Confronting the Irrationality of Being a Fan

For many baseball fans, the team they root for is an important part of their identity.  Intense fans will spend enormous amounts of time and money following their team, experience genuine emotional highs and lows due to how their team is doing, buy clothes, souvenirs and or even get tattoos with their teams name and logo.  Given how important being a fan of a particular team can be, it is surprising how little control fans have over who their team will be.  Most fans simply root for the team closest to where they grew up, others root for whatever team their father rooted for.  Still others may root for a team that was good or exciting during our formative baseball years.

Even though it is clear that very few fans rationally determine for what team to root, characteristics are proscribed to fans of specific teams.  Cubs fans are long-suffering; Giants fans are long-suffering in greater obscurity; Cardinal fans are very knowledgeable about baseball; Yankee fans are arrogant.  These characteristics may be true but the causality is not as one might think.  People who like suffering don’t decide to become Cubs fans, being a Cubs fans makes you grow accustomed to losing and therefore suffering.

In New York, this is particularly clear as Yankee fans, for example, are assumed to be somehow more interested in money and winning, while Mets fans are assumed to be more tolerant and good humored.  These assumptions are particularly nonsensical because even if we could choose sports teams based on what rooting for that team said about our personality, it would not be possible because teams change so much over time.  For example, a committed racist might have chosen to become a Red Sox fan in the mid to late 1950s because that team resisted integration longer than any other.  Another fan might have chosen to follow that same team in the 1970 or 1980s because of the appeal of the long suffering Red Sox.  A fan today might choose to root for the Red Sox because they are now a dominant team and a national brand.  Similarly, the rebellious and outspoken style of the Swingin’ A’s of the early 1970s would draw a very different fan than the corporate dominance of the late 1980s A’s, or theMoneyball A’s of the early part of this decade would have.

A recent article by Rudy Giuliani on how he became a Yankee fan captured this paradox.  Giuliani began by telling the truth-he became a Yankee fan because his father was a Yankee fan-but then continued to describe how being a Yankee fan helped him develop his character.  It is almost, we are lead to believe, as if the young Giuliani, growing up in the 1950s said to himself “One day I will be powerful and arrogant.  I need to find a team that is also powerful and arrogant.”  The urge to create a narrative explaining why one roots for a team, however, is not restricted to the former mayor.

Many people recognize, on some level, the irrationality of why they root for a particular team and try to correct this by creating a back-story where none exists.  Claiming the root for a team because they too are long suffering, because they admired the character of a player for that team years ago or otherwise seek to create a synergy between their team and themselves.  Teams understand this and try to fill in the back-story for the fans, by emphasizing the history of the team and that team’s finest moments.  Understandably, for example, Jackie Robinson plays a major role in the legacy of the Dodgers, and less understandably, the Mets, but Robinson’s heroism does not do much to explain why fans rooted for the Dodgers when they were run b Al Campanis, who famously claimed that African Americans didn’t “some of the necessities” it took to be managers.  To be fair to the Dodgers, their Northern California rivals also build their New York history into their legacy.  Bobby Thompson’s home run, still promoted as a key moment in the Giants’ history, was one of the most dramatic moments in sports, but it was not a San Francisco story then or now.

For some people, the identity forged by allegiance to a favorite sports team is a way to remember the city where they grew up, a parent or childhood in general.  This is one of the great things about being a fan, but to read anything more than this into one’s choice of baseball teams, while tempting, would be a mistake.