I’ve never cheered my team to a World Series win

Or: How the complicated calculus of who I root for has blocked the bliss

This might sound strange if you know that baseball teams I have rooted for have won World Series championships while I was rooting for them, but: I have never had the simple joy of rooting a baseball team to a World Series championship.

Please understand: I’m not whining here. I know some people have it worse than I’ve had it. There are Cubs fans, of course. There are lifelong fans of teams that have been around for a lifetime without winning a championship:  Astros, Rangers, Padres, Brewers. The late Expos. Even lifelong fans of my favorite team, the Giants, so decorated in the first half of the 20th century, have never cheered on a World Series winner unless their life has been longer than 60 years and their fandom survived the move west.

I am not a lifelong Giants fan. I’m a convert, so I don’t consider myself long-suffering. I grew up rooting for the Dodgers, and while I missed their mid-century dominance of the National League — I was 3 in 1966 when they won their 10th pennant in 20 years — they did win two titles after I started paying attention around 1969. I’ve also rooted for the Oakland A’s since I moved to the Bay Area in the early ’80s, and they’ve won a World Series in that time. And I picked up the Cardinals as a second-tier sort of team when I lived in St. Louis, and they ended a quarter-century drought during my time there.

But there have always been complicating factors. As great as I’ve had it — and my life as a fan has been a fine, fine thing — I’ve never had that unalloyed joy of rooting the hometown nine through a season to the mob scene on the mound. I’ve got a chance this year with the Giants. First chance in a while. Fourteen strikeouts by Tim Lincecum in a 1-0 Game 1 win. So far, so good. I’m loving it.

Growing up, I lived and died with the Dodgers. I rooted for the Angels too, but they were my B team. That was partly because the Dodgers were better and more glamorous. They were a habitual upper-division club when I came into consciousness as a fan, and you could walk up to TV and B-list movie stars in the stands and get autographs or look into that narrow middle deck to see if Cary Grant was there. The Angels were terrible and nobody famous went to their games. But mostly it was because we lived in Los Angeles, in Dodgers territory. The Angels were that other team out in the suburbs.

Here’s my favorite celebrity story from the stands at Dodger Stadium. Someone in my family, probably my mom, spotted Lew Parker, who, it seems to me now, looking back at it, was kind of standing around next to his seat waiting to be recognized by the people. Lew Parker probably isn’t ringing any bells for you right now, even if you’re old enough to have seen Lew Parker when Lew Parker was somebody, which he only sort of was.

He played Lou Marie, the father of Marlo Thomas’ Ann Marie — she called him “Daddy” — on “That Girl.”

In those days my brother and I would try to get an autograph when we saw someone famous. I don’t remember ever doing anything with these autographs. I never had a collection. I don’t remember ever looking at them or organizing them or having anything to do with them after I got them. It was just a thing we did, an artifact of living on the Westside of Los Angeles. Oh, there’s Peter Graves. Go ask him for his autograph. Half the time I wouldn’t even know who the person was. It was just my mom or dad saying, “Hey, Peter Graves. Get his autograph.” Whoever Peter Graves was, or Robert Stack or someone.

Lew Parker I knew, though, and I went over, chirpy little 7-year-old that I was, and I asked him excuse me could I have your autograph. He was very nice and obliging of course, and he asked me if I played baseball. I said I did. This was my first year of Little League. He asked what team I played for and I said I played for the Minor Dodgers, meaning I played for the Dodgers in the minor division at my league, the little kids.

So he said, “And where do the Dodgers play?” I didn’t answer. I looked out at the field.  I looked back at him. Was this a trick question? “What?” I said, to buy a little time to think. “Where do the Dodgers play?” this wonderfully patient gentleman said. We were at the Dodgers game. I looked at the field again. They play right there, I thought. Are you some kind of fool?

I don’t remember how the rest of the conversation played out, and I don’t remember exactly when it dawned on me that he meant my Dodgers, not the Los Angeles Dodgers. He was asking me where my Little League was. I think I was about 30 when it hit me.

I was 11 when the Dodgers won the N.L. West for the first time, old enough to have lived through some disappointing seasons, battered just enough by fandom to appreciate that a playoff trip doesn’t happen every year. What a thrill it was. Here were the playoffs I’d been watching for my whole life — about four years — and they included, at long, long, suffering last, my favorite team.

