My Mother, the Yankees and Me

It’s not uncommon for presidents to shoot the breeze with the Yankees, but you wouldn’t expect that treatment in Toronto. (via George W. Bush Presidential Library)

There is very little less conducive to sympathy than the appearance of privilege, and the New York Yankees have privilege in excess. They have always been rich, always been successful, always been important— located in one of the world’s great metropolises, beloved of the powerful, wealthy and famous.

The Yankees are the baseball team whose merchandise non-baseball fans wear. The Yankees are a cultural touchstone. They are ubiquitous, seeping into your consciousness whether you want them to or not. Most people have a strong opinion about the Yankees. A survey conducted by FiveThirtyEight found that the Yankees are both America’s most loved and most hated team— and the hatred, it would seem, rather outweighs the love.

The Yankees, however, don’t care how much you hate them. That, for people who hate them, is the worst part of it all: even as you voice your hatred, you are contributing to the Yankees’ Evil Empire brand. They are eternal, inevitable, consuming everything in their path. They have so much history to themselves that they care not for the emergent histories of other teams. They killed the historic 2001 Mariners. They killed the historic 2017 Indians. There are teams who have never won a World Series, who have never even been to a World Series; there are teams whose great successes receive far less media coverage than the slightest movement within the Yankees organization.

As much as it is frustrating for Yankee-haters to admit, then, it really is insecurity that drives the widespread ire. Our favorite teams are parts of our identities as people: we want the team to be recognized because it feels, on some level, that we are being recognized. That someone is seeing us, and telling us, hey! Your team is good! You are good! But watch any baseball broadcast, scan the headlines of any national baseball coverage, and what jumps out at you will be this: the Yankees are the most important team in baseball. Which means that your team, by virtue of its omission, is less important. That you are less important.

I am not a fan of the New York Yankees. I root for the Toronto Blue Jays. This baseball allegiance of mine exists for a variety of reasons, some more compelling than others. There is the geographic aspect, in that I am Canadian, and the Jays are Canada’s Team™; there is the fact that I can go watch my local minor league team, the Vancouver Canadians, and know that my favorite players there might someday play for the Jays. There is the fact that I can share this love for the Jays with my younger brother, and the fact that they employ the player who made me really, truly fall in love with baseball. And, most of all, there is the fact that watching the Jays’ playoff run in 2015 lifted me out of a terrifying, life-threatening depression.

The Blue Jays, suffice to say, are very important to me. I spend a great deal of time watching them, writing about them, reading analysis of their transactions and their performance. I own five t-shirts, and two of them are Jays shirseys. Being a Jays fan is a fundamental part of who I am as a person.

The Blue Jays play, and have always played, in the American League East. As such, the Yankees have always been a direct threat to them. While the Jays languished in mediocrity for decades, the Yankees flourished. While the late Roy Halladay pitched for a SkyDome full of empty seats, no one outside of Canada cared—because the Yankees were playing the Red Sox again. Because the Yankees had Jeter and A-Rod and all the rest. Jays fans lived through the ’90s Yankee dynasty with their team an also-ran, an afterthought, even though they had won back-to-back World Series right before that dynasty began; they lived through two decades of the world barely remembering that the Jays existed. So almost all Jays fans, quite reasonably, hate the Yankees.

I can’t. Because when I think about the Yankees, I don’t really think about the Yankees. I don’t think about the Evil Empire, about 27 rings, about the fact that my team will always be less-than, an also-ran, an afterthought. When I think about the Yankees, I think about my mom.

My mom was born in May 1968, less than two months after the My Lai massacre. Her parents were the children of farmers from a small village in central Vietnam; they were both revolutionaries who had been involved in the first Indochina War, which ousted the French from the country. My grandfather, by the time my mom was born, was a fairly high-ranking diplomat in the North Vietnamese government, and it was by virtue of this that my mom was safe from the carnage that ravaged the country during that decade. He brought my grandmother to Mongolia before my mother was born.

