Who is America's Team?
With Independence Day upon us, and baseball as red, white and blue as mom and apple pie, inquiring minds wish to know...
Who is now America's Team?
The Braves claimed that title for years, even though they didn't deserve it, with mostly Dale Murphy, and hardly anybody else worth mentioning, dominating the space on Ted Turner's superstation. But then the Braves backed up their bold proclamation with a record 14 consecutive division titles.
Elsewhere, the Yankees always sit near the front of any discussion involving America's Team.
Is it the Yankees?
Or what about the "Nationals," for that matter?
We'll return to those teams, but let's start with Red Sox Nation, because you can't get more American than Boston Harbor, located a few fungoes away from Fenway Park. We're talking about Paul Revere, the Battle of Lexington and Concord, and Carl Yastrzemski. OK, Big Papi, if you prefer, or Ted Williams, if you're into another era.
Even when the Red Sox spent those 86 years through 2004 enduring The Curse of the Bambino, their fans were everywhere. They turned Red Sox road games into home games, and at the same time, they kept Fenway Park as electrifying back then as it is now.
You know the Red Sox are prime candidates for America's Team since they lost a World Series that many folks believe they won. Quick, what comes to mind when you think of Carlton Fisk? You recall that guy swinging and then waving his arms frantically for his home run to hit the left-field foul pole at Fenway Park during the bottom of the 12th inning to win Game 6 of the 1975 World Series.
The Reds won Game 7.
Not that anybody remembers.
Now the Red Sox are owners of three World Series championships since 2004, including one that galvanized a nation after the Boston Marathon bombings of April 2013. From there, the Red Sox used the phrase of "Boston Strong" as motivation through October, and that also became the cry of U.S. citizens everywhere.
Sounds like America's Team.
Or maybe it's the Dodgers. Only one team has a player whose number is retired by everybody in the Major Leagues. That's the No. 42 of Jackie Robinson, who, not only integrated baseball when he took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947, but he set the foundation for the end of segregation throughout the country.
See where I'm going? By signing Robinson, the Dodgers became bigger than baseball. Among other things, they became THE team for a slew of African-Americans for a generation.
Then there is that other matter involving the Dodgers: They've rarely been less than good through the decades. They've also kept magic names, ranging from Roy Campanella and Pee Wee Reese to Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale to Fernando Valenzuela and Tommy Lasorda to Clayton Kershaw and Yasiel Puig. Not only that, the Dodgers have expanded their fan base (as in growing as a candidate to take the America's Team title) by spending long stretches based on both coasts. They were in Brooklyn for 73 years before leaving for Los Angeles in 1957.
In contrast, the Cubs have been on Chicago's North Side for 145 years, and stability also qualifies you for America's Team.
The Cubs' ballpark is baseball's Golden Gate Bridge, Rocky Mountains and Washington Monument, rolled into one. It's called Wrigley Field, and it features ivy-covered walls, along with an ancient scoreboard in center field, and organ music from simpler times. The whole thing sits in the middle of a timeless neighborhood known as Wrigleyville, and the place is filled with homes, restaurants, bars and shops.
It is so American.
Just like Red Sox fans, Cubs fans are the epitome of loyal. Just like Red Sox fans, Cubs fans stuff their home ballpark for nearly every game, and they travel like crazy. Unlike Red Sox fans, Cubs fans haven't had a team to end their curse. Instead of a Bambino, the Cubs' curse involves a goat from 70 years ago. They haven't won a World Series championship since 1908, and they've been without a National League pennant since 1945, but America loves the Cubs anyway.
You know how America loves underdogs.
That said, America loves winners even more, which is why the Nationals are flirting with becoming our most cherished baseball team beyond just their name. Courtesy of the extraordinary Bryce Harper and potent starting pitching, the Nationals finally are doing what they were predicted to do at the beginning of the season. They are sprinting away from the rest of the NL East. They won the division two out of the previous three years, and they finished second last season, but they still have a ways to go before they're the Braves of the 1990s.
Those Braves dominated that decade with Hall of Fame manager Bobby Cox, and Hall of Fame pitchers Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz. Third baseman Chipper Jones also starred on many of those teams, and he'll join them in Cooperstown.
It's just that the current Braves aren't in contention for America's Team, because they're in a transitional period.
The Yankees know that feeling. This is their first year without Derek Jeter as their Mr. Everything since 1996. He helped them win five World Series championships. In fact, the Yankees have grabbed more such titles than anybody in baseball (27). They also are the game's most storied team. It started in earnest with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. It continued with Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra and Mickey Mantle. Then, it extended during the pinstriped regimes of Reggie Jackson, Don Mattingly and Jeter -- with accomplished teammates for Jeter such as Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte and Bernie Williams.
Despite no Jeter and a volatile roster this season, the Yankees remain among the leaders of the AL East.
So the winner, and still America's Team... I'm hearing Frank Sinatra in the background.