When most sports fans are young, a well-meaning adult teaches them not to root against something. It's impolite, and it's against the principles of sportsmanship. A fan's energy should be positive.
For years, I toed that line. I stifled the impulse to hate and complain and rage. It seemed like the right thing to do. From that righteous place, though, I've evolved into someone who not only embraces the negative, but actually roots against an entire city.
As a fan of New York sports teams (Yankees, Giants, Knicks, Rangers circa 1994), I cheer adamantly against any Boston entity. And I mean that broadly. Each morning I look at the stock price of the Boston Beer Company, producer of Samuel Adams, hoping it took an overnight plummet. I'm repulsed by people named Logan and Charles for reasons they can't understand. If a foreign country waged war specifically against Boston and nobody else, I might write a letter to Obama arguing that's it none of our business.
But I'm mostly talking about sports. If a New York club can't win, Boston's failure is the next best thing. (Though getting both in one shot, as in the Greatest Football Game Ever Played, is doubly sweet.) Any qualms about indulging my schadenfreude disappeared long ago.
With that in mind, tonight could be quite special.
First, the Bruins play at home against the Canucks in game four of the Stanley Cup Finals. If they lose, they'll be down 3-1 and in very serious trouble. Second, the Red Sox and Yankees play in the Bronx. If all goes well, both Boston teams will lose miserably and there will be a deep, resounding bitterness in the cradle of liberty. For me, that's the best possible outcome.
But I wasn't always such a low creature.
Ten years ago, I had some integrity.
During the fall of my freshman year of college in 2001, a couple of my better friends were Red Sox fans. Needless to say, I couldn't watch game seven of the Yanks-Diamondbacks World Series in their presence. I heard their cheers down the hall as the D-Backs took a 1-0 lead in the sixth, but no matter- I had full confidence we'd pull through. If Jeter's prescient flip against Oakland and the 5-game browbeating of the 116-win Mariners didn't prove our union with destiny, surely the miracle Yankee Stadium home runs off Byung-Hyun Kim, so beautifully timed in the aftermath of 9/11, made the point.
But when the unthinkable happened and Mariano blew his save, the idea of destiny capsized. Loud roars could be heard from the Boston fans down the hall, and like the whistle of an approaching train, they grew louder. "If they come into my room, I'll kill them," I thought. But my friends were too smart. They peeked into the door, shouted "woooo!", and sprinted off before I could jump off my broken futon.
I couldn't understand why it mattered. What did they care if the Yankees lost? The Red Sox were sitting at home with nothing to their name and no World Series title since 1918. But somehow, the loss gave them a sincere (and sinister) feeling of glee.
As it turned out, I'd made a simple error of perspective. In baseball, the sport that mattered most, I didn't know how it felt to face down a rival and lose.
The idea of destiny stayed with me. Maybe the Diamondbacks could beat us, but we still had Boston's number. This was reinforced in 2003, when I watched the Game 7 comeback in a room full of Red Sox fans at 4am in Dublin, Ireland. They'd been in fine spirits all game, and all I could do was hold onto my deeply-held faith that for cosmic reasons beyond my ken, the Yankees wouldn't lose.
Aaron Boone's confirmation of that mystic belief in New York supremacy saw me puffing out my chest for a full year. It sounds ridiculous now, but I actually believed the Red Sox, with their high payroll and their consistently strong teams, wouldn't win a World Series in my lifetime. My confidence was so extreme that I bet my Boston friend $500 the dry spell would last at least 50 more years. Can you imagine a worse bet? At best, I'd have made a bit of money when I turned 70. At worst, I'd owe $500 at a time when I didn't have $1.50 for a slice of pizza at night.
2004 opened my eyes to reality. There was nothing special in the air, no religious aura attached to the Yankees that kept them eternally supreme. The humiliating ALCS disaster- an epic breakdown after a 3-0 series lead- was like a divine refutation of everything that was supposed to be true. My lofty fan perch collapsed like a bird's nest at the top of a falling tree.
And slowly, my ideals vanished. I didn't quite understand why, but for the first time in my life I couldn't watch the World Series. When Boston finished their sweep, I finally dared to turn on the tv. Witnessing their long-deferred celebration in St. Louis, I felt a burning hatred. I was a loser at last, and I would be a loser again in the coming years. Red Sox Nation was born, the pink-hat cadre spread across the country, and they shed their woebegone fanbase schtick to co-opt some of our arrogance.
From that point on, I've unabashedly rooted against Boston teams on every occasion. The old virtues of positivity are gone forever. It doesn't matter whether New York is involved or not. It helps, just like it helps to intuitively hate specific players like Kevin Garnett, Josh Beckett, and Jonathan Papelbon. But it's not necessary.
In fact, I actually admire some Boston players- Kevin Youkilis, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce- on an individual level. After the Giants-Patriots super bowl, I made a huge mistake by reading "The Education of a Coach" by David Halberstam, which humanized an otherwise perfect villain in Bill Belichick. Looking at the enemy on ground level is never conducive to hatred.
But none of that matters. When push comes to shove, I'm a fervent anti-Boston partisan, full of frenzy and bile. My prejudice is abstract, persistent, and yes, even fulfilling. To borrow Will Blythe's phrase from his book about the Duke-UNC rivalry, "to hate like this is to be happy forever."
On September 7, 2003, when the Patriots lost to the Bills and the Red Sox fell to the Yankees, Bill Simmons called it Black Sunday. On October 7, 2009, the idea was revisited when the Angels finished their first-round sweep of the Sox and the Broncos beat the Patriots.
Tonight, we could have a milder version of those wonderful days. A Stanley Cup could slip from the city's grasp, and the Yankees could widen their AL East lead.
Rooting for disappointment, I realize, is a bit pathetic. Maybe it's poisonous, and maybe it's a corruption of healthy fandom. Maybe I was a better person before 2004, and maybe I should strive to return to that place of quiet dignity.
Then again, this is Boston. Bring on Black Wednesday.