where I can find it, be it commiserating with Nick Hornby’s “Fever Pitch” (a masterwork that I am convinced was written specifically for me) or making treks out to Yankee Stadium, where I can at least suffer losses in the company of 50,000 sympathizing co-dependents. And as the mid-summer gives way to autumn’s inevitable shattered dreams, I wish William James was still around. He’d soothe me by pointing out that though there’s no rational basis for my suffering, at least no one should scoff at it. Of course, being a New Englander, he’d probably also be a Red Sox fan.

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