Normally, one assumes the Atlanta Braves will win the National East. This year, they fumbled. But the Mets were ready to step in. My team, the Phillies, were contenders for National League Wild card spot right up until the second to the last game of the season.
None of us had hardly even heard of Ryan Howard at the beginning of the season. By the end, he was the leading home run slugger in the League. Go figure.
At mid-season, several guys were traded away. The Yankees picked up Bobby Abreu and he started for them right away. Not even sure whom the Phillies got in the trade. Some future pitching prospects, I heard. Yet after unloading Abreu and the others, the Phils started to win. Go figure.
It got me to thinking: why are the Phillies my team? and who are these guys that play for the “home team,” that one regards as his guys to root for?
The Home Team
There are still fans that carry their team loyalty with them as they move about. This is especially true of fans of the “great tradition” teams, like the Yankees and Red Sox. The LA Dodgers seem to have built up that kind of loyalty. LA, of all places! — the city of freeways; the city, as someone astutely observed, whose only secular communion is… merging lanes.
I feel they are the exception, however. Most people that I know are not living in the town they grew up in. Just like me. And most people, if they follow a sport, sooner or later root for the team that is near by. Just like me.
But what is this “home team” we somehow become attached to? Today, players move from team to team more easily than young boys used to trade one baseball card for another. Many don’t even live near the city they play for.
Here’s a typical story on the Phil’s home page. Think carefully about each sentence.
As one of nine potential free agents for the Phillies this offseason, outfielder David Dellucci doesn’t know much about where he’ll be next season.
He knows this much: the Phils would like it to be with them.
“We’ve had conversations,” Dellucci said. “I won’t pack all my stuff out of here yet.”
That doesn’t mean he won’t do so at some point. The veteran hasn’t been thrilled with his playing time this season after receiving 435 at-bats last year with Texas.
The byline was Miami.
Miami?! What’s going on here?
The same vanishing act applies to the coaches. The Phillie’s coach has another year on his contract, but the owners are playing coy as to whether he’ll actually be back next year.
If everyone– whether player, coach, or fan — has become a commodity item, like a chip in a huge poker game, why maintain the illusion of the home team?
What would be different if they simply gave each team a random number — Team #1, Team #2, … Team #30, and let them all bid on a stadium to play in each year. “This year, team #7 is going to play in Philadelphia.”
What would be different, really? Finally, isn’t that what we have anyhow?
Try another thought-experiment. Suppose it turned out the the Nepalese had an ethnic knack for the skills needed to play baseball, so much so that men from Nepal could literally outplay all other players enough to bump them all off the roster. Suppose further, given the commodity nature of the sport, that next year all the players on every MLB team were Nepalese.
Wouldn’t everyone feel that something was missing?
Would it not be exceedingly odd to imagine fans all across America showing up to cheer on their set of Nepalese playing against the other team’s set of Nepalese?
At the margin, there are in fact players from all kinds of foreign countries playing on every major league ball club. We don’t think a thing of it typically– because it is at the margin.
But taken to its logical conclusion, it is ridiculous.
To my eye, the French soccer team in the World Cup looked like an All-African team. Maybe they played fine soccer (I don’t know enough about it to say). But can a proud descendent of the Frankish tribe really look at that team and say, “this team represents us”?
Would a proud Ghanaian look at a team of imported Frenchman and say, “this team represents us?”
So my reflection leads me to this hypothesis: The home team concept is a vestige of tribalism. Everyone has a vestige of a primal desire to belong to a tribe. This is why he roots for the home team.
It strikes me that baseball has become libertarianism run amuck. It is just a sea of rootless individuals gathered together around the highest bidders.
In an odd sort of way, libertarianism does the same thing to a man that collectivism does. I think it was Koestler who said that in collectivism, a man becomes defined like this: a million men, divided by a million.
But in libertarianism, a man is one atom in a gas filling a balloon, bouncing around against a million other atoms.
My reflections on the Phillies have led me to these preliminary conclusions.
- Rooting for the home team is an aspect of tribalism.
- Tribalism meets a deeply felt and real need.
- Modern sports maintain only the thinnest remnant of tribalism.
- Therefore, modern sports are a microcosm of a malaise that currently infects our whole civil society: we no longer feel part of a tribe.