I watched in only mild misery as The Filth clinched the World Series last night. I married into a Red Sox clan right when Major League Baseball’s Atlantic rivalry axis went nuclear in the middle ’00s, and beyond that I yield to no man in my longstanding distaste for New York’s collection of well-programmed drones. (In fact, back when I lived in Montana—a pro sports neutral zone—my baseball partisanship was mostly defined by opposition to the Yankees.) Still, I’ve always harbored a soft spot for Hideki Matsui. The Japanese totem pole’s valedictory success made the spectacle of his teammates, scampering around “thanking God for the opportunity” and all that shite, very nearly tolerable. The fact that a man with all the expressive personality of a graven stone idol is by far the most charismatic player on this team does, of course, say a lot about the Yankees. But Matsui is a classic player, and hopefully this personal triumph will prompt some halfway respectable club to make him an offer.
I must admit, however, that something about a Yankees championship simply resonates in a way that other teams’ titles just don’t. Hate on the Bombers all you want (and I want to very, very much), but when you see middle-aged millionaires in pinstripes spraying one another with champagne, you know that some serious baseball has occurred. Delirious minions celebrating in the Stadium in the dark heart of a November night evoke the soul of the sport in a way that, say, happy Colorado Rockies fans never could. When the Yankees win the World Series, it just feels real.
And that got me thinking about the perverse power of dynasties. Even if you loathe them, either in general or in particular, great teams become “brands” (in the barbaric modern parlance) that define their sports. There’s a reason why a Celtics/Lakers Finals series means more to the NBA than a Heat/Mavericks series, one that goes far beyond the size of the specific markets involved. Baseball, the sport with the most ingrained history, feels the sway of dynasties more than the other American games. People used to shed croc tears about the inability of smaller-market teams to compete for the Championship, but by now it’s pretty clear that the sporting public at large has a very limited appetite for non-iconic teams in the Series. In recent years, we’ve seen the Astros, Tigers, Rockies and Rays make the Big Show—and no one outside those cities cared.
A comparable phenomenon is playing out in Europe right now. The European Champions League is deep into its round-robin qualifying phase, and a slew of the world’s most famous teams—Liverpool, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Inter Milan—are in danger of missing the lucrative knockout rounds. Meanwhile, complete unknowns like Unirea Urziceni (?) and Rubin Kazan (??) are having a great time and are on the verge of booking their places in the last 16. French teams, whose league is always reckoned just the fifth best in Europe, are kicking ass. It’s a topsy-turvy outlook with two games to go, and some very big fish are going to flop up on the dock of the Europa League, the decidedly second-tier consolation tournament for Champions League losers. And something about that just doesn’t feel right.
Back in the day, the European Cup—soccer’s most prestigious international club championship—was a rollicking instant-elimination shootout. Clubs from smaller and less fashionable leagues—the likes of Ajax Amsterdam or Dynamo Zagreb—could buckle down and win the thing against their better-funded rivals from England, Italy and Germany. So steps were taken to give big clubs more security: the competition was watered-down with second-, third- and fourth-place teams from the major leagues; the straight knock-out format was cushioned with group play to make one-time upsets matter less.
Of course, everyone complained about that, even as the Champions League became a Super Bowl-scale global phenomenon thanks to the near-guarantee of big-name finalists every May. Think what you will of the sporting oligarchy—if you are a soccer fan, a marginal soccer fan or someone who knows a soccer fan, you will turn in to see Arsenal play Barcelona or Manchester United against Chelsea. Like it or not, the powerful draw of soccer’s very small nobility became the Champions League’s draw.
Would a Rubin Kazan final appearance—unlikely, but obviously not impossible—have the same appeal? Or just demonstrate, once again, the sinister psychic power of the most unlovable dynasties?