Even then, away from the peril of bombings and massacres, my mom almost didn’t survive. She was born almost three months premature; she spent the first several weeks of her life in an incubator. Back at the home where she would eventually grow up in Hanoi, buildings only blocks away were bombed. At age 17, she was hit by a car while bicycling home from school, and spent yet more months in the hospital. She still has the marks from the surgery that was needed to stop the bleeding on her brain: a scar on her forehead, a gap in the bone of her skull.

It is unthinkable for me to try imagine a life without my mom. But there are so many ways in which her existence is almost impossibly unlikely. She could have been a victim of American bombs, of childbirth, of malnutrition, of a freak car accident. How did she end up here, in Vancouver, alive, with me?

It is a small, stunning miracle that, when I wake up in the morning, I can hear her in the kitchen only steps away from me, humming and washing the dishes. It is a small, stunning miracle that, when I walk to the fridge to get a glass of juice, she will greet me, and say, “Did you hear? Tanaka is staying!”

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

My mom came to Canada in 1995. She was alone, 27 years old, with an 18-month-old child—my older brother. She didn’t know anyone in the country. It was supposed to be a temporary trip, just long enough for her and my brother to get Canadian passports. It was important to my dad, a Canadian businessman who had been living and working in Vietnam for several years, that his wife and child have the freedom of travel afforded by Canadian documentation.

As it turned out, she couldn’t return to Vietnam until 2010.

I don’t know many of the details of what happened with my dad that left my mom stranded in Vancouver. She doesn’t talk about it, and I don’t ask. Partially because I was, until recently, too young to demand such information, partially because I get the sense that it is too painful to talk about. I imagine her, a young woman in a foreign country with a baby, not knowing what is going on, not knowing if or when she would ever be able to see her family again. It must have been terrifying. In a life that had already been so riddled with conflict, with tragedy barely survived, that year, from 1995 to 1996, must have been one of the worst experiences my mom ever lived through.

It was in 1996 that she discovered baseball. It was that year that she turned on the TV, happened to see Derek Jeter and the Yankees, and fell in love—despite never having heard of the sport before, despite having no idea who the Yankees were and what they meant. She signed my brother up for tee-ball, and when my dad was finally able to return to Canada, she got him to explain the finer details of the sport, watching it in rapt attention, until she became more of an expert than he was.

And when she talks about it now, the stories she tells me from that time aren’t about how alone she was, or how hard and scary it must have been. She tells me instead about Jeter and Rivera and Brosius and O’Neill, about Pettitte and Posada and even Chuck Knoblauch.

She remembers, vividly, watching those Yankees teams whenever she could see them on TV. Specific plays live in her memory with vivid accuracy, and she will recollect a pitcher’s windup or a batter’s stance from 20 years ago with astonishing accuracy. She is always excited when I tell her what I know about those players: the stories and stats I’ve read, the games on YouTube I’ve watched.

“You should have seen it live. That was the most beautiful baseball I’ve ever seen,” she says, an excited smile on her face.

There is nothing more frustrating to my mom than falseness. To her, it is the worst trait a person can have, and it is for this reason that she became so disillusioned with the Yankees in the late 2000s. The stories that players like A-Rod and Clemens had used performance-enhancing drugs were nothing less than a profound personal betrayal.

My earliest baseball memories are of watching the Yankees play the Red Sox, sitting on the couch with my mom in 2003 and 2004. I remember how emotional she was. I remember her heartbreak when they lost, and, even more than that, I remember her joy. And even though I didn’t care about the Yankees as much as she did, when she was happy, I was happy. She was my mom, after all.

But as the years wore on, these instances became fewer and farther between. My older brother and I would watch the Jays, mediocre though they always were; in 2007, I became fixated on Troy Tulowitzki and the Rockies, giving me my first taste of real baseball obsession. But my mom had always been the center of my family’s baseball fandom. She was always the most invested, the most energetic. With her less engaged, baseball became less present in all of our lives.

