Monday, October 5, 2009

What is a Team?

I went to a friend’s house yesterday to watch the Baltimore Ravens play the New England Patriots.  My friend “Joe” is a rabid Ravens fan and his reactions to the action on the screen certainly made the game that much more enjoyable for me.  In the end, the Ravens lost when one of their receivers, Mark Clayton, dropped a pass he should have caught at the eight-yard line with 30 seconds left in the game.  “Joe”, though not inconsolable, was somewhat distraught.

 Another friend asked him why he is so committed to his Ravens and “Joe” owned up to the fact that it was simply a matter of geography.  He happened to be born in the city where the Ravens play.  When pressed even just a little he will readily admit that proximity is not a rational reason to support a professional sports team. 

 I chose my favorite sports teams differently.  Way back in the early-mid 1970s I made a short list on a piece of paper.  The list consisted of four professional sports teams, all of them from Philadelphia.






 I asked my dad to name the rivals of the four teams on the list.  He told me the following:

 Los Angeles Dodgers

 Washington Redskins

 Boston Celtics

 New York Rangers

 That very day I adopted the four rivals as my new favorite teams.  And, 35 years later, three of the four are still my favorite teams.  (I have since stopped following professional hockey due to its over-resemblance to professional wrestling.)  When pressed even just a little I will readily admit that opposition to my family is also not a rational way to pick my favorite sports teams.

 I have lately been thinking about just what a sports team is.  The Dodgers, Redskins, and Celtics I like today are not the same Dodgers, Redskins, and Celtics I rooted for in 1977.  They have different owners, different coaches, and different players.  The only things the same are the names and Dodger stadium.  Yet, something of the teams I chose to like all those years ago is still there, somewhere, still keeping my loyalty.  What is it?  What is a sports team?

 What brought these thoughts on is a discussion I had with my wife, Erica, last week.  For the past three years Erica has captained a long-distance relay team called the Rosie Ruiz Fan Club.  The team was originally four people running the New Jersey Marathon as a team in May of 2007.  In its latest incarnation, it was twelve people running the 207-mile Reach the Beach long distance relay in New Hampshire.  In any given year the membership has little overlap with the year before.  Still, the Rosie Ruiz Fan Club is a team.  Even when it lies dormant for eight or nine or even ten months between races, the spirit of Rosie lives.

 My experience this year running for Rosie in New Hampshire has helped focus my answer to this “what is a team?” question.  It is not an answer I am fully satisfied with yet, but I am working on it.

 Here is what I got so far:  A team is a living feeling rooted in history, traditions, personal experiences, and commitment.  The Celtics, Dodgers, and Redskins have long, storied histories reaching back much farther than my memory.  I stepped into the story of each of these teams when I decided to follow them.  I earned my stripes as a fan of these teams when Larry Bird left and John Riggins retired and Steve Garvey stopped playing.  My teams all got bad for a while.  In some cases, very bad.  Yet, they are still my teams.  I didn’t pick new teams to follow; I suffered though with the old ones.

 New teams don’t have the history, traditions, and allegiances of established franchises.  New teams create them over time, game by game and season by season.   The Ravens are an interesting case in point to consider when asking this question, what is a team?  The Ravens moved to Baltimore from Cleveland.  Yet the owner who relocated his team was forced by the NFL to leave his team’s history and nickname behind to be used by an expansion team in 1999.

 Many of the very same personnel who comprised the Cleveland Browns in 1995 were the Baltimore Ravens in 1996, yet somehow they were not the same team.  The intangibles of history, traditions, memories, and allegiances were all left behind in Cleveland, to be assumed by an expansion team a few years later.  So, did the Cleveland Browns exist in the four-year period when there was no group of men playing under the mantle of the Browns?  To the fans of the Browns the answer is an obvious yes.

 It is an odd thing people do, choosing to give their hearts to a thing that is so hard to define.  Yet many of us do it willingly.  (Of course, many of us do it at an age when we are too young to really know what we are getting ourselves into.)  Still, I would bet a million dollars that if I were to ask “Joe” seconds after Mark Clayton dropped that pass yesterday on the eight-yard line if he ever once thought about dropping the Ravens and following another team he would laugh in my face.  The Ravens are his team.  Whatever that means.

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