Walking into Yankee Stadium felt like crossing into enemy territory. No, I wasn’t there to take in a Yankee game, but as a lifelong Mets fan in a town dominated by their outer-borough rivals, just entering the stadium felt dirty and treasonous — like a defection. But my 24-year-old younger brother — a Mets fan by circumstance and Liverpool Football Club fan by choice — didn’t feel guilty. We were there to see his squad, whose players he reveres like he gets a taste of their exorbitant transfer fees. He was pumped. It was his first time seeing Virgil Van Dijk, Andy Robertson, and Divoc Origi play live. Why were these footballers his heroes? I wasn’t sure, but then, he’s not part of the same generation of sports fan as I am. He never saw Bobby Valentine mismanage a game.
Openly worshipping professional athletes remains the international pastime, but how we go about choosing our sports heroes has changed as larger micro-generational shifts have come into play. Kids today have a totally different perspective on sports heroes than my generation. And I’m 33-years-old. It’s not like I’m Ring Lardner.
The shift has surely cushioned some blows. While my beloved Mets have stuck to their strategy of underinvesting (developed in the wake of the owner’s taking at the hands of Bernie Madoff), other teams have not. NBA franchises, in particular, have learned that it makes more financial sense to make title runs than to contend every year, which has led to the age of the journeyman star. This off-season, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Kemba Walker, and Jimmy Butler all accepted trades. That’s a more than legitimate starting lineup. That’s with Paul George, D’Angelo Russell, and Andre Iguodala — all recently relocated — coming off the bench.
For fans across the country, that means rooting for unseen players and parting ways with old favorites.
None of this phases my brother, much less my niece, who, for the most part, ignored the action on the field even after the game started. This isn’t to say she wasn’t invested in the players; she was mostly focused on browsing the players’ Instagram accounts, comparing their lush off-season vacations as a way to determine whose jersey she’d buy. The choices were plentiful. Have you seen that pic of Willian keeping his “spiritual batteries charged” in Israel?
At 33, I’m part of the last generation of Americans to not spend its adolescent years tethered to a high-speed internet connection. Luckily, growing up around New York, I had enough local stimulation and access to information to keep me sated. I spent most of my summers as a kid in the late 1990s and early 2000s watching the Mets on local TV; listening to sports talk radio in the waning hours of the night to hear lunatics (mostly from Long Island) rant about the team’s performance that night; and combing through the local papers the next morning to learn what was revealed in post-game interviews.
Given the Mets’ historic ineptitude and the slapdash rosters assembled by parsimonious owners, it didn’t take many big accomplishments for a player to win a permanent spot in fans’ hearts and minds; to this day there is a large reserve of facts about fringe outfielders with names like Benny Agbayani and Timo Perez stored in the recesses of my brain where knowledge about how a 401(K) works and how to navigate healthcare premiums should reside. Those guys played for the team 20 years ago at this point, and my ongoing retainment of their 1999 slash lines is an indictment of both my priorities and the Mets’ streak of largely poor decision making since that time.
This isn’t just a case of nostalgia, either. As Major League Baseball’s trade deadline approached last week, I obsessively checked Twitter to see if the Mets’ mildly dysfunctional front office had traded my favorite pitcher. Thankfully, they didn’t find someone willing to meet their price for Noah Syndergaard, a righty fireballer who has endeared himself to fans with a colorful social media presence. That he was posting memes directly addressing the weeks of uncertainty about his fate just further made me want the Mets to keep him, regardless of what kind of haul of young talent they could get in return.
This is progress.
In my personal life and politics, I’m damn near a socialist. But as a sports fan, I was trained to be a company man — always most concerned with the team’s payroll, rooting for them to find cheap and exploitable young talent or acquire expensive talent on a discount. When their ace, Mike Hampton, signed with the Colorado Rockies after the 2000 season for $120 million, far more than the Mets could pay, I acted as if he had committed an unforgivable crime.
Today, if I saw that number scroll across ESPN’s bottom line, I’d probably applaud him for maxing out the paycheck, not only because I know what it’s like to bust my ass for every dollar, but because I now know far more about these pro athletes as people. They’re no longer stat lines and bland post-game interviews, but humanized individuals whose personalities and off-field exploits are as compelling as what they accomplish on the field (or court, ice rink, etc.).
