Sometimes It’s Just Easier To Root Against

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I had a tough time watching last night’s March Madness Finals matchup between Virginia and Texas Tech. And I shouldn’t have.

As a graduate of a Virginia state university that doesn’t go by the name of THE University of Virginia, I’ve harbored dislike, resentment and jealousy toward the Cavaliers for going on 35 years.

The many camera shots of UVA alum Ralph Sampson in the crowd during the road to the Final Four only brought back bitter memories of how the 7-footer, who had high schooled in our little Shenandoah Valley college town, had shunned us for Wahoo glory way back when (and yes, we celebrated when Ralph’s Cavs never made it past the national semifinals).

So where was the conflict? Just root against UVA and call it a night, right? I didn’t have a dog left in the brackets fight, having long ago been mathematically eliminated from all NCAA pools I had submitted. And for good measure, I have a niece and a nephew who are Texas Tech kids — one a recent graduate and one soon to follow. And I even like them.

In fact, a year ago I had used those two Red Raiders as my excuse to ride the Texas Tech bandwagon during their surprising run to the semis. The problem is, this year’s run attracted other members of the family (who I am a tad less enamored with than my niece and nephew), who jumped on that same Tech bandwagon with such gusto that I couldn’t help but begin to root for Tech’s demise a little bit more with each win. Not a hard “root against” mind you, but it was there. I felt it.

While this is not exactly a proud moment of self reflection, it did get me thinking about the root cause of my dislike for so many teams and franchises in this vast world of sports. Because I’m an admitted “hater” when it comes to sports rivalries, and a passionate “root against” opportunity makes my overall sports fan experience more rich and enjoyable as a result. I’m not apologizing, even a little, for this, I’m just curious as to where it all came from.

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As has been thoroughly chronicled through many previous SportsAttic posts, the New York Yankees are the standard bearer for franchises I possess a passionate dislike for. And while it is impossible to say for sure, I do believe my internal pleasure meter jumps several notches higher when the Yanks experience a first-round playoff defeat than if my beloved Mets were to win a first-round playoff series (and yes, Yankees fans, I am well aware that last sentence set you up for a multitude of jokes about the likelihood of the Mets ever appearing in another playoff series — haha, funny, how Yankee fans are such cut ups).

Tracing back the roots of my extreme dislike of the Pinstripes, I come across a specific tipping point right around the 1985 baseball season. Up until that point I harbored no particular ill will toward the Bombers, even rooting them on in their late-’70’s World Series matchups against the Dodgers, and taking a degree of pleasure when Bucky (effin) Dent went deep in that one-game, 1978 playoff that sent the Red Sox home empty handed yet again.

However in 1985 I began working in an office environment for the first time, and met Tom. Tom was (and probably is, although it’s been years since I’ve heard from him) a diehard Yankees fan. Growing up in New Jersey, I’d met plenty of Yankees fans prior to 1985, but Tom was unique in his arrogance related to all things Bronx Bombers, and also in his utter and intense disdain for the suddenly competitive again New York Mets.

Game on, as they say. Heated debates ensued over whether Mattingly or Hernandez was the better first baseman (c’mon, really? Mex had no peer). Shouting matches over who had the classiest fan base (lots of cutting remarks about how Mets fans had an affinity for Chevy Camaros — “How do you empty Shea Stadium? Just yell ‘hey Vinny, your Camaro is on fire!'” — yeah hysterical stuff like that).

On a daily basis I found myself under siege and outmanned. Somehow my association with the Mets had created a Civil War, where I was one of the select few fans of the blue and orange, amidst a sea of Pinstriped sycophants.

Amusement over this passionate baseball line in the sand grew to dislike of any and all things even remotely related to the New York Yankees, which festered from there and ultimately evolved into hatred. Simple, pure, unadulterated baseball fan hatred. Which hopefully helps explain why, to this day, I celebrate little tidbits that dance across the newswire, such as Troy Tulowitzki (who’s barely even a Yankee at this point) hurting himself (like we all knew he would — or hoped anyway) and landing on the Injured List.

