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Sports Then and Now

Buffalo, the Yankees are not Your Friends

Posted on October 20, 2010 by John Wingspread Howell

I moved back to Buffalo after being gone for 31 years. I guess I’m getting old but I don’t remember so much interest in the Yankees back then. It’s probably just that my mind is going. There’s probably no change. But in any case, there are an awful lot of Yankee fans in Buffalo—or else its just an act of support for locally owned New Era Caps that half the millinery products observed in the Queen City have that overlapping NY logo on them.

As someone whose favorite team is whoever the Yanks are playing, call me a big fat Ranger fan at the moment. And since I am a die-hard fan of the underdog, I’d be rooting for Texas even though they are from my least favorite state, and formerly owned by one of my least favorite Presidents, and from a town almost as arrogant and full of itself as the Big Apple.

Despite all of that, though, for the underdog fan, the Rangers cause is the quintessential band wagon to jump upon because this franchise has never won a single championship, either in Washington, or more recently, that other hotbed of corruption and paying to play known as Metro DFW.  So… Senators—Rangers—losers all and always. Until 2010, perhaps. But I digress.

This really isn’t about the Senators/Rangers at all. It’s about Buffalo and how Buffalo is really not and really should not be about the Yankees, New York City, or anything having to do with either one.

I realize they came late to the party, but the Blue Jays should be the MLB team Buffalonians support. According to that famous urban sociologist Richard Florida (from Buffalo, now living in Toronto) Buffalo IS Toronto, and vice-versa. Tor-Buff-Chester, as he calls it, is the fifth largest Mega-region in North America, just behind NY, LA, Chicago and Atlanta. So Buffalo should get behind the Blue Jays, just as Torontonians have adopted the Buffalo Bills as their football obsession. Well—sort of.

And for those who see the Buffalo-Toronto relationship more like North Side-South Side in Chicago, where I spent 23 of my 31 years in exile from Buffalo, then there are a couple of other candidates for Buffalo’s boys-of-summer (and Fall, and Halloween) affections.

There’s Pittsburgh, the quintessential small market, small payroll, live on your 30-year old laurels until the fans stop coming (sound familiar Bills fans) major league franchise.

And if, maybe because of the Steelers and the Penguins, you just can’t stomach cheering for anything that comes in black and gold, there’s the Indians. You know, the team from the city that’s almost as much-maligned as your own town, that Mistake by the Lake, where the river caught fire, that sister in NBA expansion to the good old short-lived but long-remembered and forever mourned Buffalo Braves: Cleveland.

On second thought, Cleveland still has the Cavaliers, who almost won a championship but now no longer have the man who was supposed to bring them the championship, but still, they have the franchise and it will survive the King James version of itself and eventually make another run—or not. And now Cleveland has the Clinic and their downtown looks a whole lot further along in its renaissance than Buffalo’s does, so…

If the Lake Erie down-shore rivalry just won’t let you swear allegiance to the Tribe, then there’s the ultimate cursed, forever star-crossed lovable losers in Chi-town who have something in common with Buffalo sports fans futility and desperation if anyone does.

So now, there should be no excuse for anyone in Buffalo, except perhaps the occasional tourist who doesn’t know any better, to continue to support, root for, identify with, wear the logo-apparel of (New Era or not)… those Damn Yankees.

All joking aside, this is a serious matter. What is the purpose of sports fanship in the first place? It isn’t just about a game played by overgrown, overpaid, oversexed, overdrugged kids. It is a morality play. It is vicarious redemption. It is the oppressed versus the oppressors, David versus Goliath, Robin versus the Sheriff, Eric Clapton versus the Deputy.

And Buffalo, misunderstood, misbegotten, and damn out of luck that it has been for the past hundred years, give or take a decade, is David, Robin, Eric and all the little people. They’re the freaking Munchkins of Munchkin Land, not the Wizard in the Emerald City.

The Yankees and their New York, New York, making it there/making it anywhere town are Goliath, the Sheriff and all his deputies. They’re the Wonderful Land of Oz.

So you can’t be real Buffalo people and wear a Yankee cap for crying out loud! Does David cheer for the Giants? Does Robin Hood wear Nottingham colors?  Does Eric Clapton wear a badge?

Buffalonians as Yankee fans? Talk about identity confusion. That’s like being a woman trapped in a man’s body. Or maybe Chakira trapped in Susan Boyle’s body. But you get the point.

I mean you don’t go to Tavern on the Green and order chicken wings. And I’ll bet you can’t buy a Beef on Weck on the Island of Manhattan. Buffalo may be on the other side of a comma from New York in its address, but it’s on the other side of the universe from New York City in every other respect.

