by Lincoln Mitchell
January 16, 2023
How to Enjoy Being a Yankees Fan
One of the most annoying and misleading baseball cliches is when writers, and sometimes fans, describe big league players as being extremely well compensated for playing a child’s game that is supposed to be fun. It is true that for young people baseball is a game that is supposed to be fun. However, nobody becomes a big league ballplayer without working extremely hard and succeeding in an extraordinarily competitive endeavor. For the few players who manage to make it to the big leagues, baseball is hard work. They may enjoy it, and most probably do, but it is not a game in the generally accepted understanding of that term.
Like most of you who are reading this, I am not a big league ballplayer. Nor do I make my living doing anything related to baseball. I am a fan. And for fans, baseball is supposed to be fun. I got to thinking of this more as I was watching the Yankees in the playoffs last year. At around that time, I happened to be reading my friend Craig Calcaterra’s book Rethinking Fandom. Calcaterra’s book argues that fans are frequently exploited by teams and sports in general. He also suggests ways for fans to get away from that toxic relationship and to enjoy sports again. As he usually does, Calcaterra makes this point in an engaging and fun way, so check out the book if you can.
Around the same time, my friend Joseph was calling me after every game, frequently every inning and sometimes every pitch of the Yankees playoff run. Joseph is a huge Yankees fan going back to the early 1950s when, growing up in South Brooklyn, he rooted for the Casey Stengel era Bronx Bombers and idolized Mickey Mantle. We have been discussing the Yankees with only occasional breaks for about twenty years now. This post-season, in my very frequent conversations with Joseph I noticed that we were both more upset after Yankees losses then we were happy after Yankees wins. Similarly, when the Yankees got swept by the Astros in the ALCS we both felt a degree of anger that was neither healthy nor rational. I noticed this among other Yankees fans around that time as well.
Those few weeks were a dramatic example of how in recent years being a fan of the Yankees was beginning to feel more like an addiction, or a dysfunctional relationship, rather than something that is supposed to be a fun pastime and a distraction. With that in mind, I got to thinking about how fans like me can enjoy being a Yankees fan again and came up with some bigger picture ideas as well as some specific recommendations. Maybe, you can’t relate and still experience your relationship as one of pure joy, but based in social media, at the ballpark and even sometimes on the streets of New York, I suspect there are others like me.
Being a fan of any team means allowing your happiness to be determined by things that are way beyond your control. That lucky jersey, cap, motion, socks or anything else notwithstanding, fans cannot create outcomes on the field or will their team to victory. As much as we might get upset if Aaron Judge strikes out in a key situation or if Clay Holmes blows a save, most rational fans know that these are top athletes doing their best in a difficult and competitive situation. We all like to win, but when our team loses it feels a little better if we know they gave it everything they had. This creates a problem for Yankees fans because while we can understand Judge missing a 102 mile per hour slider, turning our emotions over to a front office that has much of the last decade overpromised and underdelivered is troubling.
Because a big part of being a fan of a team means rooting for something over which you have no control, one way to enjoy being a fan again is to take pleasure in the parts of being a fan that you can control. Accordingly, the first thing to do if you want enjoy being a Yankees fan again is to ignore the “we try to win the World Series every year” drumbeat. That assertion is observably false and does little more than unrealistically raise fan expectations. The Yankees front office repeats that pathetic baseball mantra every year, but they never fully commit to it. Any fan who expects the Yankees to win the World Series every year, has allowed themself to be fooled by a dishonest front office and will be profoundly disappointed when the team comes up short in the postseason. This is a recipe for unhappiness and even anger
Moreover, while most fans would like to see their team win the World Series every year, believing it is likely, or expecting it to happen not only heightens discontent when the team falls short, but, to a great extent, precludes enjoying the team at all. The baseball season is long, lasting more than half the year. If you approach it as a zero sum game where the only thing that matter is who wins the last game of the post-season, you will not enjoy the great plays, fun players, rookie sensations, comeback wins, pleasant afternoons at the ballpark, listening to the ballgame on the radio while driving home on a summer evening or watching the game on television while enjoying a cold drink after a tough day of work.
The front office drumbeat that the goal is winning the World Series has made the fan experience worse while not meaningfully giving the Yankees a better chance of winning the World Series. The problem is that when a team believes it has a chance to win the World Series, it is always living in the present. In baseball terms, that means that the Yankees are buyers every year at the trade deadline and are thus less unable to execute a longer-term plan while frequently trading away prospects for mid-season pickups that are not quite enough to win a championship.
For many Yankees fans who remember the late 1990s, and for older fans, the 1950s and early 1960s, it seems like winning the World Series every year is a reasonable goal, but the structure of the game has changed so much since those years. Recognizing this is essential for moving away from the toxic “our goal is to win the World Series every year” narrative and towards enjoying the game again.
Some of the ways the game has changed that make it absurd to think the Yankees can win the World Series every, or even most, years, are obvious, but nonetheless frequently overlooked. The most apparent of these is that Major League Baseball is by any measure more competitive than it was in the past. For example, from 1921-1964, the Yankees won 29 pennants and 20 World Series in a period of 44 years. The Yankees were able to dominate in those years for several reasons, but among those are that there were only eight teams in each league. The American League expanded to ten teams in 1961, but expansion teams were rarely competitive in the early 1960s. Moreover, in most years, there were at least three teams that were barely fielding a big league team.
