Nearly three decades ago, Samir Chopra arrived from India to New York City. Like many immigrants before him, he found sports a way to connect with his new home. So he became a Mets fan. And then he became a Yankees fan. Strange, yes – but it worked. Both the Mets and Yankees are his teams, and New York is his city.
I am, by most reckonings in New York City, a strange sort of baseball fan. I cheer for the New York Yankees – and the New York Mets. The “New York” is crucial; I take the notion of a “hometown team” seriously, and cheer for all and any New York teams. When a local dogfight breaks out between Mets and Yankees fans, I retreat. I don’t take sides – indeed, I regret these episodes of fratricidal conflict. Can’t we all just get along? And agree that Boston, Washington DC, and Philadelphia are the real enemies?
I grew up in India, and moved to the US as a twenty-year old. My notion of a sports rivalry was constructed not by the marketing arm of a professional sports franchise, but by the folklore that grew up and around a national team, taking part in international competition against other national representatives, or alternatively, a domestic team taking place in a national competition. A home-town team was made up of those who were genuine “locals”: residency requirements were strict and transfers were rare, if not unknown. The notion of the team-hopping “pro” was unknown, and emotionally inflected calls to national duty and local allegiance were common. A team I cheered for was likely have strong ties – real, imagined, constructed – with me, to be made up of those I felt represented me somehow.
I took that feeling with me to the U.S.
I arrived in the U.S. in 1987. Even before my arrival, I knew things were different; New York had two teams for both football and baseball – how was that possible? Thus did I learn how franchises worked in professional sports, how they found and made homes for themselves among much older communities. In 1986, the year before I arrived here on the East Coast, the New York Mets had won the World Series, and the New York Giants had won the SuperBowl. New York was a good place to be a sports fan. I lived in New Jersey, but I did not want to be a New Jerseyan; I identified, all too quickly, with that city that was visible to me across the Hudson. Immediately, I cottoned on to its sports outfits. Their success was a magnet, an easy way to attract a new fan. (It certainly helped that the Giants played their football in New Jersey; I could kill two birds with one stone by being a Giants fan.)
But I did not ignore other New York teams. Not even the Jets.
In the late 1980s and the early 1990s, the New York Yankees just weren’t that good; the fall from their early 80s’ glory had been steep and quick. I followed the Yanks’ box scores and read the long string of dismal assessments of their fall. There was ample pessimism about whether their glory days would ever return. The news was almost uniformly bleak: Kevin Maas would hit a few home runs; Don Mattingly would remind everyone he was a batting great. But that was about it. Supporting them was a matter of elemental hometown loyalty. There wasn’t much sporting glory to be earned by doing so.
In the early 1990s, I lived and worked in New Jersey, and encountered many Mets fans. I enjoyed our conversations and discussions about trades, transfers, pitchers, the Bobby Bonilla fiasco, and all of the rest. As we did so, the Mets, after the glory days of Darryl Strawberry, Dwight Gooden, John Franco, Keith Hernandez et. al., began their long, slow decline. Yankees fans were rarer in New Jersey; it was harder to be a Yankees fan across the river. But in 1995, after moving to New York City, and living there for two years, I had started working in the Bronx. That year, as the Yankees finally shone, and as my conversations and encounters with Yankees fans increased in quality and quantity, I paid more attention to the Yanks. That year, when the Yankees lost to the Mariners in the playoffs, I was crushed. I remember that feeling well. I was surprised at how acutely I felt that loss. I had taken the team’s fortunes to heart.
The year 1996 was, well, 1996. The rest is history.
The Yankees’ success over the next few years was the best way for them to hold on to their new fan. The extent of my conversion to the Yankees cause – yes, a bandwagon jumper – was made clear in the Subway Series of 2000: I was happy the Yankees won, but still, truth be told, the real treat had come much earlier. The season had ended with the Mets and Yankees making the World Series a Subway Series. From then on, I knew I would only have mixed feelings. When the Yankees won, I did not join in the taunting of Mets fans by Yankees fans. I could not.
In baseball, I, like other baseball fans, often invest in a team’s fortunes because its roster features a favorite player. Thus, for instance, when I was a fan of Ken Griffey Jr., Nolan Ryan, Ivan Rodriguez, and Ricky Henderson, I would follow their careers and the teams they played for with some care. But cheering for a sports team has always meant something else to me. It enables a form of identification. For an immigrant, whose roots are tenuously established, who has lost contact with a homeland – real or imagined – this local allegiance can assume ever greater importance. Because I was a sports fan, identifying with a sports team was always going to be my chosen method of putting down roots.
So my cheering for New York baseball teams is not just a case of cheering for a sports team; it is me saying “I’m a New Yorker,” asserting, for some, a facile, superficial, sense of belonging. But I cannot imagine – ever – joining Braves, Phillies or Dodgers fans in rooting against the Mets. It does not strike me as an option. I cannot imagine joining Atlanta, Philadelphia or LA residents in rooting against New York City. This is “my town” – these teams, both the Mets and the Yankees, are “my teams.”
Ironically, and yet perhaps expectedly, my New York allegiances don’t work well within the city. Mets and Yankees fans give me funny looks when I explain my fandom. Some suggest my fandom is not genuine, a mere show of appearance. Some of my more politically inclined friends suggest cheering for the Yankees clashes with my liberal, progressive ideals. But I can’t take any of that seriously, even as I respect Mets and Yankees fans standing up for “their team” against “those guys.” I came to the sports franchise late; its marketing efforts always seem a little transparent to me. I can understand its effect on those who made the local franchise into a hometown team, but I cannot internalize the subsequent treatment of a geographically proximal rival as a fierce rival. An older sensibility kicks in at that point.
I was indoctrinated into sport via nationalistically inflected sports propaganda – nativism and tribalism are the sporting ideologies I often find myself susceptible to. Perhaps that’s why the Derek Jeter legend worked on me. He was a local in the most New York of ways: he resembled a New Yorker like me; he came and he stayed.
Samir Chopra teaches philosophy at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. He is author of Brave New Pitch: The Evolution of Modern Cricket, and he regularly contributes to The Cordon at ESPNcricinfo. You can follow him on Twitter at @.