Life As A Turncoat

What makes a sports fan? Heritage, obviously, for which many would-be front office grifters should be grateful. Then there’s bandwagoning, whether for a favorite player or just a winning franchise. There’s picking a team because you are a junkie in a town that ain’t selling. In a perfect world, we would all just shut up and enjoy the game. In this world, we question the veracity of others’ fandom, looking for weak points like leaving early or turning on the team too soon.

But regardless of whether or not you can name the team’s leading rusher in 1981, we all agree that there’s nothing worse than a traitor, a defector, a turncoat.

My name is Chris O’Toole, and I am a turncoat for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Although I never felt attached to the Colorado Rockies, like at all, I can hardly fault the perception. My family and I watched Dinger hatch from his egg just one week before my fourth birthday. Facebook would reveal more damning evidence: cheering at Game 4 of the 2007 NLCS, a Rockies jersey with my name on the back (my dad’s), probably more than a few fan-like statuses. When people ask why the Dodgers, I usually respond, “Denver’s not a baseball town”—though true, they have some rabid fans nonetheless and it’s not the reason I “left”.

You will want qualifiers now, for me to plead my case at the fan gallows. That’s fine.

Athletically I could not get starting minutes on the B Team of a Dutch Christian middle school basketball team. As a skateboarder, I could get dap at the skatepark but a thirteen-stair ollie was not in the cards. I got on base often because I was a lefty who stepped away from the ball out of fear, which sprayed hits to third base— a huge throw for a young arm. It wasn’t pretty, but opponents’ snickering lasted a half-inning: I could place the ball anywhere with the second-fastest pitching arm, and by God I loved payback. I umpired through high school, in hot summers, breathing nicotine from a chain-smoking colleague’s old equipment. Baseball was the greatest thing in the world to me, yet not for all my life could I give one true damn about the Rockies.

I still wonder about it. Certainly community matters: we had half-days in grade school so the latter could be spent decorating the halls with blue and orange streamers, balloons, and daisy chains. My parents rented a bouncy castle for the Broncos’ stunning loss to Brunell’s Jags, and I do not exaggerate when I say the ‘96 AFC Divisional was the first sad memory of my life. In kindergarten I wore an Avs jersey to school, each week with a new player’s name and number taped to the back. LeBron is the most likable, astounding basketball player of my lifetime and even he can’t make me forget what Kobe did to us, over and over again. LeBron can’t make me like the Lakers. So I mean, look at the math: I was going to be a Rockies fan.

How did I find myself in hysterics, two mini-pitchers deep in a Buffalo Wild Wings, as Puig slammed the door on the Crew? I must be missing something.

•      •

Ever notice how no one gives out hats at football, basketball, or hockey games? That’s weird, right? Like they assume you should just be grateful to attend, no bells and whistles needed. I think baseball knows you must love the team for the sport to work. They don’t do giveaways, they do keepsakes. Without love, baseball is long and slow with too many moving pieces to care about.

On facebook I can be seen in a Rockies, Angels, Red Sox, and of course Dodgers hat. (My parents bought the Sox hat for Christmas, along with Final Draft, because… I loved Good Will Hunting? God bless them.) It’s important that the only hat I bought of the four was LA: I need reasons to love a baseball team, whereas other sports are instinctual. “Reasons” do not just include winning—God knows I followed some bums like a hawk. “Reasons” are deeper, especially in LA, where monotone weather requires that I mark the seasons with stickball. The reasons began on August 31st, 2015 in Dodger Stadium, where my twenty-five-year search ended.

It was a Monday night game vs. the Giants. Maybe you’ve heard all kinds of absurd slander: Dodgers fans don’t show up (1st in attendance), Dodgers fans show up late (true, unless you burn a sick day in traffic), Dodgers fans stab people (they should not have stabbed that guy). What they don’t talk about is how reverential the franchise has been to its past. “Easy for them, they’re always in the playoffs,” you might say. Well, consider that there’s losing and there’s Losing. It’s not a gas to relive 13 losses in 19 World Series, or constant sub-Series collapse, with the champagne being three decades stale.  It would be like the Warriors having a 73-9 Night. Or the Bills giving out Connect Four (Super Bowl Edition). Yet they do it: they do not ignore agony nor wallow in it. The Dodgers are proud and grateful, and you feel it in every immaculate, light blue inch of a stadium teleported right from the 1960s.

