The New York Yankees have been my favorite baseball team ever since I can remember. However, my first memories of this beautiful sport are tied to the 1998 season, the year I turned nine. Everybody was talking about Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, and my native Venezuela – a baseball country by trade – was no exception.
A record home run chase was enough to captivate any young fan, although my horse that year was my very first idol: Ken Griffey Jr. I became one of thousands of kids around the world imitating his swing even though I was right-handed.
That year, David Wells threw a perfect game. My father explained what that meant to me, and the Yankees were officially on my radar. Even though the 1998 home run chase was one of the most exciting things that happened in baseball, I also found it captivating that the Yanks set a wins record and swept the World Series.
I followed the 1999 campaign even though I don’t have too many memories of that year, and enjoyed the Subway Series in 2000. I remember the Piazza – Clemens tussle the most. Those were obviously great years, but for me, they just happened to come before the peak of my fandom.
The year I truly became a Yankees fan was 2001. The team had just gotten Mike Mussina, one of my favorite pitchers in the game. And as fate would have it, the Yankees again found themselves playing for the championship that year. I felt like that World Series against the D-Backs was my entire world. I was 12, so it might as well have been. I knew beating Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling was going to be tough, but felt the Yankees were just a better ballclub.
I was the happiest kid when Derek Jeter hit that game-winning home run in Game 4, and when they walked things off in Game 5 to take a 3-2 lead. Around that time, I also fell in love with one of the most iconic home run calls in Latino history: Ernesto Jerez, who still works in ESPN as a broadcaster for Spanish-speaking audiences:
“A lo profundoooooo y…. ¡no... nono, nono...! ¡Dígale que no a esa pelota!”.
But then Games 6 and 7 happened, and the rest is history. I was miserable, sad, completely crushed. To lose in such a heart-breaking way was a tough pill to swallow, and I cried myself to sleep that night. My father hated the Yanks (still does!), which didn’t help matters.
Having experienced true baseball heartbreak, I followed in detail the Yankees’ offseason for the first time. I started a tradition that lasted throughout my teenage years: I used to write down the names of the players available for each position, like a depth chart exercise. I also used to make projections, or estimates, on some of the major stars for the upcoming season. That winter, the Yankees made another huge splash, bringing in Jason Giambi ahead of the 2002 season.
2002 brought a great regular season but an early playoff exit, while the 2003 gave me and many other young fans one of the happiest days of our lives. When Aaron Boone hit that towering drive off Tim Wakefield to end the ALCS, it was an all-time high for me as a young supporter. I can almost say nothing baseball-related has beaten that feeling, not even the 2009 World Series. For whatever reason, things just hit harder when we are in those pre-adolescent years. For me, watching Boone’s home run as a teenager may never be topped.
Of course, losing that 2003 Fall Classic was awful. I reviled Miguel Cabrera, who of course later became an icon for every Venezuelan who loves baseball, back then. How dare he hit a World Series home run off Roger Clemens himself!?
If the 2003 ALCS was an all-time high, 2004 was rock bottom. How can a team lose a series against their bitter rivals when up 3-0? My best friend was (still is) a Red Sox fan, so you can imagine the enormous pressure on this 15-year-old kid, desperately hoping not to lose.
I believe that, much like the career of a baseball player, our relationship with the team and level of fandom also peaks. For many of us, it happens during our formative years. The losses sting that much more, while the highs are that much more joyful. For me, it peaked between 2001 and 2004, despite the fact that those years didn’t bring a World Series title. It was those thrilling, and heartbreaking, years of my youth that set the foundation to become a lifelong Yankees supporter.
And, even though it can be extremely frustrating at times, I don’t regret any minute of it. How about you? How did the baseball of your childhood lay the groundwork for your fandom, and when do you feel your love for the game or for your favorite team peaked? Talk it over in the comments below!