I have plenty of friends who are New York Mets fans. And while they by no means have a monopoly on suffering, it is a major (the major?) component of their experience. So much so that Jon Stewart could use it as a running punchline on The Daily Show. In essence: “This is horrible, year after year, and we are all going to feel a great deal of pain together this year, as we did last year, as we will next year. We are Mets fans.”
The majority of these fans are adults. Primarily grown men, with jobs and kids and houses and the deeply guarded fear, slowly morphing into knowledge, that their lifelong dream, whatever it may be, will remain just that.
True fanaticism as it applies to professional sports does not stand to reason. Multimillionaires who do not know you (nor particularly care to know you) play a game for privately owned corporations in several different localities. If they do so for your locality, you love them. If they do so for a nearby locality, you hate them, to varying degrees.
In truth, these athletes have no direct connection to us. They come and go via trades and free agency, and today’s hero is forgotten the moment he dons a different uniform. It is not the players we cheer for. It is the team. In Boston, you cheer for Boston, and the very visceral, galvanizing understanding that we are Boston. We cheer for ourselves, and the players on the field are simply avatars for our own civic pride. It is not that the Boston Red Sox are better than the New York Yankees. It is the belief and assertion that Boston is better than New York. And by extension, the belief that I am better than you.
I grew up in Connecticut, and the only professional team we could ever truly call our own was the Hartford Whalers, a perennial also-ran who played in a dilapidated shopping mall and suffered from its proximity to the immensely popular New York Rangers and Boston Bruins. But I remember countless winter nights spent listening to Chuck Kaiton perform the nearly impossible task of making professional hockey at all follow-able via radio broadcast. As much as I loved the Whalers, I didn’t do it for the hockey. I did it because it made me feel a connection to something larger than myself.
They were my community. I never met any of them, never exchanged so much as a word with any of them. At a time in my life when I was lonely, afraid, and vulnerable, I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere ever, except on my twin-bed, my WTIC 1080 AM radio-listener outpost, where I enjoyed an intimate kinship with my faceless, nameless comrades. Our lives might suck, and the Whalers definitely did suck, but we were hopeful, all of us, that things could get better. And that hope was true bravery, existing as it did, against all odds.
So when the owner of the Whalers decided to move the team to North Carolina, it staggered me. My half-real, half-imagined, coalesced-by-radio-waves friends were gone, vanished without a trace. And in the deeply alienated wreckage of divorced, angry parents and the total vacuum of non-family, I understood the tremendously important need I had to feel included, to feel like I was part of we, in any form. Even Kaiton’s trademark pre-commercial-break signoff, “This is Hartford Whalers hockey,” was evocative for me. This is a thing, and this thing is ours.
This silent, invisible “family” was manufactured by the mind of a desperate child, necessity being the extraordinarily creative mother of invention. I am awed and humbled when I think of my still-developing brain’s agility and resourcefulness so many years ago. And I have been forever imbued with a deep love and respect for the very real, very personal power of being a fan.