Sunday, April 07, 2013

Fraternizing With the Enemy by Nancy Golden

I’m sitting along the third base line watching the opposing team register the final out to eliminate my team from the playoffs and send them into the off-season with permanence and finality. The hometown crowd, long ago disgusted with the game, rises from their seats to exit the stadium for the last time this year, not wishing to bear witness to any more of this story. Except for me. I turn to my right, to the person next to me. He’s smiling and cheering with excitement, not only for the play, but for the outcome of the series. I should flee from this individual so callously mocking my team’s failure, but instead, I stand up and embrace him in celebration. And together we linger in the stands to watch the visiting team celebrate their victory on the infield of my ballpark.

Where am I?  How did I get here?  And most important, how do I wake up from this bad dream?

Wait, I think I can piece it together. It was several hours ago that we were walking down River Avenue to Yankee Stadium. I looked over at my companion disapprovingly.  “If you’re going come all the way here, you’re going to have to go all in.” Dan, a Detroit fan, was still covering up his hometown allegiance with an unaffiliated grey sweatshirt.  It was Game 5 of the 2011 American League Division Series, the night where one team goes home happy and the other team just goes home. Our teams were playing each other, and a mere four-hour car ride seemed liked a small effort to watch this play out in person.  Things had been jovial enough on the ride up from DC—even when I remembered that I left the tickets on the desk in my office and we had to go back —but now it was time to get serious.

We were on my home turf and due to my long ingrained (and highly justified) paranoia regarding NYC rush hour traffic, we arrived in the Bronx before the Stadium even opened.  So after our walk took us by the site of the old Yankee Stadium where I delivered a gratis rendition of my exclusive tour (“See that big grassy field?”), I ushered us to Stan’s. A place where fans can go drink cheap beer before submitting to stadium prices, Stan’s is that classic neighborhood bar that accompanies every ballpark. But—and that’s when it first hit me—the neighborhood bar is not a place for just any fans.  It was a place for fans of the home team. Stan’s Sports Bar was covered in wall-to-wall Yankee memorabilia and packed to capacity with ticket holders displaying their pinstripe pride in every shirt and hat combo imaginable. And then there was me. I was the loser that had brought a Detroit fan, now prominently displaying his own Tiger pride as a result of my insistence. Though it might have been obvious to others long ago, it was my first inkling that I had just personally escorted a foreign invader behind enemy lines.

Somehow this kind of thing had always seemed all-in-good-fun in the past, but from the other side. When the Yankees met the Phillies in the 2009 World Series, I didn’t even have tickets, but met a friend up in Philadelphia to go down to the park—and, hmmm, the neighborhood bar—just to heckle. We even showed off our Yankee gear for the local news, shameless in our motives. I had always kind of suspected that this sort of behavior made me a jerk, but I repeatedly fled unscathed and thus bolstered for the next event.

But now the shoe was on the other foot. Inside Stan’s we shoved our way through the mass of bodies to find the only other Detroit fans, a.k.a. the people we had the most in common with.  Was this really how the night was supposed to be going for me?  Thankfully it was just about time for the stadium to open. Sure, there would likely be an even greater ratio of hometown to visitor fans there, but not on a square foot basis.

Inside the park, we spent our time before first pitch on self-guided tours of Monument Park and the Yankee Museum before heading to the stands to catch batting practice.  All along the way we made several “friends,” as our open rivalry made us an odd couple and people took notice.  I was most touched by the significant number of New Yorkers who took a real interest in my welfare and tried to show me the path towards a better tomorrow. Their homegrown accents still play clearly in my head:

“Honey, you can do better than dat guy!”

They were right, I could do better. Aside from Dan’s obviously misguided baseball loyalties, I do tend to gravitate to unmarried men as love interests. But I played along anyway.

“You really think so?” I’d ask, as I took one step away from Dan and invoked a tone of hopefulness.  “Are you available?”