It seems silly now that I thought about the Dodgers that way, as some kind of underdog or outsider. I was aware of the team’s history, the Boys of Summer, all those pennants in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, the reputation as the classiest organization in baseball. I knew that a lot of people didn’t like the Dodgers because of all of that.

But the thing is, they hadn’t done that on my watch. The Dodgers I knew had been a whole lot of Andy Kosco and Bill Grabarkewitz and Willie Crawford. They’d win 85 games or so, enough to be a serious wild-card contender now, but in those days good enough for a polite second place,  way out of the money. In 1970 the Giants won the division with 90 wins, and it was sort of embarrassing. This year the Padres won 90 games and didn’t make the playoffs, and that seems so tragic people are talking about expanding the field again so terrific teams like that don’t get shut out.

The Dodgers beat the Pirates in the playoffs in ’74 but lost to the A’s in the World Series. They won the N.L. West again in ’77 and ’78, beating the Phillies in the playoffs and losing to the Yankees in the Series both times. They got  off to a good start in 1981, the great ’70s team probably on its last legs, when the players went on strike in mid-June, just as I was graduating from high school.

The strike lasted two months. Play resumed in mid-August, a few weeks before I went to Santa Cruz for college. The season didn’t seem real. The teams that had been in first place were declared “first half” champions and the remainder of the season would serve as a second half, minor-league style. It was rinky-dink. Fans were bitter. We’d gotten out of the habit that summer. Football was starting. I was going away to college. The hell with it.

This is going to sound crazy today, because I think it was kind of unusual even 30 years ago, but at my rather bucolic college hardly anybody had a phone, and nobody had a TV. In the dorms you had to buy a phone yourself to have one in your room, and maybe one person per floor would do it. There was a house phone in the lobby of each floor, but you could only make campus calls on it. There were pay phones around. The nearest TV was in a student lounge in the next building over. Nobody had one in their room.

Immersed in the beginning of my college career, living in the wilds of the UC-Santa Cruz campus, removed from non-ivory tower/happy hour civilization, I gave the rest of the baseball season a pass. I remember hearing about Nolan Ryan’s record fifth no-hitter weeks after the fact.

Of course the Dodgers won the World Series that year. It remains the only World Series played since 1968 without me seeing a single pitch.

I transferred to Berkeley as a junior. By then I had already dropped the Angels as my second team and adopted the A’s. In ’82 I was spending a lot of time in Berkeley and Rickey Henderson was stealing 130 bases for Billy Martin. Easy call.

The Dodgers made the World Series as big underdogs in 1988. By this time I was in grad school, living like a regular human being, with a phone and a TV and everything. I’d enjoyed the Dodgers’ upset of the Mets in the National League Championship Series immensely. There was just one problem. I’d also enjoyed the A’s win over the Red Sox in the ALCS. Now my two favorite teams were playing each other in the World Series. I couldn’t lose. Then again, it’s not so much fun to win when you’re also pulling for the other side. Ask the Williams Sisters about that.

I remember tuning into Game 1 not really knowing who I’d root for. The Dodgers had always been my Number 1 team, but the A’s had been my local nine for a half-dozen years now. I went to the Coliseum and followed them on TV. The Dodgers were long-distance. It was harder to root for a team, to follow them closely, from another city before cable TV and the Internet. You relied on box scores and game capsules in the newspaper, the very rare TV highlight that showed your team. You might see them play 10 games all year — if you lived in the city of a division rival.

Mickey Hatcher of the Dodgers hit a two-run home run in the bottom of the first inning and ran around the bases clapping his hands. I sort of felt numb. I enjoyed it, but I couldn’t really enjoy it. I’d been hoping my heart, or my brain, or somebody in there would decide for me, would just start rooting one way or the other and I could go with it. But I couldn’t undivide myself. I wanted the Dodgers to win and I wanted the A’s to win too. It wasn’t that I couldn’t lose, it was that I couldn’t win. It’s not a win if you’re not happy about the loser losing.