Okay, so no real surprise there, when examining the root cause for why I rejoice in the act of “rooting against.” Unpleasant interactions with an obnoxious fan, whether a dim witted co-worker or self-important in-law, can send a sports hater like me into a clearly defined world of good versus evil, with the end result being an enhancement of my own personal rooting enjoyment.

It’s not just rivalry among fans, though, is it? There’s also the incident-driven hatred that occasionally catches fire and becomes a full-on obsession of biblical proportion.

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Yup, we are talking about the St. Louis Cardinals here, and their former skipper, Whitey Herzog — aka the White Rat.

Similar to my early childhood blasé feelings toward the Yanks, growing up I felt no ill will regarding the Cardinals either, even though at the time they occupied a spot in the same division as my Mets. In fact, I always thought Bob Gibson and Lou Brock were two of the cooler baseball stars of the ’70’s. Then it all changed for me, forever, during the summer following my 12th birthday.

My buddy’s parents invited me to a Mets-Cardinals tilt at Shea on a sunny Sunday afternoon in July. They had great seats, and we got there early to take it all in and enjoy the good fortune of our amazingly close proximity to the field. We’d talked about autograph potential on the way to Shea, but didn’t realize until we arrived that our seats were a few rows back of the visitors dugout, making autograph seeking a bit trickier.

Undeterred and in possession of a new ball and a Bic pen (the sharpie hadn’t come along yet), I worked up the courage during BP to approach the Cardinals manager, who was leaning against the rail next to the St. Louis dugout taking in the pre-game proceedings. I took a deep breath, mustering all the courage I had, and politely uttered the following:

“Excuse me, Mr. Herzog, but could I have your autograph?”

I cautiously gestured my pen and ball in his direction as he slowly looked over his right shoulder and gave me the quick up/down glance. He met my nervous eyes directly, held the stare for just a second, then turned his head, spit into the dirt, and looked away. Asked and answered, you might say.

I slumped my shoulders and limped back to our row, where my buddy’s mom did her best to buck me up, and we proceeded to watch the Redbirds shellack the Mets and their erratic starter, Pete Falcone, in another one-sided affair that fans of the Mets during the late-’70’s remember all too well.

And over the course of that one sunny Sunday, the Cardinals went from being simply one of 25 other Major League Baseball teams who were not the New York Mets, to perhaps the most villainous band of hooligans ever assembled on a baseball diamond.

This special Cardinals-style hatred took on even more astronomical levels a few years later, when the Mets and Cards found themselves battling one another for NL supremacy from 1985-1988. Every Cardinals win felt like the White Rate was personally twisting a knife between my shoulder blades. And the fact that Herzog publicly denigrated the Mets at every opportunity during that time only served to cement him as my least favorite MLB figure of all time.

A final postscript to this story came in the mid-’90’s, when I shared my White Rat story (for only the millionth time or so) with a Cards fan I worked with in Roanoke, Virginia. A few weeks later, through a series of unexpected circumstances, my colleague found himself in the company of the White Rat himself during a game in St. Louis. On my next visit to Roanoke, he presented me with a ball signed by none other than Whitey Herzog. It was personalized:

“Chris, Mets my ass. Whitey Herzog.”

To this day that ball remains one of my most cherished possessions, even with the ink nearly faded away now, twenty-plus years later. If you are a diehard fan out there, you have your “White Rat,” and I’m guessing you know exactly what I mean when I say “cherished.”

Okay, now this whole “root cause” thing is slowly starting to come into focus. We’ve got arrogant, asshole co-workers, obnoxious, bandwagon jumping family members, and scarred-for-life childhood incidents identified as core contributors to the inner workings of the fan who lives to “root against.” But wait, there’s more! And for this next category, it’s time to step off the baseball diamond and onto the hardwood.

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There was nothing quite like growing up a Knicks fan in the early-’70’s. Three NBA Finals in four years, two titles, a contender every year with iconic players like Clyde Frazier, Earl Monroe, Willis Reed, Bill Bradley and Dave DeBuschere.

Even the Knicks subs were cool (though I never cared for Phil Jackson — more on him in a second) — Dean Meminger and Jerry Lucas first off the bench, and especially Harthorne Wingo, who would draw one of the biggest ovations from the Madison Square Garden faithful when he would take off the sweats for the final few minutes of another Knicks blowout win (our version of Red Auerbach’s victory cigar).

