To be born a Boston Red Sox fan is to learn early, if not always well, that the sick colt will not miraculously recover to win the Kentucky Derby, that the deserving night-school graduate probably will not prevail over the spoiled rich kid, that underdogs are underdogs for a good reason they usually lose. To be a Red Sox fan is both to know that life is not going to work out and to live with a seething hatred for the too rich, too arrogant, and altogether too successful New York Yankees.
This is not an isolated emotional condition. Bill Veeck, that rarest of baseball team owners a man of intellect and character spoke for millions: "Hating the Yankees isn't part of my act; it is one of those exquisite times when life and art are in perfect conjunction." Bill Mead, author of the unappreciated "Official New York Yankees Hater's Handbook," put it simply: "Most all good Americans hate the Yankees. It is a value we cherish and pass on to our children like decency and democracy and the importance of a good breakfast." Why? "They're spoiled rotten. They think they're such Hot Stuff. Their owner is obnoxious. Their fans are gross and crude."
He has a point there. Will Rogers, the legendary American humorist, used to say, "I never met a man I didn't like." That conclusively proves that Will Rogers never met Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, repeat winner of TV Guide's "Mr. Nice Guy Award" presented yearly to the sports figure who most prominently displayed "special boorish actions." Yankee fans, themselves no day at the beach, spontaneously expressed their own low regard for the Yankees owner in the middle of a game by loudly and repeatedly chanting "Steinbrenner sucks." And how did the team owner explain that embarrassment? "It was just a big, unanimous thing that grew until it filled the park," observed Steinbrenner.
New York and the Yankees were a marriage made in Purgatory. Big Apple residents do not deny their reputation for being, more than occasionally, both abrupt and rude. The tale has been told of the wholesome Iowa family visiting Manhattan, whose father, seeking directions, politely approached a very busy New Yorker: "Excuse me, sir, could you tell us how to get to the Statue of Liberty or should we just go (expletive deleted) ourselves?" Relentlessly provincial New Yorkers were almost proud about confusing Ohio and Iowa, or was it Idaho?
But this year is different. Of course, I was rooting for the underdog Oakland A's and for the likeable Seattle Mariners against the Yankees in the playoffs. But it is tough to really dislike these Yankees. Their manager Joe Torre is an admirable man, free of any self-importance. The team and its stars, shortstop Derek Jeter and center fielder Bernie Williams, display none of that arrogance which provoked earlier generations of Yankee-haters.
Don't get me wrong. I am not suggesting that the Yankees are now "family." In fact, historically, the two families that past bickering Yankee teams most resembled were the Borgias and the Manson family. But this Yankee team looks to be free of clubhouse brawls and blood feuds.
The truth is that since Sept. 11, all of us look differently at New York City and New Yorkers. The face of New York is no longer the curled lip or the loud mouth. No, the face of New York is the heroic firefighter, the brave cop, the selfless rescue worker. Forget Fire Island, the Hamptons, the latest twenty-something gazillionaire and the latest Hot Couple. New York is now the hometown of the new and real American heroes. And just like the nation's heroes now in harm's way in the Middle East, these Americans are not driven by the feverish pursuit of the almighty buck. Words like duty and honor are real to them. These contemporary American heroes are public servants, and they are public employees.
And in late October of 2001, these exceptional New York heroes make it next to impossible to be a Yankee hater.