An old man just shuffled past me in a green Oakland A’s t-shirt. My guess is that many years have passed since he last had a catch: His shoulders slouched and his right arm curled in a palsied manner, but he still represented his favorite baseball team.
They were my favorite team once, too. I was seven years-old and playing organized sports for the first time. My tee ball team was the A’s, so by default my favorite major league team became Oakland. The crazy mustaches of Rollie Fingers and Catfish Hunter probably didn’t hurt, either. During the entire time the A’s were my favorite team, I never watched a single game, but I stared at their baseball cards for hours. Those were some cool looking dudes.
As I progressed through the little league ranks I became a catcher, and there was no better catcher in the big leagues than the Cincinnati Reds’ Johnny Bench. My allegiance switched from the A’s to the Big Red Machine: Bench, Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Dave Concepcion, George Foster, Ken Griffey, Tony Perez, Cesar Geronimo, and their manager, Sparky Anderson. Over forty years later, they remain the only team roster that I can name from memory.
My first professional game of any sport was Cubs vs. Reds at Wrigley Field circa 1976–not a bad introduction to the big leagues. We moved shortly after that game to a pro sports desert: The closest teams were several hours away in Atlanta. The little league in my new hometown named their teams after the sponsors rather than the Major Leagues–Wyatt’s Grocery, Bradley’s Stop-N-Shop–so there was no favorite team solidarity to be had in that equation. Worse: The locals followed high school and college ball with something approaching religious zeal. I tried to stick with the Reds for a while, but there was really no point. Being a Reds fan among Clemson and Carolina true believers was a bit like playing checkers alone.
I aged out of organized sports as junior high dawned. Music and girls seemed much more interesting than chasing a ball or staring at baseball cards. Unlike many of my classmates, I gave the whole thing up. If I wasn’t going to play, there wasn’t much point to fandom. When pressed I might still say the Reds were my favorite team, but aside from occasionally catching highlights on This Week in Baseball I didn’t really pay much attention to them. I may have been the only person in South Carolina who was excited to see Sparky Anderson on WKRP in Cincinnati, though, so there was that.
Tiger orange, Gamecock crimson, and Bulldog red colored my adolescence–two college teams and my high school colors. I just couldn’t get into it then, and I can’t get into it now. My classmates and I are deep into middle age, and some still wear their colors as proudly as that old man sports his green A’s tee. They talk about their favorite teams using the plural pronoun “we,” and game day results dictate their moods. They tailgate in school parking lots and wave flags from their car windows. Some of them even attended the schools with which they identify so strongly, in which case I understand their loyalty although I don’t share it. I’ve never attended a single game by any of my alma mater’s teams. I haven’t even returned to my alma mater since graduating. When the university newsletter arrives in the mail, I chuck it directly into the recycling bin. It was a great college, but I just don’t care. My education was a service that I paid for, and when I was done that was that. In my world, school loyalty is the domain of school kids.
Part of me envies the people in sports logo shirts. They belong to something bigger than themselves. No matter where they go, they have a conversational topic queued up. We have to make some moves in the off season. Did you see the game last night? We’ve got enough hitters, what we need is pitching. Sometimes I’m tempted to go all in for a season–hats, tees, antenna balls, license plate frames. Maybe I’ll order up the League Pass package and watch all the away games, make the drive over to Oakland for the home games. I’ll collect A’s baseball cards, sign up for a fantasy league, pick up a baseball almanac and memorize columns of team and player statistics. I’ll buy an A’s-green grill and matching cooler for my tailgate parties.
But probably not. The only organization I belong to is the Fraternal Order of the Joiner Averse. I don’t see that changing anytime soon, which is too bad. It looks pretty fun, belonging to the extended family of sports team fandom. Besides, that old man’s green t-shirt would really bring out my eyes.