Now don’t get me wrong. I love New York. Love, love, love it. Love the view of the skyline from the Staten Island Ferry (I’m too cheap to take the boat to Liberty Island).  Love the lights, the over-sized surrealism of Times Square, love New York Strip, love the pace, the hustle-bustle, the lions guarding the public library and the lions on Broadway (The Lion King is still running isn’t it?). I love the Donald. I love 30 Rock. I love “Live from New York it’s Saturday Night.”

Overall, New York City is a wonderful city.

It’s a nice place to visit. So is Disney Land. So’s a good strip club from time to time if you’re into that kind of thing.

But Buffalo’s home. It’s where we’re from, who we are and where we end up even if we’ve been gone half our lives thinking we got off the Titanic just in time.

It’s not New York. It’s barely in the State of New York. If it weren’t for the taxes and the government corruption you’d think we were in—I don’t know– Ohio or something.

We’re the upstarts, the underdogs, the also-rans, the city that lost the best franchise the NBA ever had, that couldn’t get a major league franchise even by building a new stadium and out-drawing three major league clubs in the minors—why? Because we were breathless watching Triple-A? No, because Buffalo is probably the only city in the known universe where you can actually convince a hundred thousand people to attend a dozen games or so just to prove you can draw major league numbers so you can get a MAJOR LEAGUE TEAM only to see the franchises go to Denver and freaking Tampa Bay.

We’re the fans that will fill one of the NFL’s largest venues even though we’re the league’s second smallest city, and even though we haven’t seen a playoff game since our teenage kids were born. Why? Not because we’re naïve or stupid and think the Bills have a shot at the Super Bowl when we have a better shot at the number one draft pick, and not because we’re like battered spouses that keep coming back for more even though every time we do we get another kick in the teeth.

We keep coming back because being from Buffalo is a burden we all have to bear.  Whether its sports or real life. We keep coming back to the stadium, the arena, because teams like the Yankees need to be beaten into humility by teams like the Rangers (though it would be more fun coming from the Indians or the Pirates or—my favorite underdog baseball team the Nats).  Because at the Ralph or the HSBC Buffalo gets a shot at humbling somebody bigger, better, richer. Maybe not every day. But on “any given day.”

And outside of sports, it’s the same thing. We get involved in various civic organizations, volunteer projects, and what-not. Like Extreme Home Makeover for instance. It’s all part of the same struggle.

Did you know that the producers of Extreme Makeover Home Edition said that Buffalo was the best place they’ve ever worked—in terms of the number of people who came out to help, in terms of the attitudes and cooperation of the people involved, and in terms of the beneficiary of their project. Mrs. Powell, the new home recipient said she’d refuse the offer unless the program did something substantial for the rest of the neighborhood as well.

ABC had to do a two-hour program that week because in addition to the Powell Family’s much deserved makeover, seventy-some other homes in the neighborhood got help, and they built a new park in the neighborhood besides. That wasn’t the TV people dreaming that up. That was Buffalo people bearing down on TV people. They bowed to the pressure from the Powells and the rest of the locals. They went with our flow. They were New York and they had to bend to Buffalo for a freaking change.

Why did it happen that way? Because being from Buffalo, in Buffalo, being Buffalo in general is a burden. All the momentum is pulling us down. Bills losses beget Bills losses. Bad seasons beget lost decades. The Sabres get to the Stanley Cup Finals, play three over time periods in game six and end up losing in the end to a non-goal.

It’s always wide right, in the crease, somebody else’s (Music City) miracle. It’s a bereft, rotting, weed-begone brownfield of a waterfront that in any other city would be dotted with parks, hotels, luxury condos, and maybe a brand new stadium. If we didn’t all carry Buffalo around on our backs all the damn day 24/7/365-6, the city would just collapse and become Newark– or, God forbid, Detroit.

Yeah, it is important to have some other city we can compare ourselves to, to reassure us we have further yet to fall. But that doesn’t change what’s good about Buffalo, and there’s a lot that is. And it’s America’s best kept secret.

It’s an amazing park system, outstanding architecture, more theatre options than Chicago on a given day, or music. It’s two world class art galleries, an outstanding symphony, more Frank Lloyd Wright than any place outside of Chicago, more days of sunshine than Orlando, and a moment of greatness a hundred years ago where inventions flourished with their inventors, where millionaires were more numerous per capita than anywhere in the world and where the rest of the world came to see how it was done. It was the first city to be fully electrified, home to the world’s largest office building for a time, the world’s largest steel mill, and the world’s best luxury automobile company, just a short century ago.

But that was the high point and it’s been down hill from there. And gravity bears down hard on the backs, the spirits, and the resources of Buffalo and Buffalonians. Still, we press on, like the little boy with his finger in the dike. Like the Little Engine that Could. Like the turtle versus the rabbit. Like David against Goliath. Like Robin Hood. Like everyone who’s ever been up against it.

We press on. We fight. We believe. We carry the city on our backs and refuse to set it down even for a moment, for a second, for a momentary break for fear it will crumble if we let go.

So why would we be Yankee fans?

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