In January, my wife gave birth to a fat baby girl, and once the initial panic subsided and I stopped gasping at the sight of any suffocation hazard, I started the earnest yet ultimately doomed process of picking a sports team for the two of us to root for. New fatherhood had triggered a variety of symptoms in me, but none quite as unexpected as a rising thirst for some tradition to share. Because I’m an immigrant short on hallowed rituals, I decided that fandom would be our foundational bond, the thing we could talk about in the idle or tense times to come. This might sound a bit cavemannish, sure, but I was raised in a house with a jock sister who wore gym shorts year round and was better than me at everything. Our father had been an accomplished rock climber back in Korea, and after my sister took to it at a young age, they shared in the enthusiastic technical lingo of pitches, falls and gear that makes climbers such tedious company. Sports talk is the only father-daughter bonding technique I know.
The problem was that I didn’t really have a team. When I watch sports these days, I pull for underdogs. But I used to be a Boston sports fan. My indoctrination came at John M. Tobin Elementary School in Cambridge, Mass., and lasted at least through 2004, when Jason Varitek jumped into Keith Foulke’s arms and the Red Sox stormed the field as World Series champions for the first time since 1918. That night I ran out of my studio apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and into the streets. Outside a bar on Broadway, some Columbia students in Red Sox hats were singing ‘‘Sweet Caroline.’’ I joined in and chanted ‘‘Yankees suck’’ — but the long-awaited catharsis never followed.
I’m not fully sure why, but I suspect it had to do with the fact that I don’t really look like a Red Sox fan. This wasn’t a problem during childhood, but once I got to college in Maine, I began to realize that I was a curiosity among the prep-school kids with their very specific assumptions about where Red Sox fans come from. Over the next decade, my hesitation gave way to resentment, and I now loathe Boston fandom for its parochialism, the blathering on about history and the deep-seated belief that rooting for Tom Brady through all the team’s scandals counts as an act of civil disobedience equal to that of those Massachusetts forebears who threw crates of tea into Boston Harbor.
I want my daughter to live without that sort of angst. So even before she was big enough to fit into anything but a swaddling cloth, I bought her a onesie with the New York Mets pitcher Noah Syndergaard’s name and number on the back and decided, somewhat haphazardly, that we would root for the Mets. The reasoning was pretty simple: We live in New York, and I wanted her to feel the sense of belonging to a place that fandom can bring. I limited my search to baseball because it’s the major sport that feels most local, but also because I have no lingering nostalgia for my early days as a Patriots and Celtics fan. And I wanted her to suffer through losing and disaster, because those things, when leavened with perspective, can be funny. When Syndergaard went on the disabled list just days after the onesie arrived in the mail, I thought we were off to a great start.
But a couple of weeks later, I began to wonder why I was letting geography circumscribe my choices. Streaming video would enable my daughter to watch any team’s games whenever she wanted, and online fan communities could provide a moderated alternative to the neighborhood bar. I was remembering how, a few years ago, a friend and Arsenal fan tried to find an English Premier League team for me to support. Because I have no opinions about England or even soccer, really, I told him that I would simply root for the club with the most diverse fan base. When he told me this was definitely Arsenal, though, I balked — everyone I know who roots for a soccer team roots for Arsenal.
So I settled on the place I would most like to visit. Swansea City in Wales has a small surf scene with gentle waves for a kook like me, and a hasty, perhaps misleading Google search suggested to me that there were fewer incidents of racism among its fan base than those of other clubs. That is how I became a Swansea supporter for a very pleasant year, until I stopped caring about European soccer altogether. The idea of Swansea fandom was too abstract: I hold no real animus toward Cardiff City, Swansea’s Welsh rival; my father did not sing Swansea supporter anthems with his father. Self-interest and politics haven’t been enough to make me care.
Then the Los Angeles Dodgers seemed like a promising choice for us. I’ve always loved the faded blue of the ballpark’s walls and the coziness of sitting in the weather-beaten pastel seats in Chavez Ravine as the desert night’s chill rolls into the ballpark. Why not just pick the team that has the best ballpark and that, thanks to Southern California’s large Korean-American population and the team’s 20-year history of signing Korean players, probably has the most fans who look like me and my daughter? I didn’t want her to share the neuroses of minority Boston fans who cringe knowingly when Adam Jones, the black center fielder for the Orioles, gets called a racial slur from the Fenway stands, as happened this spring, and then cringe again when Boston fans and sportswriters come clumsily to their city’s defense.
My parents came to this country as immigrants with a vision of assimilation; our trips to Fenway to see the Red Sox were meant to make me comfortable in American settings where we might be the only ones like us there — and also to normalize the sight of a Korean immigrant and his son cheering on the home team. Since then, I’ve always been drawn to any subculture in which acceptance seems to require no more than buying a T-shirt (hence my Phish and Grateful Dead phases), and while much of my adulthood has been spent questioning my family’s blind optimism about acculturation, I still believe sports are best enjoyed without too much thought.
Choosing the Dodgers felt too considered and preachy. When my daughter is confronted by some future date, boss or stranger with the question ‘‘Why are you a Dodgers fan?’’ I didn’t want her answer to be: ‘‘Well, take a look at this census report. As you can see, more than 100,000 Koreans live in Los Angeles.’’ The only answers likely to make sense — especially if she ends up not caring about sports deeply and wants to quickly move the conversation onto another topic — are ‘‘I was born there’’ and ‘‘My family is from there.’’ My wife is from Newport, R.I., which meant that the only two baseball options for us were the Mets and the Red Sox.
So, at least as long as these things are under my influence, my daughter will be a Red Sox fan as her mother and her feckless father once were. A lapsed tradition that goes back to the mid-1980s — my first memory, as it happens: Paul Molitor, then of the Milwaukee Brewers, hitting a leadoff home run in Fenway Park as my father and I walked to our seats — will be revived and passed along to my daughter. Of course, fandom, like any inheritance, does not have to be accepted or embraced. I can imagine any number of happy accidents or family relocations that might lead to her rooting for the Cubs, Yankees, Mariners or whomever. If that happens, I’ll follow her lead, because my own roots, both in fandom and in the country, are shallow. My own hang-ups have made it difficult for me to fully invest in a place and a culture, and I’m excited about not really knowing where she may take our family. Should she reject the Red Sox and become inspired by the United States women’s national soccer team or the New York Liberty, or even if her interest in sports never goes beyond her own play, and I spend my afternoons driving her from practice to practice, her choices will become our family traditions, and, by extension, her birthright.
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