It's time to take a break from the talk about the injuries, the drugs, who's doing well, and not etc... Instead, let's get a little introspective here and focus on ourselves for a bit as Yankee fans. I'd like to make a soapbox pitch today to alter our collective behavior. It seems that more and more I see Yankee fans throwing opposition home run balls back onto the field these days. Sorry, I don't have the count on that, and this isn't a new thing, however, I'd like us to really think for a second why we're doing this, and if we should be doing this at all.
I'm certainly not the first to make this case, but the previous attempts have all been aimed at the masses in general. My issue is not with all baseball fans here. I'm only talking to you here as a Yankee fan, and that's my chief concern. You see, this throwing-the-home-run-ball-back thing is clearly linked to the Chicago Cubs, and that bugs me. Why are we doing anything that fans for an organization whose last World Series title was in 1908 do? They like to call themselves the Lovable Losers! We support an organization that has 27 titles. Who should be emulating whom?
Let's examine this a little closer. As far as I can tell on the sketchy reliability of internet lore, the origin of the home run throwback started in 1969. The man credited with the original deed is Ron Grousl. He purportedly caught a Hank Aaron home run ball and threw it back, proclaiming that enemy baseballs were not to be allowed out there.
That was a pretty long time ago. So what took so long for this to spread if it is so inherently great? The spreading of this act can most likely be tied to the proliferation of access to mass media sport content, but that has been occurring for more than just the last decade. So why has it been spreading so much recently? I think it was those damn playoff runs the Cubs had about five to six yeas ago. We already know that playoff appearances and titles lead to increased attendance figures in the following seasons. There's a degree of fan that gets attracted to following a winning team, but doesn't seem to pay enough attention when the team is initially doing that winning.
The playoffs matter. That's why MLB keeps increasing its importance and numbers. It's become a cultural attribute in our society. The only other team I like to root for as much as the Yankees is the New York Rangers. Watching them win the Stanley Cup in 1994 was epic, but after that season I started to notice something which disturbed me. The trademark chant of Ranger fans everywhere was getting co-opted. You can debate me on this, but I'm being honest when I say I don't remember hearing anyone ever say any team name after "Let's Go" other than "Rangers" before 1994. That includes other New York teams. That spotlight was bright since the Rangers hadn't won since 1940 before then. I think a similar effect has occurred here with the Cubs.
Some other attempts to curb this behavior have focused on the memorabilia value angle. One interesting take wrote about the guy who threw back the first home run ball Stephen Strasburg ever allowed. It implied an estimated $1,000 value that he gave away. His reasoning for doing so: he wanted to let Strasburg know that he had his back. Seriously, that's what he said. That's a major miscalculation on cause and effect in his conceptual thought process, but it exemplifies more of what's really at the heart of the matter here. Somehow this act has become symbolic of something that depicts what a real fan should be. The whole got-his-back thing is just some stupid machismo angle, but in the end it's being driven by the search for authenticity. It's not just peer pressure of the fans around you that didn't catch that baseball. Peer pressure only works when the individual wants to be a member of the larger group. The drive is the desire to be an authentic fan.
So what is it that actually provides authenticity to such a thing as fandom? I remember going to the first two games in the 2004 AL championship series against the Boston Red Sox. The first night I had a ticket about five rows from the very top of the Tier section along the third base side. We were high enough up there that you had that little overhang protecting you from any rain. The next game I got invited to watch in one of the box seats down close to the field. After the game, I remember this kid sitting next to me looking up at the seats I had been in the game before and saying 'that's where the real fans sit.' I wanted to explain how ridiculous that statement was, but he was just a kid and his mom wanted to get him home. He still nailed one of the primary tenants of perceived authenticity though.
The best argument that I have seen for what drives the throwback, however, basically still comes from that desire to be attached to a greater group. At the end of this missive there's a good take on why you throw it back. To paraphrase, the drive is for the feeling of being the one who does the deed that makes everyone else cheer after a bad moment. Somehow that reduces the pain of watching that home run sail over your team's fence. Everybody loves you. You're not just some individual sitting in row 12, seat 15 anymore.
People do this because they want to feel like authentic fans. They do this because they want to be a part of something bigger. This started to spread around the league because casual fans, who tend to watch playoffs more than regular season games, saw the Cubs playing and watched what those fans were doing. Get where I'm going with this? This trend isn't being driven by the traditional fan that's going to a lot of ballgames.
So why are Yankees fans doing this more than in the past? Well, I think there aren't as many of the traditional fan base going to the games for one very good reason: $$$. We know attendance is down, and that's likely changing the influence in the stands. So hear my plea. Don't throw it back. You're emulating a Cubs tradition that personifies futility. The purported originator of this supposedly threw a Hank Aaron home run ball back. That alone should make you see how ridiculous this is. Not for the value, but for the actual memory. Hank Aaron is literally one of THE greatest baseball players of all time.
I've never caught a home run ball, but I've been lucky to get some foul balls over the years. One night I got my hands on a Bernie Williams foul ball. I really loved Bernie. I think he personifies class, and is generally underrated in terms of his legacy and importance to the titles. No one ever refers to him as a core member, even though he won four flags batting in the middle of the lineup and playing center field. I gave that foul ball away to some kid sitting next to me. I choked and got influenced by a guy behind me yelling to give the ball to the kid. When I gave it to him he looked like he couldn't care less. My father was at that game, and later he told me the real story. Turns out the guy yelling was the kid's father, and that kid already had a dozen foul balls back home that he didn't care a lick about. So I essentially gave up my remote connection to a Bernie Williams moment to a con job.
Things worked out somewhat anyway. Sometimes good Karma pays you back immediately, because in that very same game I got another foul ball off the bat from Jason Giambi. To be honest, I'd rather have the Bernie Williams one, but that's some pretty damn good luck there. Neither of those baseballs are worth any money. The value to me of memorabilia is not what someone else will pay for it, but what your memory attached to that object brings to you. Keep the baseballs people. Don't let others dictate what makes you a fan.
If you're still not convinced and think that somehow the Cubs fans have stumbled upon this brilliant act that defines what it means to be a great fan then ponder this for a second. You're a Yankees fan. We have a tradition of winning here. The target at the beginning of the season is always the same. The Cubs have epitomized the exact opposite of what it means to be a Yankee. By the way, you know most of those baseballs they throw back aren't the real home run balls right?
Boston Red Sox fans hate the Yankees way more than Yankee fans hate the Red Sox. Seriously, they really do. Why? Because the Yankees are the guys who always win. We don't worry about some notion of the enemy. It's title or bust. That's all that matters with this organization. We already have the best fan tradition in baseball and that's Roll Call. Heck that might be the best fan tradition in all of sport. It hasn't even been around that long in the grand scheme of things, but that's the tradition that personifies being a Yankees fan. It's about our team, not them. You want to be authentic? Then join in on Roll Call, but please stop throwing back those home run balls. Every time you do that all I can think about is the Cubs. Well, at least we've stopped doing the Wave, right?