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Figuring Out the Fans

Greene Line

By Jamal K. Greene

Sports fandom is a curious cultural phenomenon. Players, coaches, and even cities, come and go, but many sports fans continue to follow the same teams.

College sports are of course forgivable. When Kyle Snowden leaves, we will still root for Harvard basketball. Carm Cozza's departure will probably not extinguish the last of the Yale diehards. Most of the people you find in Blodgett Pool cheering on the water polo team have an emotional stake in the game from some personal link to Harvard.

Even people who root for schools they do not attend know exactly what they are rooting for--a college. If the Tarheels leave Chapel Hill, they would cease to be the Tarheels, and my roommate would no longer follow them.

But it is not the same with professional sports. My tenth grade math teacher in New York is the world's second biggest Dodgers fan (behind Danny Kaye). He was a big fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers back in the 1940s and 1950s, one of the New York liberals who started following the Dodgers after they signed Jackie Robinson.

But I find it hard to believe that his love of the Los Angeles Dodgers is because of their signing of Chan Ho Park and Hideo Nomo. His devotion to the team seems tied not to the players or even the city, but the organization.

That kind of devotion forces me to re-evaluate my own loyalties. If the Yankees moved to Honolulu, would I still be a Yankee fan? What if they moved to New Jersey? Am I actually a fan not of "New York" per se, but of big business? Am I, in the words of Jerry Seinfeld, 'rooting for shirts'?

After much introspection, I have decided that what I am a fan of is all the Yankees stand for. When I stand up in the bleachers and yell obscenities at opposing right fielders, I am swearing for Ruth, Gehrig, and Dimaggio. I raise my middle finger in the name of the stadium, its characters and its city.

And if the Yankees left New York, they would no longer be the same team. The Yankees are inexorably bound to their city, so much so that if and when Mr. Steinbrenner takes them out of New York, the Yankees will no longer exist. There may be some other team that calls itself the Yankees, but that's entirely arbitrary.

This is not to say that I would not be a fan of whatever new team was formed. If the new team were in Jakarta, the proximity thing might be an issue. But if the lucky city were in New Jersey, my adoration of the team's players and current makeup may make me a fan of the new team, holding the old one as distinct in my sports fan's heart.

So the sports bar in Brooklyn that was sued for calling itself "The Brooklyn Dodger" had some beef (no pun intended) when it said the Brooklyn Dodgers no longer exist and that Los Angeles has no claim on the name.

So what about my math teacher? It tears at me to say he is fooling himself--since he did teach me how many degrees are in a triangle and other such trivia--but I think he is. When he roots for the Los Angeles Dodgers, he is rooting for a different team than that of his boyhood memory; the team he follows he has only been a fan of since Los Angeles bought itself a baseball team in 1958.

Just as Jackie Robinson made him a Brooklyn Dodgers fan, Duke Snider and other ghosts of the team he loved made him a Los Angeles Dodgers fan.

So no, Jerry, we are rooting not for shirts, but for the heroes who donned them, for the heroes who donned them, for the traditions they embody, for the cities they represent.

The doubting Thomases need only look at the atrocious uniforms of the mid-80s Houston Astros. How anyone could root for those shirts is beyond me.

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