An important part of my early Knicks fandom was the annual threats to their supremacy posed by various enemy franchises around the league. It always started with the Boston Celtics. Part of why they scared me so was because they were damn good, and I knew they were a serious threat to end the Knicks season prematurely every year.

John Havlicek was always in the right place on the court and seemingly never missed a critical bucket. Dave Cowens was younger and faster than Willis, and that just didn’t seem fair to seven-year-old me. And Jo Jo White? How dare he play Clyde to a draw, when we all knew Clyde was the best basketball player on the planet and should never be challenged (not to mention Clyde was ours)? A new kind of hatred developed out of my childhood years — hatred born of respect and fear.

The Baltimore Bullets (a far catchier name than today’s Washington Wizards, by the way) I hated, too, but with less passion than Boston, because they were always just a step slower than the Knicks (despite being the team that dethroned us in 1971). Wes Unseld was a poor man’s Willis, and Phil Chenier did everything Clyde did, just slightly worse. Kind of like comparing the two cities themselves. It wasn’t a fair fight, which made it harder to conjure up a Celtics-level kind of hate for the Bullets back in the day.

It was the same way with the Lakers. We faced them in the finals three times in four years, but I never hated the Lakers (Wilt was simply too badass for that, if truth be told), choosing instead to single out Jerry West as the object of my scorn, once again based on the fact that he would play Clyde to a draw on most nights, driving me absolutely crazy. Respect.

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I’ve never lost that enmity for the Celtics of my youth, and that hatred of respect ignited once again during the Bird/McHale/Parrish years, where I learned a new way to hate — this new strain emphasized hatred of the bit player who represents all that is wrong with an enemy franchise. You see, it was one thing for Larry Legend to kick dirt in our collective faces, but when the end of the bench guys got in the act things had gone too far.

End of the bench targets are a long and easy category to populate, but to best illustrate this level of hatred, I reference Danny Ainge of those dastardly Celtics squads of the mid-’80’s. It seemed Ainge always played with a permanent whine smeared across his face that reminded me of a four-year-old who just had a toy taken away. Bitching and moaning constantly while putting up numbers better than he had any right to, simply because he was fortunate enough to play alongside Larry Bird on those great Celtics teams.

Another bullseye example of easy to hate role players on those mid-’80’s Boston teams was M.L. Carr. Carr was the closest thing the NBA had to a WWE villain in those days (east of Bill Laimbeer, anyway). By the time Carr got to Boston he was good for little more than waving a towel from the sidelines following another Bird miracle, yet oh how I couldn’t stand him.

Yup, the bit player on a despised dynasty was a new and delightful way to justify my sports hatred. When that crop of Celts aged out, I was able to redirect this venom in much the same way toward the Chicago Bulls. I never liked Michael Jordan, simply because we could never beat him — ever — but MJ was the ultimate “hate due to respect and fear” guy. However, respect/hate for Michael didn’t preclude me from reserving an extra special kind of hate for ex-Knick traitor Phil Jackson (Jeff Van Gundy labeling Jax Big Chief Triangle brought me extreme delight), and also for MJ’s toady, Scottie Pippen, who belongs as captain of the all-overrated team of NBA-ers.

And the root cause list grows longer, as obnoxious personalities at the end of the bench take their seat alongside Tom the Worst Yankees Fan of All-Time, front-running in-laws, dickhead baseball managers, and teams that competed against the heroes of my youth.

As I delve deeper and deeper into my psyche, I can apply all of these root causes to other moments in time where I developed a solid hatred for a team, player or fan base (usually a combination of all three). You might say it is all starting to make sense.

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For example, there were some fleeting hockey rivalries that registered on my sports hatred meter before I turned away from the sport following the strike that cancelled the entire 2004-05 NHL season.

My personal homerism fueled that first bout of hockey hatred. When the New Jersey Devils started to establish themselves (finally) as a team to be taken seriously in the early-’90’s, it delightfully coincided with the New York Rangers at long last shedding their “1940” chant of ridicule, while winning the 1994 Stanley Cup.