A lot of it has to do with access. Back in the day, I used to have to rely on NY Post columnists to trickle out repetitive player interviews during spring training or off-days during the season. Almost none of it was interesting — I remember Mets reliever Turk Wendell telling a story about being trapped by a bear during an off-season hunting trip, but it was in a quick TV clip that left too much to the imagination.
That problem no longer exists. Minutiae is the currency. I can watch live as Mets’ leadoff man Jeff McNeil tries to train his new rescue puppy and observe how Pete Alonso, the team’s All-Star rookie first baseman, grapples with his first prolonged slump in the big leagues. If those guys one day leave the Mets, I will still be able to keep up with them, both by watching their games on MLB’s streaming service and continuing to follow them on Instagram.
If I decide to root for Kyrie Irving when he arrives in Brooklyn, I can use an app to try to convince myself that he’s relatable and put the whole flat-earth thing behind me. I still find this uncomfortable, but it’s the world my kids will grow up in no matter how early I get them in a Mike Piazza jersey. (Similarly, I’d think Russell Westbrook was a full-blown sociopath if all I knew about him was how he played on the court. But thanks to Instagram, I can tell that he’s a good dad and operates on a god-like sartorial level.)
After the soccer game, I took a quick survey of my Instagram follows, and I was actually a little bit shocked to find that I’m maybe more like my niece than I expected. While I make an effort to follow Mets players, I gravitate toward those who have nothing to do with my favorite teams. Some of this has to do with the fact that the NBA has the most exciting players to watch on Instagram and my Knicks have a roster of replacement players and shaky children, so if anything, I’ve grown more attached to stars I wouldn’t have cared about before the social media era. In fact, the mere notion that I have any sort of positive feelings towards LeBron James — a guy whose 2010 free agency announcement made Mike Hampton’s look like a groundbreaking at a children’s hospital — can be entirely chalked up to his outspokenness on Twitter and Instagram (along with his revelatory performance in Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck).
I’m watching a Mets game as I write this, and right now some guy named Aaron Althier is trotting his .060 batting average to the plate in what will inevitably be a failed attempt to get on base. He’s not on Instagram in any major way, so I don’t know anything about him, except that he’s tall and sucks at baseball (he just struck out), but I’m obligated to root for him. This is my fate as a 33-year-old man who grew up without much access to other teams or athletes. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Mets — I just also understand how it happened.
My brother represents the next evolution; his love of Liverpool is made possible by the English Premier League’s massive web presence, stoked by the rabid British sports tabloids, and sustained by his subscription to Liverpool’s streaming channel. He watches enough to know all the players’ songs — British fans garble out simplistic rhymes about each player in between sips of lager, and despite never having been in a live crowd before, he was able to sing along as the chants echoed through Yankee Stadium. It struck me late in the game why he’s so Liverpool-obsessed — all the local teams I handed down to him absolutely suck. I couldn’t do much about that in my formative years, but now he’s got options, enabled by geography. He’s devoted to a team, but one across an ocean and several time zones away. Loyalty based solely on geography is quickly becoming a thing of the past.
Even further along is my niece, who couldn’t care less about the team part of team sports. Sure, she’s supposedly a Knicks fan, at least when judging by the volume of t-shirts and accessories she owns, but it’s a pretty loose attachment at best. She was actually pumped when Kevin Durant decided to come to Brooklyn, because sure, he spurned the Knicks, but the important thing was that he’d be playing most of his games before she had to go to sleep on weeknights.
We’re living through a great social realignment, as corporates and civic institutions are abandoning people and creating a world of individuals fending for themselves. Why work hard for a company that doesn’t give you fair pay? Why bother with a team that jacks up ticket prices but doesn’t invest in a roster? The trend toward rooting for individual human players instead of billion-dollar entities already made sense in this environment, and a generation of athletes who have mastered social media has just accelerated the trend.
It truly is a remarkable development. For decades, professional sports have been incredibly resistant to change, and in some cases, they’re still desperate to uphold staid traditions — the Yankees still don’t let their players wear facial hair. But no matter how many times pro teams play the National Anthem or reverently trot out old ballplayers to celebrate championships won half a century ago, they’re not going to be able to hold back differences like the ones I recognized at that soccer game last month. I’m just doing my best to keep up.
Does my brother care that Eden Hazard got traded to Real Madrid? A little. Not much.