Therapists usually say that there’s some kind of reason for just about any behavior, however seemingly irrational; even if you end up hurting yourself, it probably served a psychological purpose. I’ve been thinking about this recently in light of the Yanks’ ALCS loss, and the accompanying customary wave of blame from fans that fell on various members of the team and front office. I think the tendency of fans — and certainly not just Yankee fans, but perhaps especially Yankee fans — to instinctively blame their own team after a loss, rather than crediting the opponent, is pretty interesting. Obviously not everyone does this, but as an overall fanbase mood I think it rings true, unless maybe some undisputed whiz like Cliff Lee is directly involved.
Setting aside for the moment whether or not it’s accurate or fair in a specific instance, what’s the psychological gain here? The outcome of any game depends on the combination of one team’s strength and another’s weakness, of course, and it’s often hard to disentangle a hitter’s success from a pitcher’s failure, or vice versa. How much of Colby Lewis’s kickass performance on Friday night was due to variables he controlled directly, and how much was due to the Yankees’ inadequate approach or execution at the plate? It’s not possible to tell precisely, although a lot of the newer baseball stats our SABR-inclined friends come up with are designed to help sort this out. And my first instinct, like many people in the bar where I was watching, was to yell “C’mon you useless #$&*s, it’s Colby Lewis” at the little pinstriped men on the TV.
I think in the end, it’s mostly about control: the idea that your team mostly controls its fate (like the idea that you yourself mostly control your fate) is generally preferable to the alternative. No one likes feeling helpless to change their situation. Everyone wants to believe that we’re in charge of how our lives turn out, not larger forces we can’t affect. And hey, if the Yankees lost because they failed, well then, they’re still better. They just didn’t show it. There must be something they could have done differently.
I’m not entirely sure whether the blaming-your-team tendency is more prevalent in New York City, and specifically among Yankee fans, but I suspect as much. It seems clear that fans everywhere do this to a certain extent, but I think that like just about everything else, it’s louder in New York. And while Mets fans do it too — as Alex pointed out yesterday, the moaning about A-Rod and Ryan Howard ending their respective Championship Series with called third strikes brought back vivid memories of the hysteria over Carlos Beltran’s taken curveball in 2006 — I believe you can make an argument that Yankee fans do it most of all: this is part of the wide-ranging legacy of George M. Steinbrenner.
This is the flipside to all that winning, and the result of the idea, now internalized by seemingly the entire Yankee organization even in The Boss’s absence, that any year that doesn’t end in a World Series victory is a failure. Not anybody else’s succes: your team’s failure. We’ve heard this view expressed in different ways by many people for many years now — by George himself, by Brian Cashman, by Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada, even by scrubs passing through in August and September. This year, Cashman and Joe Girardi both made a point of saying that Texas had just flat out-played the Yankees, which I personally felt was good to hear; I think many fans share that point of view, too, but outside of our cozy corner of the blogosphere, it hasn’t been the dominant tone.
Believing that they can and should win the World Series every single year is, from one angle, one of the most admirable things about the Yankees. The organization is never content with a few years of mediocrity; never holds back from a signing or trade that could help, damn the financial consequences; never coasts on a new Stadium or a star signing. And that is great for their fans. But that kind of ambition, by necessity, comes with a big heaping stench of failure. I think George Steinbrenner, in his prime, felt that having his employees live in terror of that failure was an important motivational tool; and the Boss will certainly be missed, but I hope his vision of win-it-all-or-else gets to rest with him. Other teams are gonna get that trophy sometimes, and not just because you messed up or didn’t get it done. Just because they’re better.