As a young kid I had actually rooted for the Rangers (the Devils didn’t exist at the time), but I lost focus when my family moved across country. When we returned to New Jersey years later, the combination of insecurities felt by many of us residents of the Garden State bonded with the rise of the Devils (“have another donut, you fat pig!” — ahhh how we need more Jim Schoenfeld’s in sports today) lured me into an avid level of fandom that came to include a partial share of Devils season tickets and a passionate rivalry with the across-the-river Rangers.

Some of the most enjoyable sporting events I attended back in the day were at the old Byrne Arena, when the sold out crowd would be evenly split between Devils and Rangers fans, with a meaningful late-season matchup on the line and multiple fist fights breaking out in the stands. Mark Messier was the MJ of this rivalry, coming up big at every turn during the 1994 playoffs and ultimately sending the Devils home on the way to the Blueshirts’ first Cup in 54 years. Mark Messier — another example of hatred borne of respect.

Down the New Jersey Turnpike arose another object of New Jersey Devils hatred a few years later, when Eric Lindros skated into Scott Stevens’ crosshairs (literally) and the Flyers were briefly seen as a viable threat to the Devils budding dynasty that had been providing bragging rights to downtrodden New Jersey fans everywhere. And oh how we celebrated when Stevens shoulder found Lindros’ breast plate, effectively ending the big forward’s time as a superstar in the NHL. Hey, we were hockey fans from New Jersey, so what did you expect, and it wasn’t like he died, or anything. Ya know?

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And lest we forget, us Mets fans received another jolt of fandom hatred on a silver platter when we finally started playing good ball again under Bobby Valentine in the late-1990’s. This time it was the Atlanta Braves who were the object of our lack of affection. Bobby V’s revitalized Mets found themselves in the unenviable position of trying to upend the Braves Dynasty (a dynasty that gets far too little credit in MLB history due to the fact that they only won one World Series during what amounted to a New England Patriots-like era of dominance).

But for a few years there the Mets went after Atlanta hard, led by Mike Piazza and a bunch of role players, invigorating the fans who love nothing more than to play indignant upstart to the heavy favorite. Enter Chipper “Larry” Jones and John “7 Train” Rocker.

Jones falls into the category of hatred out of respect. The guy flat wore the Mets out. And even worse, like the White Rat years earlier, Jones thoroughly enjoyed the punishment he doled out. Sure, we had our moments with the “Larrrr-rrrry” chant, making fun of Chipper’s given name, but in the end, we had to tip our hat, because Jones was just really good, and came up big in important spots night after night.

However the homophobic and mercurial Braves reliever, John Rocker, was another story. Rocker was more of a Danny Ainge-ish kind of target for the Mets faithful. Unafraid to hit back at the relentless Mets fan base who truly despised him even before he was quoted in Sports Illustrated insulting Mets fans everywhere, Rocker elicited stadium-shaking rounds of booing (in fact “booing” is a kind characterization here) every time he entered a game. And there was nothing more satisfying than those nights when we’d hang an “L” on the big-mouth whose fastball was losing 1-2 MPH a year. Yup, fun years.

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And what list of sports fan hating would be complete without a quick trip to the gridiron?

If I’m honest, one of my least proud moments in the long history of my sports fandom took place due to my passionate disdain for a single sports franchise. Once again, the root cause can be found in an entire geographic region’s unseemly fan base.

As previously noted, I went to college in Virginia. I entered my freshman year as a Jets fan, one who passively liked the Giants, but with little emotion involved. Four years later I graduated a diehard Giants fan, one who liked the Jets okay, but with little emotional attachment. Some explanation is required here, as I will desperately attempt to defend my embarrassing “flop” of allegiances during the college years.

I walked onto campus in the fall of 1983. The Giants were about to embark on Bill Parcells’ first year as head coach, where they’d finish a miserable 3-12-1, with cries from the fans (and yours truly) to shit-can the clearly in over his head Parcells. The Jets had fielded competitive teams through the early-’80’s, and had Wesley Walker hauling in bombs and the Sack Exchange setting records to keep things fun and exciting for the fans. They were my team.

