It was my first day of school. A group of my new classmates surrounded me and asked that most critical of questions: What team do you root for?
I was the proverbial deer in the headlights. I said I didn’t know. They insisted I had to know. Was I a Giants fan, a Yankees fan, or, God forbid, a Dodgers fan?
Growing up in Washington Heights in the ’50s meant that you rooted for one of those three teams. The Giants played in the Polo Grounds, blocks from us. The Yankees were also walking distance, but across the river in the Bronx. The Dodgers required a subway ride into Brooklyn.
I assumed that there was an objective answer, like a religion or your blood type. Surely I had been assigned to one of these teams. I only knew one way to determine it. I went home and asked my mother.
She, a self-described greenhorn, looked up my birth certificate, my hospital records and my school application, but could not find any reference to baseball teams. We were both at a complete loss.
Then, she remembered something. She went into my underwear drawer and found the Rosetta stone, a Yankee T-shirt. It was worn and faded and I had clearly outgrown it. It was undeniable proof; I was a Yankee fan.
Konrad Lorenz was a scientist best known for his discovery of the phenomenon of imprinting. In the critical hours following an animal’s birth, it assumes that the first animate being it sees is its mother. Hence, the famous Life Magazine photo of Lorenz being instinctively followed by a string of chicks unalterably convinced that he is their mothe be fully erased.
So it is with me. Like it or not, I am a Yankee chick. For the rest of my life, every night, from April through October, my mood is elevated by news of a Yankee victory, and diminished by a Yankee loss.
To be frank (appropriate to a ballpark), I hate it. I pride myself on my objectivity. I am a psychiatrist. I teach people to discipline their emotions rather than be controlled by them.
Yet, when it comes to the Yankees, I am helpless. I understand that it makes no sense. I treat professional athletes. I know their priority is, understandably, their livelihood, not their team. They have no real allegiance to an arbitrarily named group of hired guns.
They don’t care about the team, or the city. Few Yankees live in New York in the off-season, or grew up here. Roger Clemens, Wade Boggs, Johnny Damon, et al. had no problem playing for the Yankees one year and their archenemies, the Boston Red Sox, another. Yankee Stadium might be the house that Ruth built, but even the Babe played for the hated Sox before and after his stay here. If the Babe didn’t care about the Yankees, why should I?
Over the years, I have come to know many Yankee players, managers, administrators and owners personally. I have liked some, been neutral about most and despised others. Why root for an individual who doesn’t like me, and whom I cannot stand? I shouldn’t, and yet, I do.
Rooting for a high school or college team makes sense. A school is an institution; it represents its students, faculty and alumni. It has tradition; it has permanence. It doesn’t change; it doesn’t move, like the Boston/Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves.
If I was going to root for a baseball team, it would be the Cubs, who haven’t been to a World Series in over a century, not the Yankees, who expect to be in the Fall Classic annually by divine right.
I will not be buried in an authorized Yankee coffin, nor have my ashes spread on the Bronx base paths, as others have. Yet, if I start to experience dementia as I decline, I will probably still remember the wool coat I was wearing on that blustery October day in 1960 when I was standing in front of an appliance store on Broadway. I was watching Bill Mazeroski on a black-and-white television in the window when he hit a home run off of Ralph Terry to win the World Series as my friends and I burst into tears. My corpse will still have the ugly scar on my abdomen where I burst the stitches on my appendectomy in my hospital bed during an ill-advised primal whoop when Bobby Richardson caught Willie McCovey’s speeding bullet line drive to win the 1962 World Series.
In retrospect, my mother and I were wrong. Being a baseball fan is as unalterable as any blood type, as spiritual as any religion. If you were raised in a particular faith, you never stop believing.
My mother threw out that Yankee T-shirt as soon as she found it. She shouldn’t have.
I never really outgrew it.
Isaac “Ike” Herschkopf is a frequent contributor to these pages. His Yankees are on extended vacation this fall.