Personal sports-team allegiances are strange phenomena. And baseball-team loyalties are perhaps the strangest of all. For example, what makes someone in Miami a Seattle Mariners fan? Or why are there Boston Red Sox fans in every corner of the universe? And why is the world divided into Yankee-lovers and Yankee-haters?
I began exploring this issue the other day when I realized that, despite my Canadian residency, I didn't really care how the Toronto Blue Jays fared. Rationally, I should have been cheering for a Canadian team, but, emotionally, I had no commitment to the Jays.
A large part of my Blue Jay indifference is explained by my longstanding loyalty to birds of a different feather, the Baltimore Orioles. As a young boy growing up in northern New York State in the late 1950s and early '60s, I somehow developed a devotion to a team that was based hundreds of miles away. I'm not sure exactly how that came to be, but I think it had something to do with hating the Yankees and their football cousins, the New York Giants.
For years, I carefully listened to the faint signal of a Baltimore radio station that carried the voice of a young Chuck Thompson recording the ups and (mostly) downs of my Orioles.
I faithfully followed the fortunes of my "birds" through the lean years. And I cheered them on through the glory days of the late '60s and '70s when teams led by Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, and Jim Palmer dominated the American League.
But 1969 marked the birth of the Montreal Expos and the beginning of my divided loyalties. I took to these bumblers with the tricolored hats the same way New Yorkers took to the Mets in 1962. Why? Again, I'm only speculating, but I think it had something to do with my lifelong devotion to the Montreal Canadiens, which arose, at least in part, because of my Canadian roots. (This, in turn, explains why I'm not all that partial to the Toronto Blue Jays, but that's another story.)
There was also, of course, the underdog factor that the Expos exemplified in the same glorious fashion that the Brooklyn Dodgers did. But I suspect the most important reason is that I moved to Montreal shortly after the Expos were born and actually saw my 'Spos in action at their former home in Jarry Park.
When the Expos moved to Washington nearly four years ago to become the Nationals, my interest waned. Although technically it was the same franchise, it just wasn't the same team. So I was left with no clear favorite – just a bunch of loose, undefined affinities for a handful of teams.
But, as every baseball fan knows, once you start watching any major-league game, there's an almost instant preference for one team over the other. You may not even be aware of why you would cheer for Houston over St. Louis, but your gut tells you where your subsidiary loyalty lies.
So being a baseball fan is not a simple matter of rooting for the home team. It's a complicated, mysterious interweaving of vague connections, intense dislikes, and long-forgotten associations that results in a hierarchy of team loyalties and a calculus for determining a team preference for any given matchup. Cleveland versus Chicago? I'd root for Cleveland, assuming it didn't affect Baltimore's fate. But why? I couldn't really tell you, but the reasons are probably almost as old as I am.
The more you ponder this phenomenon, the more you marvel at its complexity. Map a person's sports-team loyalties, and you've gone a long way toward charting his personal history. A longtime Toronto fan? Could be lack of breast-feeding as an infant. A Yankee fan? Definitely inadequate toilet training.
The consequences and ramifications of this potential new field of study are beyond my uneducated grasp. But I see a day when Freudian, Jungian, and all the other "ian" psychologies will be supplanted by Yogian analysis – a baseball approach to the study of the mind. It may even help me to understand my recurring nightmare of a Mets-Yankees World Series.