Team loyalty is a whole different ball of wax.
See, you could be raised in a Christian home, spend 30 years worth of Sundays in church, and then decide to become a Zen Buddhist without more than a few questions of curiosity from your loved ones. However, if you’ve been known to bleed pin stripes for decades, you’d better have a good fucking reason and a comprehensive health care plan if you decide to start rooting for the Red Sox.
In politics, we beg and plead with complete strangers to see the proverbial light and join our side in the hot topic debate of the week; but in the sports world, we chastise newcomers (i.e. bandwagoners) who feel they have the same amount of ownership over victories as the life-long fans that have been through hell and back for their team.
It’s a cockamamie little world in which we willingly allow the level of (dis)contentment with our lives to be dictated by the successes and failures of multi-millionaires with whom the majority of us literally have zero chance of ever fraternizing.
Sure, we all know that one guy who doesn’t seem to really have any team loyalty – the one who routinely roots for teams like the Miami Heat just to be a contrarian, to the point where you’re not even sure if he roots for his home country in the Olympics – but on the whole, most of us have our colors and wear them with pride.
For some incalculable reason, we form life-long bonds with our teams from childhood, whether it’s because of where we were raised, because we liked their jerseys, their logos, or one of their players, or because our fathers wouldn’t have it any other way; and we consequently expect others to share an identical passion for their team. Aside from unabashed patriotism, the love a man has for his sports team seems to be the only one left in this world that is truly “until death do us part.” There’s no other way to explain why divorce rates are astronomically high, yet Wrigley Field manages to sell-out afternoon weekday games on a regular basis. No matter how terrible your team’s season has been, there’s always some glimmer of hope on the horizon in the form of drafts, trade deadlines, and up-and-comers.
I was born and raised in south-central Pennsylvania at the epicenter of the Baltimore, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Washington fan bases. Rather than aligning myself with one of those cities, or worse, rooting for some combination of the four based on whichever was doing the best in each sport at the time, I went outside the box and chose to root against my dad’s favorite teams. To this day, I’m not sure why he chose the Raiders, the Phillies, and the Tar Heels in college hoops, but I became a Chiefs, Braves, and Blue Devils fanatic.
It was easy to root for the Braves in those days because they were always on TBS, their pitching staff was awe-inspiring, and in my eight year old eyes, there was no better nickname in all of baseball than the “Crime Dog.” I can still remember playing backyard baseball with my brother; always pretending we were Atlanta vs. Philadelphia. I would keep the team line-ups on our porch, bat lefty or righty depending on who was due up in the order, and run back and update the box score after each inning. It’s no surprise I turned out as obsessed with sports and numbers as I am today.
At some point in the mid-to-late nineties around the age of 12, I switched my baseball allegiance to the Houston Astros. For whatever reason, I always chose to play as the Astros in video games (which at that time would have been the timeless N64 Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball). Houston had the most interesting stadium in the league, I loved the Killer Bees (especially Bagwell), and I wanted to “randomly” pick a favorite team to call my own, because I felt like I was only rooting for the Braves out of an uncalled for spite for my dad’s favorite team. I began accumulating Astros baseball cards, hats, jerseys, and historical knowledge, and have been rooting for them for the past dozen years.
My discontent with the team began in early 2006, just months after being swept out of the only World Series appearance in franchise history. After well over a decade at first base, Drayton McLane basically took Jeff Bagwell behind the woodshed and shot him, because despite paying incredible sums of money for Clemens and Pettitte, he wasn’t willing to risk any more money on the hometown favorite’s arthritic shoulder. Later in the calendar year, Carlos Lee was signed in one of the five worst contracts of the past decade, and one of my favorite remaining players on the roster (Willy Taveras) was practically given away in a deal for a couple of terrible Rockies pitchers. Last year, they traded away my two favorite players (Berkman and Oswalt) and got little in return aside from a goofy looking first baseman who doesn’t hit for power and a 28 year old pitcher who can’t get anyone out.
I understand that bad trades happen – hell, we never would have had Bagwell if it weren’t for a bad trade – but there’s no excuse for the way they pushed out Bagwell over a money dispute. In baseball, you have to let franchise guys go out on their own terms (see: Jeter, Derek), and it leaves a sour taste in the mouth of your fan base when you don’t; especially when you turn around and sign Carlos Lee’s contract. I’m not bitter.
In more recent history, the Astros are easily the worst team in the league this season, and there are serious rumors about moving them to the American League for division realignment. I hate AL baseball, and there is no chance the Astros and their farm system can compete in the DH league over the course of the next several years.
Considering all these factors, and having never even been to the state of Texas, my loyalty to the franchise has been diminishing at an alarming rate for several years. But when you’ve got bills to pay, you can’t just quit a job because it sucks unless you have another job lined up.
In the summer of 2010, I was offered a job in northern Virginia, and thus moved into the heart of the DC fan base. Due to a severe lack of money at the time, I was only able to make it to two Nationals games last season, but I loved the stadium and the buzz in the crowd for the game that Strasburg started. Having only been to games in Pittsburgh and Baltimore from 2005-09, the taste of optimism in the air was certainly an unfamiliar one.
During the winter, I went to a few Washington Wizards games. I was never much of an NBA fan, and in fact, the first NBA game of my life was also John Wall’s first career triple-double (and evidently the final game of Yao Ming’s career). After my fourth or fifth game, a few buddies and I decided to team up to get a pair of 2011-12 season tickets. At this point, it’s looking like there won’t be a season anyway, but the concept of home town pride had been planted.
Once MLB season came back around and I discovered that I can get $5 tickets to any Nationals game provided I get there early enough before the game – I’ll pause a moment for Yankee fans to collect their jaws from the floor – I decided to start making regular trips to “NATS TOWN.” As of July 10th, I’ve been to 10 games, including a single admission double-header game on July 2nd (which may become a retro diary article at some point in the near future), and I’ve watched probably a dozen more of their games on TV.
With the exception of Jayson Werth and Sean Burnett, I really love watching the Nationals play, and I have been shamelessly rooting for them. They are an exciting, young team, full of potential that has shown signs of life this season. They somewhat remind me of the 2008 Rays, competing in a top-heavy Eastern division and finally starting to benefit from years of high draft picks. Don’t be surprised if they end up winning the division next season, and that’s not just the Nats Kool-Aid talking.
Regardless of their current or future success, my eyes have been opened to a whole new world in which I actually get to watch a team play more than one series per season as opposed to being constrained to a life of checking box scores in anger. And after spending five years in Pittsburgh where no one has even pretended to give a shit about the Pirates for the past 18 years, it’s refreshing to see that the fans around here love to talk about their team, even if all they’re holding out hope for is a .500 season and the day when Strasburg and Harper are both in the majors.
I like this new world.
So where does that leave me? My loyalties have clearly been compromised, but I refuse to be a sports polygamist, especially when it would mean rooting for two teams in the same league/conference.
The Astros come into town in mid-September in what will likely be a series that means absolutely nothing to anyone aside from me. When the Cardinals were in town in mid-June, I suffered the heartache of watching Lance Berkman hit a home run for the team that used to be his rival. I have no idea what range of emotions I’ll experience in September; though with any luck, the Astros will trade Michael Bourn and Hunter Pence by the July 31st deadline so there won’t even be anyone left on the team that I like anyway.
Maybe one day I’ll move to Houston and re-kindle the love affair, but for now, I am legally and emotionally a citizen of northern Virginia. You better believe I’ll be in the stands for all 3 of those Astros games, though; wearing my Astros gear for one final time.
I feel as though I owe them a proper good bye, even if they never knew my name.