Transience might be the defining characteristic of my generation, those in the ballpark of their twenties right now. It starts with college a thousand miles from home, then a junior year abroad, then post-college city-hopping to chase down entry-level jobs, and then post-post college grad school hopping to chase down normal-type jobs. My own pursuits and mispursuits recently brought me–as of a week ago–to Seattle, Washington. I’ve arrived, in other words, at the latest geographical challenge to that dusty term, loyalty.
I was born in and have spent a considerable portion of my life in Houston, Texas, and I’m an Astros fan. My high school days were a golden time for the home team, as me and my buddy Mike skipped out on afternoon classes to spend hours in the Astrodome, under the fluorescent lights, watching Biggio and Bagwell. But since those geographically stable, unambiguously Astro-faithful days, I’ve lived in six cities or towns in six states. By my tally, that would stake each of the Red Sox, the Braves, the Cubs, the White Sox, the Reds, and now the Mariners with a decent claim for my attentions (for what they’re worth). The draw of some have been greater than others, driven by media outlets (I was a Braves fan in the early nineties only because they were on TV every night) and friendships. But usually there is the ever-moving convivial current, the urge to float along downstream with those around you, in spite of the quiet, wooded pond waiting back home.
At 17, I left for college in New England, and in the days before mlbTV, it was nearly impossible to pass as an engaged Astros fan from so far away. All I had were the Houston Chronicle’s game recaps to work with. I couldn’t see the new rookie play, I couldn’t watch the fading veteran struggle to replicate his past glory. I could read about it, and that’s not the worst, but it gives little sense of satisfaction. To others, you sound like an absentee father talking half-proudly about the children he doesn’t know.
Naturally, therefore, as a Robinson Crusoe figure stranded on an island barren of any Astros awareness whatsoever, I was drawn into the narrative structures that unfolded around me. The Red Sox fans dominated the narrative game, this before the decade of their abundance. Back then they were hypnotically loud, obnoxious, sour, despised and despising, especially by and of the loud, obnoxious, hubristic Yankees fans, whose narrative at the time was that of the wealthy hypochondriac (whose illness, it turned out, was all too real). There were other cadres–some Mets fans, a few Phillies fans–but the Sox and the Yanks banter filled up the TV rooms; it was their bemoaning and disbelief and jubilation that steered the baseball conversations up that way. The Sox fans with their ill-fated futility, the overlooked attic inventors to the Yankees fans’ canny corporate taste makers. Of course these stories were infectious.
What I found so compelling was that term I mentioned above: the loyalty. Never before or since have I met fans whose teams were so much a part of their personal fabric. They oozed allegiance, not from some choice, but by a sort of birthright. If it wasn’t an actual birthright, it became so through sheer force of will, through a repetition so relentless the Catholics would be jealous. Red Sox fans and Yankees fans believed it–they believed that they were inseparable from their teams–and it was so. Loyalty was not a choice of geography, it was a certainty. Not being a religious person, and being an Astros fan, I’d never seen that before.
Anyhow, I’ve diverged, but that was my first sense of the tenuousness of loyalty, that feeling I’d get listening to Red Sox talk on sports radio, and imagining myself for a couple of ticks to be a Red Sox fan, to be as engaged in those tedious, melancholy debates as the Irish kid from Newton, Mass. I felt a little guilty, but I also felt that, like an adulterer, my desire was overwhelming my reason and my loyalty. In the end I overcame temptation, and watched the Astros when they showed up every several months on ESPN’s national broadcast. But the same thing happened again in Chicago, with America’s second great–and now its only–bastion of despair, the Cubs. Fortunately, I got to see the Astros play locally a few times, and it helped that they were in the same division, so the sense of isolation wasn’t as great. But I didn’t, I’m ashamed to say, discourage my wife from getting a Cubs hoodie. (It looks great on her.)
So what is it about this loyalty? Why should I feel bad about switching allegiances, if that’s what my id demands? The word itself derives from the term leal, which is in some way related to the term fealty, which means fidelity, which means faithful. So there is an implicit sort of religious drive behind it, of faith over choice. One doesn’t think of choosing a religion (though it happens all the time, I suppose), as much as one is born into it, and I think there’s the perception that baseball fans should work in the same manner. Fathers playing catch with sons, and that sort of hereditary legacy. That is, after all, how I was drawn into the appeal of the New England fans, with the jealousy of a day guest at the country club. And the guilt creeps in too, the way the day guest feels bad about his friends back home and all of those after all pretty pleasant bike rides through the boring old neighborhood at sunset.
So its an internal process, this loyalty business, a way of calibrating one’s own compass to sustain a sense of continuity and a connection with the homeland in the midst of the transience that I mentioned in the first paragraph. Guilt comes into play, and temptation lurks around every corner of the continent. I could’ve become a Red Sox fan whole hog, yes, but would I have enjoyed their 2004 and 2007 World Series victories as much as I would have an Astros win, in 2005 for example? The answer is too easy, and so an Astros fan I remain.
The good news, or at least the news, is that for all of this existential wrangling, there are vastly more tools available today to nurture the uprooted adherent. With mlbTV and radio, media coverage is always available everywhere, and the monopoly of content is wrested away from the ESPN scheduling gestapo with all of their New England-centrism, into the hands of the MLB. And you don’t even need a TV. The same flexibility holds for all of life too, obviously, which probably means that college freshmen, instead of abandoning their high school friends until next summer, get to hear all about how shitty a team each other is having year round.
The residual effects of this ease of access suggests to me that today’s baseball-loving college freshmen a) spend a lot more time than they already do huddled in a shadowy corner of their ten foot, double occupancy dorm room watching their home team play meaningless September games b) find even fewer reasons to interact with their peers who are all out having more fun than them anyway (see item a) c) be out 120 bucks of WoW budget money d) fail to detach themselves completely from their vastly romanticized high school days, thereby spending the next four years devising ways to get back to Cincinnati or Cleveland or Milwaukee instead of just getting on with it already.
I kid, of course. It’s possible to closely follow your home town team on a daily basis, as if you were there, and bring it up regularly in conversation, even though you’re thousands of miles from where your team does it’s business, in a city with its own far more successful team, without sounding overbearing or brutally out of touch. Right?