During that 44 year period, from 1921-1964, even if pennants and championships had been randomly distributed, the Yankees still would have won at five or six pennants and three championships. However, over the years, the size of the leagues grew so that now there are 15 teams in each league, with a wild card system that ensures that well over half the teams are competing in any given year. That means that if pennants and championships were randomly distributed and you are thirty years old today and lived another sixty years, you could expect to see the Yankees win four more pennants and two more World Series. Even if the Yankees are twice as good as an average team, that would only mean four World Series championships over the rest of your life.
The increasing number of teams is only one of the ways the game has changed. The other is the battery of changes, from the wild card system which increases the role of randomness in the post-season, to the amateur draft, to policies around signing players outside the US, to the various rules governing free agency. All these developments have sought to make it tougher for big market teams, and above all the Yankees, to dominate the game.
Winning the World Series was always difficult, but for much of baseball history big market teams with owners that were willing to spend money had a significant advantage. In general, no team benefited from that more than the Yankees, but baseball simply does not work that way anymore. While we all get frustrated, me probably more than most Yankees fans, by what we perceive as poor decisions by the front office and sometimes with the manager, particularly when that manager is Aaron Boone, we should also keep in mind that winning a championship is much more difficult than it was 100, 80, 70 or even 25, years ago.
Therefore, in general terms the key to enjoying being a fan again is having more realistic expectations for the team. That is a reasonable if somewhat joyless approach to enjoying being a Yankees fan, but it is not altogether practical. No fan is simply going to give up hoping for a World Series win. Nor does it provide any concrete or useful guidance. Fortunately, there are a few very specific things that every Yankees fan can do.
The first thing to do is to pick second favorite team, ideally in the National League. Don’t make it the Dodgers or the Mets, but ideally a smaller market team or one that plays in another part of the country. Maybe your spouse’s family is from Florida, you had a great vacation to the Grand Canyon a few years back, you went to college or graduate school in Chicago, you had great Mexican food and swam in the Pacific Ocean on a trip to San Diego, you ate great Dim Sum, strolled across the Golden Gate Bridge, spent an afternoon hanging out in cafes in North Beach, wandered around the Richmond District, spent a beautiful weekend afternoon in Dolores Park (I am not entirely objective here) on a trip to San Francisco. All of those are reason enough to make the Marlins, Diamondbacks, Cubs, Padres or Giants your second favorite team.
Some might say that you can only root for one team, but there are no rules here. Rooting for a second team allows you to experience following a team in a less stress filled environment, enjoy the occasional successes of that team in a more care-free way and learn more about the players and teams in the National League.
I have rooted for two teams, the Yankees and the Giants since I first discovered baseball in the mid-1970s. For me, the decision was natural. I grew up in San Francisco, so the Giants were the team my friends and I rooted for, but I had been born in New York into a family of Yankees fans. This experience has helped me enjoy being a baseball fan and learn more about the game than I otherwise would have. Being a Yankees fan means never experiencing a fun out of the blue playoff run, seeing a genuinely terrible team, or rooting for a beloved player this not appreciated around the league. However, these are all oddly enjoyable and central parts of the fan experience for most teams. Following a team that is not expected to win every year is a way to get a different perspective on the game.
One of the great appeals of being a baseball fan is that there are so many ways to enjoy the game. Rooting for a favorite team is probably the most obvious parts of being a fan, but it is not the only way. I am not suggesting that Yankees fans stop rooting for the team, hoping for a World Series win and watching as many games as they like during the season, but am pointing out that there are other lower stress ways to enjoy being a fan. For example, some fans collect baseball cards or memorabilia. Some even take on fan quests that last decades. Legendary San Francisco Giants fan Charles A. Fracchia, Jr. spent over 30 years getting the autograph of every player, coach and manger whose picture appeared in the Giants 1979 Media Guide.
It is not possible for most of us to take on Fracchian quests that last decades, but we can read baseball books, peruse old baseball cards, watch old ballgames online or collect different kinds of baseball memorabilia. These are among the real joys that baseball can bring us. In some ways they don’t compare with Mariano Rivera getting the final out of the World Series, but these smaller joys are more dependable, less stressful and within our control.
Another, perhaps more radical way, to enjoy increase the joy you get from being a Yankees fan, or a baseball fan more generally, is to find a way to play the game again, in whatever way you can. For many fans, including me, playing baseball, was an important step our journey to becoming lifelong fans. For middle aged, or older adults, finding a way to keep playing can be difficult, but it can be done. The key is to find modest and simple ways to play. Maybe that means a casual softball game a few times a year, a trip to the batting cage-which if you are like has the added benefit of being reminded of how difficult it is to hit a baseball, or even, to use my one of my favorite New York baseball turns of phrase, having a catch, with a friend or family member.
Baseball is too great a game to let your all your joy of it be sapped by Aaron Boone not having the sense to make Oswald Peraza the starting shortstop, the Steinbrenners and Brian Cashman not going all in at the trade deadline, or the Yankees losing a hard-fought post-season game. I am also aware that for many fans, including me, it is difficult to imagine being intensely interested in the game without rooting for the Yankees or whoever your team is. I would never suggest to a fan, particularly if like me you have been rooting for your team for almost half a century, that they walk away from that.
I also recognize that is impossible. However, turning over so much of your emotional well-being to a flawed organization, and a group of flawed people-and all organizations and people are flawed, is not a healthy decision. I hope the ideas suggested in this column provide Yankees fans some ways to reclaim some agency in their enjoyment of the game.