In the top of the second Jose Canseco hit a grand slam to put the A’s ahead. I knew it was hopeless. Today I think I would just wrench control from myself, tell myself to pick a team, dammit, root for them, root against the other team and shut up. I have more control over my emotions, maybe because I’ve lived through the unnatural act of transforming from a Dodgers fan to a Giants fan. But at 25 I wasn’t in control of much.

A few hours later Kirk Gibson hit the most famous home run I’ve ever seen, and I didn’t know whether to cheer or boo, laugh or cry or wind my watch. It went on that way for the rest of the Series, which, mercifully for me, ended quickly, the Dodgers winning in five in one of the greatest upsets ever, which on the one hand was a thrill to witness and on the other hand I couldn’t believe this 104-win juggernaut of an A’s team I’d rooted for all year, which had rewarded me so handsomely for sticking with them through the lean Jackie Moore Steve Boros Dave Kingman Bruce Bochte days, had gone down so meekly.

The next year, though, I finally had my chance. The A’s were monsters again. They waltzed away with the West, abused the Blue Jays in the playoffs, and who should they meet in the World Series? The Giants! I was not yet a convert. I hated the Giants. This was the pure stuff. An all-Bay Area Series, a remarkable thing, the first one-city Series in 33 years, with a clear hero and a clear villain for me. The A’s stomped ’em in the first two games, 5-0 and 5-1. Yes. This was going great.

Then right before Game 3,  the earthquake hit. Somehow they got the Series going again in less than two weeks, but it was an afterthought. The Bay Bridge was broken. The city was in chaos. Dozens of people had died in the freeway collapse a few miles from my apartment.

I didn’t lose any friends but it was still traumatic. For probably a year after the earthquake, this would happen about once a day: I’d be walking down the sidewalk, and as a car came toward me in the street, I would — involuntarily but vividly — picture it  jumping the curb and plowing into me at full speed. That hadn’t ever happened before the earthquake. It slowly went away.

The A’s dispatched the Giants in the last two games, and I didn’t know anyone who cared.

I converted from the Dodgers to the Giants in 1994, and with the expanded playoffs starting the year after that I had several chances to root for them and the A’s, in that order, in the postseason, but they made only one World Series appearance between them, the Giants’ heartbreaking loss to the Angels in 2002.

The Angels. Hey, I used to root for them. But I wasn’t rooting for them in 2002.

By that time I’d moved to St. Louis and adopted the Cardinals as my third team. I’d had a third team before but it hadn’t mattered much. On a family vacation to Toronto in 1977 I’d been to a Blue Jays game. It was their inaugural year. They were terrible and they played in the corner of a football stadium. I decided on the spot that I would root for the Blue Jays until they won their first division title, which they did in 1985 and that was that. I still have fond memories of Otto Velez and Lloyd Moseby and Dave Stieb and even Danny Ainge, but by the time they won the World Series in 1992 and ’93, the Jays were just another team to me.

The Cardinals won it all in 2006, their first championship in 24 years. I was pleased, but I wasn’t really a fan that night. I could hear the car horns blasting, but I was working, writing my sports column for Salon. I’ve never been one to pretend that I wasn’t rooting for one team or another just because I was writing about them, but when you’re working it’s not the same as sitting in the stands or in front of the TV with your pals.

I’d describe what I did more as pulling for the Cardinals than rooting for them. I wanted them to win because I’d followed them all year, I had met some of the players and the manager, it would be exciting for the town, my friends would be thrilled. But it didn’t really matter. I had other things to think about. If you gave me a choice of the Cardinals winning or the Cardinals losing in a much more compelling Series, I’d have taken the latter. Any sportswriter will tell you: There is too rooting in the press box. You root for the best story.

And now here we are in 2010 and my Giants are in the playoffs. I’m not writing a sports column. I have no duties. I am merely a fan, one who can’t really afford playoff tickets. But the TV’s fine. I’m watching with my 7-year-old son, who’s getting to watch his Giants in the playoffs in his first season of rooting for them. He’s probably thinking it’s no big deal, happens all the time. Last time it happened, he was in diapers. Little diapers.

Maybe we’ll get that thrill together, that uncomplicated charge you get when your home team gets that last out and celebrates on the infield as World Series champions.

At least I think you get it. I’ve never been there.