During a recent research trip to the Baseball Hall of Fame library in Coopers-town, I made a detour to some shops on Main Street to pick up a few gifts for my new granddaughter, Camryn Marie. One of my purchases was a pink outfit with the Yankees' famous interlocking "NY" logo.
"Got to indoctrinate them early," I told my wife when I showed her the outfit. She just shook her head, rolled her eyes and smiled.
Some of my Red Sox-worshipping friends immediately questioned my credentials as a grandfather. "I can't believe you are going to raise her to root for the Evil Empire!" was one of the responses.
Ah, yes. In addition to regaling young Camryn Marie with Bronx tales of the Babe, the Iron Horse, Mickey and Mariano, I also will need to teach her about the lore of the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry, baseball's version of the Hatfields and McCoys, Sparta and Athens, Obama and Congress.
This got me thinking about how we become sports fans in the first place. I'm hardly the first grandfather to pass on his allegiance from one generation to the next as if it were a family heirloom. There are rare cases when our progeny reject our attempts at sporting indoctrination, but more often than not, rooting interests are accepted like a family's religion or favorite recipes. (By the way, I really like the chances of my granddaughter becoming a fan of the Bronx Bombers because they are her father's team, too.)
I did not become a Yankees fan because of my family. My parents were not sports fans, and my older brothers were more interested in girls and fancy cars. My friends and I stumbled upon baseball in the summer of 1961 because we were captivated by the assault on Babe Ruth's single-season home run record by Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. Before you knew it, we were playing pickup baseball games at a nearby park, pretending we were the M&M Boys in Yankee pinstripes.
Like millions of American boys born and reared in the 1950s, early '60s, I wanted to be like Mick and hit baseballs into the stratosphere. A generation later, millions of American boys-and girls-wanted to be like Mike, hitting game-winning jump shots like Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls. Today, I'm sure there is no shortage of young people who want to be like Colin Kaepernick, Peyton Manning or Rochester's own soccer legend, Abby Wambach.
Transcendent athletes can have that kind of impact. I know that also was the case for my wife, who grew up a hockey fan in suburban Buffalo largely because she had an adolescent crush on Sabres goal scorer extraordinaire Gilbert Perreault.
Geography also plays a role. We are fans of the Bills, Sabres, Amerks, Red Wings, Knighthawks, Rhinos, Flash, Rattlers and Syracuse University Orange because rooting for the home team engenders in us a sense of civic or school pride-occasionally to the extreme. During the Bills' glory years of the early 1990s, there were studies indicating that worker productivity on Monday mornings was somewhat dependent on the previous day's performance by the team. Perhaps this explains why the Western New York economy has staggered these past 13 playoff-less years.
History shows that ethnicity and race can determine sporting allegiances, too. The father of local baseball legend Johnny Antonelli was an Italian immigrant who became a Yankees fan because when he read the newspaper box scores he saw names such as Lazzeri, Crosetti and DiMaggio-names that ended in vowels and reminded him of the old country. Clearly, Jackie Robinson became a hero to African-Americans everywhere when, in 1947, he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers and helped integrate Major League Baseball and lay the foundation for the civil rights movement.
Religion also can play its part. My Catholic upbringing certainly contributed to my becoming a fan of Notre Dame football (though the shiny, gold helmets and the "Win one for the Gipper" traditions also influenced me). I have Jewish friends who fell in love with baseball because of Hank Greenberg's propensity for hammering homers and Sandy Koufax's proclivity for striking out hitters.
Success, or lack thereof, can sway us, too. We love winners. And underdogs. Many of my Red Sox friends wore the dearth of World Series titles like a badge of honor. The common refrain was that anyone could root for a rich team like the Yankees, but it took real character to cheer for a team like the Red Sox, who would tease you into thinking this was going to be the year, only to rip out your soul at the end.
The lament doesn't work anymore, because Boston exorcised the Curse of the Bambino with World Series titles in 2004 and 2007 and might very well secure another trophy this fall.
There is, of course, always the chance that Camryn Marie won't like sports at all. And that's OK with me. Sports have been a passion and my livelihood for four decades. But it's not the be-all, end-all. As long as my granddaughter becomes a good and loving person who leaves this world at least a tad better than she found it, I'll be a happy grandpa. That's ultimately what I'm rooting for.
Award-winning columnist and best-selling author Scott Pitoniak's 16th book, a collaboration with rock 'n' roll legend Lou Gramm titled "Juke Box Hero," is available at amazon.com and in bookstores. He provides analysis following Bills games on WROC-TV and is a correspondent for USA Today SportsWeekly.
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