Requisite franchise homage in your stadium may include jerseys in the rafters, or a ring of fame, or a seating section named after an icon. My first game happened thanks to free luxury seats from DirecTV, and I was immediately assailed by the genuine care and appreciation put into the walk through Dodgerdom. Not just facts pulled from Wikipedia, random items in glass boxes. What I saw was MoMA-level baseball curation. They didn’t seek to just inform, but to experience a 134-year battle of attrition. Of broken racial barriers. Of a team that gave an identity to the displaced immigrant masses in Brooklyn. Of a team that makes this sprawling, labyrinthine maw of highways feel like home. This, I knew, was how you built a fanbase losing their minds on a weekday game in August, a fanbase that had led the division since April 15th and still wasn’t slouching tonight. That an owner could threaten to move the team because “the fans didn’t deserve it” and leave town alive was an alien notion. (Oh, the conditioning!)

It took twenty-five years to realize baseball should love you back.

I planned for support to remain secret. I am terrible with secrets, but if LGBT can find harmony, if the Templar can abscond with a holy love child, I can lie about baseball. Plus any True Blue slip-ups could ascribe cultural blending; and conveniently there I would point to all the hats I’ve worn.

The more I followed from grad school in Orange, the louder and clearer I could imagine the response: “You scoffed at Dallas all your life. You scoffed at what you became. Why? How? Turn back!” I strip-mined old Rockies trivia, just in case, soon recalling the Blake Street Bombers were figurative terrorists. Like a senior headed to college, I was checked out but passing.

Then 2014 Kershaw happened: 21-3, 239 K, 1.77 ERA. Before you know it, you’re in deep. More people are talking Dodgers around you, and you don’t know if it’s by chance. Friends give you Dodgers garb for Christmas. You are aware of the Marlins. It got to the point that stays of isolation in Colorado were my Tell-tale Heart: ‘Roberts is the best manager for a team that thinks the sky is falling. Giants’ window looks closed. What did he say? Something about craft beer. If they trade Puig, we march on Wilshire. I wish I lacked dignity.’

I should note I’m not obtuse. I know the optics of writing on the eve of our back-to-back Series appearance. But that one, final Benedictian turn was destined to sound like bargaining anyway: When keeping a secret drove me insane, I escaped the confines of sports’ already-insane logic.

•       •

Legions of sportswriters have written about when it’s okay to abandon your team, e.g. Knicks, Nets, Mets. (Jesus, get it together, New York.) I don’t recall any asking when they were ever your team in the first place. They couldn’t ask that: it’s a crime against nature. It upsets the foundations of sport. Forget that it’s arranged; it’s still loyalty!

We now know sports are pure adult delusion. Enough media has made it clear we cheer for laundry based on arbitrary achievement under made-up rules. But while WWE fans are in on the joke, sports fans think themselves exempt. You can see the cracks in weak wrestling years: narratives don’t land, heroes and villains switch on cue, and solutions involve how to get the stars more fans. Sports fans bring that same passion and investment into every bar, stadium, and home theater, except forgetting there are no natural laws against enjoyment. A new fan in wrestling can be made on any given night; a new fan to a baseball team can be made pending six written exams and a background check, plus disavowal of old allegiances.

I accepted my new colors, now blue and white, when I landed on the word ‘community’. More than the common ire of a dollar-eyed, loathsome owner, more than the unity of ethnicities and social classes, sports serve as a coded language. All our lives channel into our teams, and suffice to say, my transition to LA has been a daunting one. Though I kept my old teams, the new language just didn’t fit the Rockies. And if you believe things happen for a reason, the Dodgers’ exasperation, dedication, and the so-close taste of another failed season mirrors screenwriting to a positively chilling degree.

If you can wait and wait for a city to embrace an eminently lovable game, they could use you in the MLS. But I have a deep-rooted emotional need for baseball and a society that fosters it. Is that betrayal? Or sanity?

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