hen the Oakland A’s take the field against the New York Yankees on Wednesday, no one will be rooting harder for the boys in green and gold than I. No super-fan with child named after Billy Beane; no old-timer with a Rickey Henderson rookie card displayed over the mantel.
Hey, am I an A’s fan, or am I an A’s fan?
No, I am not an A’s fan.
Then why am I going to be living and dying with every pitch Wednesday?
Lemme tell ya a story ...
New York City.
Couldn’t have been more than 20 people on the flight over from San Francisco, and despite the poor turnout, you’ve never seen so many weather eyes cast up and down the aisle. My parents live in downtown Manhattan, just a medium walk away from the thing itself. Invisible plumes of whatever — you try not to think about it — snake their way through city streets, waft along the avenues, keep you company on cab rides. Inevitably, they find their way to your nostrils, and you get a nice big whiff of hell.
Each time I wade out into that acrid soup, I look up and south. You know, maybe catch a glimpse of some smoking ruins or something. But there aren't any smoking ruins, because somebody has Photoshopped the skyline.
So the city got its two front teeth knocked out, and a lot of people are dead. My dad says we gotta visit my grandfather, up on 86th and First. So we cab it, along with my uncle. Don’t mention what happened, my dad says. Sure, I think. I mean, the old man, what is he, 91, 92? Lived through two world wars, the Great Depression, and the genuine possibility of nuclear annihilation. Enough already, yes?
How I’m gonna get through this visit, I don’t know. But thank god for baseball.
In matters of war and peace, there's not much intergenerational accord in our clan. But at least we agree on one thing. This here’s a National League family. That unbroken line of devotion, from my grandfather’s New York Giants to his sons’ Giants and Dodgers (1951 was brutal according to family lore) to the entire family’s last, best hope in the form of the New York Mets (please, don’t get me started).
This legacy, passed down from father to son, then repeat, has always provided the nearest thing to a bond among the remaining living branches on our family tree.
And soon, we will have the World Series. This year, in 2001, the Senior Circuit will offer up the Arizona Diamondbacks as annual sacrifice to that hungry behemoth of the opposing league.
My family, of course, hates the Yankees. Not just hates. Hates, despises, loathes.
Why? As a kid, I once put the question to my father, who looked at me like I'd asked why we don't have candy for breakfast. Pressed, he finally spit out, with maximum venom: "They never gave anyone else a chance to win!"
Even as a child, this struck me as hypocritical, considering the zero-sum attitude my dad applied to all other areas in life. But the Yankees' renaissance during my 1970s childhood only seemed to prove him correct.
Back then, Yankee owner George Steinbrenner was stockpiling superstars, while my Mets felt it fiscally prudent to divest themselves of anyone who might help them, you know, win. Because my 12-year-old's interpretation of how the world worked included loserdom by association with your favorite team, my resentment of the Yankees grew. (One of my least cherished memories is attending as a fifth columnist the 1976 Yankees-Royals playoff game at which Chris Chambliss hit a walk-off home run to send New York to the World Series. While my 55,000 ecstatic city brethren whooped it up, I sat stonefaced, dissociating among the handslaps and hugs.)
And now — this is 2001 — we were in the midst of another Yankee run. The team had won three straight championships, the last over the Mets. The fear among the greater community of Yankee haters was that this juggernaut would never lose again. Not only did they have the best team, the best manager and the most money, they also had, so it is said, something called “Yankee mystique.”
What that is, I can't quite articulate, but with all due respect to rationality, it must be feared. Why? Because 27 World Series wins say so.
Sometimes, like an avenging angel, Yankee mystique swoops down upon opposing players (Mickey Owen, Pedro Martinez) and sometimes, as Guardian of the Realm, it bestows swift shots of grace upon the Yankees themselves.
That fall, A's fans saw the phenomenon firsthand in the avatar of Derek Jeter:
For me, Yankee mystique manifests as a creeping foreboding, that no matter what the situation on the scoreboard or the standings, the Yankees will eventually humiliate whoever’s in their way — and their little fans, too.
Should their power lie dormant an inning, a season, a decade, those in the know understand, their power can be contained but never destroyed.
That terrible October, 17 years ago, my grandfather had lived through the entirety of the Yankees' 80-year hegemony. He knew the scope of the problem as well as anyone, and I wanted to hear him voice it.
“The World Series is coming up, " I say to him. "Diamondbacks-Yankees ...”
He hasn't uttered 10 words all visit — he is not going to live much longer, and in fact, this is the last time I will see him.
“I’m rooting for the Yankees,” he says.
I blink. My uncle gasps. My father, head hater of us all, wrinkles his face as if trying to screw it off.
“The New York team,” my grandfather calmly explains. “I'm rooting for the New York team..."
And that's when it hit me.
It changed everything.
My grandfather’s confession had scandalized his offspring. After the visit, on the elevator down, my uncle puts it into perspective in the most tasteless way possible:
"I wouldn’t root for the Yankees if they were playing the Berlin Nazis."
So there you have it. Hey, listen, I'm not glowing with pride here. The Yankees lost that World Series, and, as always, I rooted against them — hard. Even in that time of great crisis, with my disfigured, traumatized hometown in dire need of a victory, I could not rise above my own petty feud with the team.
Here in 2018, I understand my grandfather had it right. I mean, this sort of unrestrained tribalism — haven't we used it, perhaps, as trial run for the more consequential divisions in our current politics?
But maybe you have to be as old as my grandfather to finally understand that. Or maybe the Greatest Generation couldn't help but do what times demand. Or maybe he was just a better man than I.
Because basically, I remain an unreconstructed Yankee hater. Call it habit, call it stubbornness. Though it’s no way to live, I continue to view any Yankee resurgence like a harbinger of the coming collapse of Western civilization, even while genuine harbingers render the notion ridiculous.
So what can I do, but lean into it? While it's been nine years since the team has prevailed, one must stay vigilant, mustn't one? While this year's mighty Red Sox have made a perfectly terrific Yankee season look like second prize in a beauty contest, the Yankees have closed out the season by taking 3 of 4 from their archrivals.
Once again, I feel that the barbarians are at the gate, and the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
I want to stop hating the Yankees, but I just can't.
C'mon, A's! We need to nip this thing in the bud.