Unbeknownst to me, though, Virginia was Redskins territory, and the state institution I had chosen to attend was inhabited by a collection of rabid Redskins fans from various parts of Maryland, Virginia and D.C. To make matters worse, the Skins were really good at the time. They’d won their first Super Bowl a couple years prior behind the running of ex-Jet John Riggins and an O-line made up of “Hogs,” and I was in no way prepared for the degree of homerism, shamelessly biased pride, and laser-focused flag waving I was about to encounter during my four years “down south.”

First of all, Skins fans turned down the sound on their televisions for Redskins games so they could listen to two of the biggest clownish homers of all time — Sam Huff (a former Giant, no less!) and Sonny Jurgensen — call the game in their down home drawls over the radio, railing against the officials whenever a call went against Washington, and celebrating right along with the fans whenever things were going well.

Their QB, Joe Theismann, was one of the least appealing players in league history, but he’d somehow caught lightning in a bottle with the Skins late in his career, and was suddenly unconscious, racking up ridiculous passing stats throwing all over the field to The Smurfs, a trio of diminutive receivers who would manage to get Howard Cosell fired by ABC following an unfortunate choice of descriptive words during a Monday Night Football contest during that ’83 season.

So in other words, I had no choice but to become a hardcore Giants fan in an effort to single-handedly right all the obvious wrongs of these uninformed, flag-waving homers (they even sang a song after every Washington score, for crying out loud). Of course it didn’t hurt that following the 1983 season (which ended with the Redskins getting destroyed by the Raiders in Super Bowl XVIII, to the delight of me and the handful of other Skins Haters I had banded together with), the Giants drafted a pass rushing outside linebacker named Lawrence Taylor  (thanks to Parcells and that 3-12-1 record that had earned NY the second pick in the draft), thus changing the dynamics of the NFC East for the next decade or so.

And for that 10-year stretch, I don’t know that I’ve ever hated an organization more. From Washington’s loud-mouthed defensive end, Dexter Manley, who totally abused Giants left tackle Brad Benson whenever the two teams would meet, to Theismann (and yes, I cheered when LT broke the QB’s leg on Monday Night Football — certainly not my finest hour as a fan), to that group of D.C. clowns in the front row at RFK who dressed up in dresses and hog noses and rejoiced with every playing of that banal Hail To The Redskins jingle I would hear in my sleep for years to come.

Like most good things, though, this one had to come to an end. LT retired, and Washington head man Joe Gibbs went off to Nascar. Parcells won his two Super Bowls and handed off to Ray Handley (yikes). Daniel Snyder bought the Redskins and began a James Dolan-esque journey to destroy the once-proud franchise, and by 2003 I was easing back onto the Jets bandwagon, having grown tired of Jeremy Shockey, Michael Strahan and Tiki Barber, and confident that the new Giants coach, Tom Coughlin, would never deliver any meaningful wins (cough) for Big Blue.

Besides, the Jets needed me more. Plus I could get season tickets for Jets games, while the Giants waiting list for such things spanned 100 years into the future.

SportsAttic note: Yes, these are all justifications for a dishonorable act of treason that I vilify other sports fans for, but there were reasons, good reasons — if you’ve ever relocated to Redskins country you’ll understand and allow it.

And now I’m officially back. Cheering on Gang Green (and have you seen those new 2019 unis they are rolling out? “Spotlight White” and “Stealth Black?” — oy vey…).

Our new/old/current enemy is the Belicheats up in New England. Brady is the Havlicek, West, MJ we hate out of respect. The Pats fans, saturated by too many titles, have assumed the mantle of most arrogant in the NFL, and I’ve even got a doubles partner who, while nowhere near the level of obnoxious I endured while working with Tom the Yankees Fan back in the ’80’s, allows me to make my dislike for New England a little more real, and a lot more fun.

Too bad there was no early-childhood incident to throw a little gas on the internal fire of my Jets-Pats rivalry, but I’m not sure I have bandwidth remaining at this stage of my life for anyone or anything to displace the White Rat in the inner folds of my sports fan brain.

And that’s just fine.

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2 thoughts on “Sometimes It’s Just Easier To Root Against”

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