I’ve been a Yankees fan for as long as I can remember, the youngest in a line of four generations. My earliest memory is of my dad coming home from a 1978 playoff win over the Kansas City Royals, having lost his voice. From that point on, memories of Yankee games are intertwined with thoughts of my dad.
This Father’s Day, when the Nationals play the Yankees, I’ll be in Section 142 of Nationals Park with my father, in his Yankees cap, probably decorated with some fresh mustard stains. Never once had it occurred to me in my 29 years as a fan that I could follow another baseball team. But now, after living in Washington for nearly 20 years and paying some attention to the Nationals during their first seven seasons, I’m finding myself growing more attached to this exciting young squad. I’m not ready to leave the Yankees, but I’m definitely flirting with the Nats.
In three decades of cheering with my dad, I took it for granted that I’d be passing a love of the Yankees on to my own children. But now that my wife, Kristin, is due to deliver our first child, a boy, in early August, I’m starting to wonder what kind of fan we’ll raise.
This dilemma is unique to Washington, a city full of people who grew up in other places and now have the rare opportunity to unite around a team that is growing up right in front of us. But can I really nurture a Nationals fan? Would that feel treasonous, and would it let my dad down? After all, my Yankee devotion is as much a part of me as my last name and my love of hot dogs. My dad claims credit for my love of the Yankees, and he deserves it. A few career highlights:
●1982: I’m 6 years old and go to my first game with my dad and grandfather. My dad points out the opposing team’s manager and tells me, “Always boo the guys not wearing pinstripes.”
●Early 1990s: A “Let Mitch stay” chant starts in our section at Yankee Stadium when I refuse to leave an extra-innings game with my dad and sister in order to meet a dinner reservation. The chant got loud enough to guilt my dad into staying for the rest of the game.
●1994: I catch a foul ball at Yankee Stadium and immediately give it to my dad, because, for as long as I can remember, at every game we’ve attended, he’s lamented the fact that he’s never caught one.
●2003: My dad and I are in right field at Yankee Stadium when Aaron Boone hits an extra-inning home run to beat the Red Sox and send the Yankees to the World Series. My dad and I do a sort of jump-hug for about three minutes. (I’m sure glad camera phones were not yet ubiquitous.)
But just three weeks ago, I noticed a shift: I found myself flipping between Nats and Yankees coverage, more interested in Stephen Strasburg’s pitching line than CC Sabathia’s. Is it possible that the next time the Yankees are in town, my son won’t be wearing the same interlocking NY on his cap as his dad and grandpa, but instead a curly W? Will Bryce Harper be for him what Derek Jeter was for me?
I decided to call in an expert, so I spoke to Daniel Wann, a psychology professor at Murray State University who studies sports fandom. He thinks I might be in the first stages of falling for the Nats.
“We as a species have an innate need to affiliate, to be part of a group, and being a sports fan is a way to partially satisfy that,” Wann said. “So if you start to follow the Nats, you become a part of that group. And now that they’re more fun to follow, that group is growing. . . . It’s no surprise that you’re starting to get sucked in.”
He also thinks it’s very possible that my son could become a Nats fan.
“If your son grows up in D.C. and the Nats are even sort of good, in a baseball family your son will gravitate toward that team,” Wann said. “And it’s a good thing that you’re starting to gravitate toward that team, too, because it will create that bond. . . . When you grow up in a sports family, a lot of memories are sports-related. Vacation, Christmas and sports memories are what stick.”
As I thought it through, I realized that my biggest fear is not necessarily that my son will become a Nats fan, but that he won’t be a Yankees fan, breaking the bond that has connected me to my dad and to my grandfather, and my dad to his grandfather, a shared history that goes back the 1920s.
Because this is a recent, D.C.-specific phenomenon, I asked some sports fanatics who work with me on The Washington Post’s sports desk how they’ve dealt with their children’s baseball allegiances.
Steve Lewis, a lifelong Cincinnati Reds fan, had never lived in a city with a baseball team until the Nationals moved here from Montreal in 2005.
“I think there are a lot of people like me who said, ‘I’m now going to have two favorite teams,’ ” said Lewis, whose son, Julian, is 9 and daughter, Isabel, is almost 7. “And I’ve never done this before, but I’ve become perfectly comfortable being a fan of both. It’s become a family thing. Everybody loves Harper. Everybody loves [Ryan] Zimmerman and Strasburg. We all share it.”
On the other hand, Tom Heleba, who grew up in Vermont, has surrounded his son Philip, now 7, with everything Red Sox since birth.
“I can’t imagine [Philip] not being a Red Sox fan,” Heleba said. “Every night in our house, there’s a Red Sox game on. His room is painted as Fenway Park. His first gift was a Red Sox jersey with ‘04’ on it because that was the year he was born and the year the Red Sox finally won the World Series. I held him in front of the TV at 25 days old when the Red Sox beat the Yankees.”
Wann’s research backs up Heleba’s experience. In a paper he wrote in 1996 with Kathleen Tucker and Michael Schrader exploring the “origination, continuation and cessation of identification with sports teams,” they found many reasons underlying fan identity, but the most common was “my parents and/or family follow this team.”
Post op-ed columnist George Will, a noted baseball fan and father of four, has had a different experience. Will is a lifelong Cubs fan who raised his kids at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. His daughter is an Orioles fan, but two of his sons favor the Nats, and his youngest son leans toward the Arizona Diamondbacks.
“Your son might become a Yankees fan. He might become an Astros fan,” Will said. “There’s no predicting the trajectory of these creatures. The Astros have a 5-foot-5 second baseman. Someone in Spokane might become an Astros fans because of that second baseman. It’s the element of whimsy, capriciousness and randomness that’s part of the fun.”
And that is likely to be music to the ears of the third member of our Father’s Day party Sunday: my father-in-law, who, seconds after learning that his daughter was having a boy, ecstatically exclaimed: “I guess I have to head out and buy him a Phillies hat!”
Mitch Rubin is an editor on The Washington Post’s sports desk.