Saturday, March 8, 2008

Race and Sports

When I was a kid, watching the Yankees on WPIX in New York, my Dad's favorite player was a guy named Steve Balboni. A lumbering, chunky 1st baseman, Steve averaged .229 BA and around 30 HRs a year. If he didn't strike out, which was often, he'd hit it into the bleachers. And he wasn't exactly Steve Garvey around the bag at first base either. He led the league in strikeouts in 1985.

Still my Dad loved him. "I tell ya, that Balboni...if he gets hold of one...he'll put it on the moon! You gotta watch out for him!" Even at 12, I knew Balboni was a lummox. And even at 12, I knew that the only reason my father loved him was because Balboni's name ended in a vowel. Just like my Dad's.

Another memory. I'm sitting in the bleachers of Yankee Stadium 6 years ago. Jeff Weaver is pitching batting practice to the Red Sox on a sauna-like July Sunday. I'm sitting next to a young Hispanic girl, who's covered in Yankee paraphernalia; a cute Yankee t-shirt, a pink Yankee hat, and pinstriped Yankee bootie socks she wears under her hi-tops. But, the weird thing I notice is, every time Manny Ramirez comes to the plate, she freaks out. "Manny! Wooooo, Manny!" Finally, I gotta ask. "Aincha a Yankee fan?" I say pointing to her shirt, her cap. "Why are you cheering Manny?" She barely glances at me. "He's a Dominican." The "you idiot" is implied.

Now, I'm not gonna get on my soapbox (as I often do). This article isn't how wrong it is to root by race (especially with the Olympics coming soon and the entire world acting as if rooting by nation is the most dignified thing to do to sports). No, I'm writing this article because I'm trying to figure out what it is that makes people do this. And truly...almost everyone does it. Just a few off-the-top-of-my-head memories. A white Irish mom who knew next to nothing about basketball, but prayed for the Celtics as if her soul depended on it. A bald black guy telling me with a straight face, that Mark McGuire corked Sammy Sosa's bat because he doesn't want Sammy competing with him no more. Hordes of petite Asian girls in Yankee Stadium, quiet and demure, except when Chien-Ming Wang's name is mentioned; then squeals and claps. Drunken NYC firemen in Notre Dame t-shirts at a bar, even though they didn't go to Notre Dame and barely watch the game. A black kid in 2003 telling me Josh Beckett sucks and is overrated, Dontrelle Willis is the whole Florida Marlin pitching staff. An Asian co-worker saying, "I don't know why. I just like Michael Chang."

I'm a mutt. My mother is British, my Pop is from Sicily. I have no feelings for David Beckham or Andrea Bargnani. As a little kid, my favorite player was Mickey Rivers. "Mick the Quick" was the Yankees centerfielder during their World Series years in 1977 and 1978. He was a good spray hitter, tough to strike out as he was good at poking the bat in at the last second and fouling off pitches. A speedy centerfielder who covered a ton of ground in the then-spacious left-centerfield (430 in Death Valley in those days), my favorite thing about Mick was how he led off first base. Mick always put on a look that he was exhausted, could barely keep himself up. He'd limp a little, hang his shoulders, take his lead painful and slow off first base. Then he'd take off for second like a rocket with its pants on fire. I loved it. The day I bought a pack of baseball cards, opened it and saw Mick's card inside was the best day of my young life.

It never occurred to me until years later that my favorite player was black. By that time, Don Mattingly was my personal god and savior (and still is to some degree). Anyway, someone jokingly referred to Mattingly as the Yankee's "Great White Hope." I'd never really noticed his skin color before, but it made me, for the first real time, think of it. And of Mickey's color.

Again, this is not to sound pious, but it's simply a statement of fact. I don't care about anyone's nationality, skin color, religion or where they came from. I subscribe more to Billy Martin's view of sports and heritage. When Martin was managing the Yankees, a reporter once asked him if race played a factor in his choosing his lineup. "Hell, I'd play Adolph Hitler if he could hit a curve ball."

And to that I hold. When I sit down in front of a college basketball game, or a Jets-Pats game, or a Tuesday night Yankee-Royal game, race is the farthest thing from my mind. A 94-mile an hour cutter didn't come from a Panamanian hand, it came from the greatest closer I've ever seen. That guy forcing Roberto Duran to say "No mas" wasn't a black dude, he was a great boxer with lightning-fast hands and a nice left hook. That kid from Gonzaga crying in the middle of the hardwood isn't a white guy, just a kid showing how much the game of basketball means to him.

I apologize if I sounds me a little self-satisfied, but checking the box score to see if Mike Pagliarulo hit a home run just wouldn't enter my mind. And I'm not criticizing anyone who does root ethnically (even though I know it sounds like it). I guess what I'm saying is I don't see why.

Some might say it's natural, rooting for someone from your area, from the same place you're from. But heck, I'm from Brooklyn, and there are more palooka jerks per square inch here than anywhere in the world, so I can't see myself cheering some guy from Brooklyn just because he's from Brooklyn.

Others might say it's normal to root for someone with the same color of skin as you, the same race. Maybe so. But then why watch a ballgame—to hope if you're race wins? And if Manny hits a home run off Jeff Weaver (which he did), do you really get something more out of that? Does your being Dominican have more worth now? And should the white guy who just served up the homer feel like he let down his race?

To risk sounding redundant, I am in no way assailing ethnic pride. People should be proud of their heritage and history and the achievements of their tribe and race. But when it comes to sports, it just seems odd to me. To neglect the point of the game, rooting for your favorite team in favor of trumpeting your ethnicity...I never understood why. Or what people get out of it.

What does someone like my Pop, or the black guy rooting for Dontrelle Willis, or the Irish mom rooting for Kevin McHale get out of it? Do African-American people get something out of the fact that Sugar Ray Leonard beat a Panamanian?

I don't know the answer to that. But if so, I'd bet it's something different from what I get out of rooting for Mickey Rivers. And I kinda prefer what I get.


Pete S said...

I think people want to identify with success, and even the slightest common bond between you and the athlete for whom you cheer can be good enough to make you a fan.

I admit, I still pull for Stephon Marbury because he grew up in Brooklyn. I cannot stand his selfishness and poor decision making on (and off) the court, but a part of me hopes he does well because we grew up in the same city.

The same applies for race...many identify with athletes of the same race because of the connection, however small. I think people go wrong when the the connection becomes the main reason you cheer for someone, or the main reason you boo someone who is different from you. That is pretty sad.

Who am I to judge, though. If Manny Ramirez put on a Yankee uniform tomorrow I'd be a big fan.

P-Cat said...

Manny in a Yankee uniform....can't say I wouldn't want him in my lineup.

Yeah, this was a tough article to write. I'm not judging anyone for feeling the way they do. It's just interesting to me to see why people root the way they do. Thanks for commenting

ABS said...

Dennis Bligen was my all-time favorite Jet since he went to High School across the street from where I grew up

Anonymous said...

The funny part about this is that Hispanics can root for hispanics. Asians can root for Asians. And even Canadians can root for other Canadians. But if whites or blacks show this kind of pride it would be deemed racist.

When Bonds was going for the record some guy in the seat next to me at Shea said: "I'd prefer to keep the records with the white guys." That almost made me want to root for Bonds to break McGwire (Or really Maris' record).

Anyway, I think you root for a team to win and to hell with what color anyone is--as you succinctly said. And as a white Irish kid growing up with the God awful Mets in the 70s, I was a big fan of Steve Henderson--a black man--and it didn't make any difference to me what color he was.