Most of the interactions were humorous and well-meaning, especially with me, a loyalist, there as escort and protector. We were even gifted a ball caught by a kind-hearted Yankee fan we befriended during batting practice, who had admitted to us earlier that he had a closet full of them at home. And despite my attempts to turn the Detroiter into a New Yorker by insisting we patronize the knish vendor, his mere existence still generated the occasional and not completely unexpected invitation to go fuck himself. Though thankfully no one ever slowed their pace long enough to see that he make the attempt.

And then it was game time and reality set in. Not only would one team go home happy and the other in tears, but the same could be said for us. (OK, metaphorical tears for the boys, and the very distinct possibility of real ones for me.) Up until now we could root for each other’s teams and even for this exact scenario to take place, providing the opportunity skip out on work for this much more important event. In fact, we’d been waiting for this moment since 2006, when the Yankees failed to send the series back to New York for a Game 5 after the Tigers stunned, well, me, by taking Games 2 through 4 for the series win. But now it was time to take sides, and in a very lopsided arena at that. And as such, Dan had tried to garner agreements in advance to counter his looming isolation:

“You know how when you go to a game with your friends and your team does something good like hits a home run, you celebrate and high-five each other?  I think we should agree to do that when each other’s team does something good.”

It was a nice try, but I failed to see the advantage for myself. “Or I could not celebrate your team’s runs and high-five the ones for my team with any one of the Yankee fans surrounding us.”

Come to think of it, with such an obvious advantage on my side, I don’t recall coming to any actual agreements. I may have conceded my willingness to low-five, under the condition that no attention was drawn to it, thinking that was pretty charitable.

When the time came, Dan openly celebrated his team’s accomplishments all on his own, like any loyal fan should do in such a scenario. Occasionally he’d try to catch the eye of the next closest Detroit fans, all the way in the next section over, a generally fruitless endeavor. And no one gave him a hard time, perhaps knowing that we’d all do the same if marooned on a distant planet, surrounded by aliens, alone in cheering on the good guys.

But while the smattering of visiting fans tried to make their voices heard, the home team gave little to root for.  The visitors went up 2-0 in the first inning thanks to solo homers from Delmon Young and Don Kelly.  Don Kelly!  My favorite underdog Tiger utility player and the only active player to have manned every position on the field in the major leagues, including pitcher.  Why now, DK, why now?  And that was that. The Yankees never took the lead and very rarely threatened.  The crowd was silenced early and failed to find its voice the rest of the game.  The first relief appearance ever by CC Sabathia in the fifth inning and a bases loaded rally in the seventh gave us brief surges of hope. But even though victory was always within reach—the Tigers only scored three runs all game—there was a palpable loss of faith in our batters, having scored half of their runs that day by failing to swing their bats (i.e. bases loaded walk).

And before I knew it, there I was, back in that moment celebrating my own team’s elimination from the playoffs by hugging the guy next to me in congratulations. It was a moment I had dreaded being on this end of. And yet surprisingly it didn’t feel as bad as I’d imagined. That other guy, that enemy I allowed to infiltrate, he was just so….happy.  I guess I had been so focused on the fact that one of us would definitely lose, that I failed to appreciate that one of us would definitely win. Buried within the largest concentration of sad people to ever exit that particular stadium (at 50,960 it was a new record) I was there with the most blissful guy in the Bronx. Take away my pinstripes if you must, but that wasn’t a bad consolation prize. Now we just had to get the hell out of dodge in one piece. Maybe it was time again for that generic grey sweatshirt?

The ball we were gifted during batting practice sits on top of Dan’s mantle, his reward for winning the game, and the series. Perhaps it would have served as a better consolation prize so the loser would not come out empty handed, but then again nobody wants to look at a trophy of one’s loss upon the mantle. Would I do it again? Take that bad date into my mecca of love and solidarity, or walk around the visitor’s stadium as someone else’s embarrassment? Absolutely.  I can go root for my team with 50,000 other fans any time I want. But to fraternize with the enemy in a winner-takes-all scenario?  That opportunity only comes along, well, hopefully before another five years pass. I’d like to find out how it feels to be on the winning side.

Nancy Golden really really enjoys the art of trash talking but admits that in the end she doesn’t actually want her friends’ teams to lose.  She acknowledges that as someone who roots for the Yankees, those feelings are generally unreciprocated, and that’s OK.

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