The depression that was waiting dormant in my genes began to manifest itself as soon as my age hit double digits. Then there was an abusive relationship I was concealing from my parents, and the isolation that comes with realizing you are gay and fearing that your family will no longer love you. I became increasingly withdrawn. I felt like I had to conceal myself. If felt that if I talked to my mom too much, she would discover that she hated me.

By 2014, if you asked me if I had ever cared about baseball, I would have denied it. If you asked me to name a player on the Yankees, I would have shrugged.

It was Derek Jeter who gave my mom her love of baseball. In a strange piece of parallelism, it was Troy Tulowitzki—a shortstop who modeled himself after Jeter and took on his number—who gave me mine. Tulowitzki had been the player who stuck in my memory above all others, and the trade that brought him to the Blue Jays in 2015 rekindled my interest in the sport that had once formed such a huge part of my family’s life.

All of a sudden, I had a reason to look forward to waking up in the morning. I would count down the hours until I could come home from work—not so that I could go to sleep or simply have quiet time to cry, which was all I had wanted to do previously, but so that I could watch the Jays. I began to learn about baseball in earnest. I invested my minimum-wage earnings in an subscription and spent my afternoon and evening hours in the living room with my younger brother, watching and talking excitedly as the Jays made a run for the division title.

My mom probably saw more of me that summer than she had for the previous five summers combined. At first, she stayed largely on the margins of my newfound passion for baseball—it had been years, after all, since we’d talked to each other with any real depth or regularity. It must have been jarring to see her distant, unhappy daughter, who’d spent most of the previous two years hospitalized, suddenly out in the open, jabbering about David Price and Jose Bautista.

So she was cautious. She would move around in the background, listening. Little by little, she started to watch, to get involved in the conversation, asking about various Blue Jays: who was good, who was worth talking about.

And then, one day, as the Jays played the Yankees in September, she asked me: “So…how have the Yankees been doing lately?”

I can read and write in four different languages. I don’t know a single word of Vietnamese. I have tried to dabble in it, through various apps and YouTube tutorials—languages generally come pretty easily to me. But it is so different from any of the languages I know. When I try to speak the words, they come out unwieldy and meaningless. I feel like some kind of pretender.

My mom, in contrast, learned English at 18, in Vietnam, from non-native speakers. She speaks with a perfect North American accent. She has better grasp of the language than my Canadian dad.

There are a lot of things I will never be able to understand about my mom. Not just because she’s so much smarter than I am, and not even because there are experiences that she will never choose to tell me about—but because of that invisible separation that exists between generations of immigrants. She may tell me stories of her childhood, of what life was and is like back home. But I have never been there. I have never met her family, I have never experienced her culture, and even if I can afford to go to Vietnam someday, I will be just another North American tourist, visiting for a few days, then going back to my real home. I can’t even say hello to my own mother in the language that she grew up speaking.

This is why I can’t hate the Yankees. The Yankees, as a representative of baseball at large, are a language that my mom and I share. The Yankees helped my mom survive the beginning of her life in Canada, and the Yankees laid the foundation of the love of baseball that would help me survive the mental illness that nearly killed me. The Yankees, for my mom, are baseball. And baseball, with all the love she has for it, is one of the greatest gifts my mom has shared with me.

It is 2017, and the Yankees are great again. They are exciting, and their future looks bright. The Blue Jays aren’t so great, and their future is uncertain, plagued by “if onlys” and “maybes.” This should bother me. And it does, a little bit. This is not to say that, when the Jays play the Yankees, I do not feel a thrill of particular glee when Toronto shows them up—when the camera cuts to the forlorn faces of Yankees fans in the crowd.

But I just don’t hate the Yankees. How could I, when I’ve seen my mom race in from work during the Wild Card game, out of breath, desperate to lay her eyes on the proceedings, yelling that she’s so excited she can’t breathe? How could I when I’ve seen how happy this Yankees team makes her, how her eyes light up at the sight of a Tanaka strikeout or a Judge homer? She keeps telling me that this team reminds her of the teams she fell in love with. Their joy is her joy, too.

The Yankees will always be more important. The Yankees will always be bigger, better, richer; they will always have the history, always the iconic logo, and even though it might take a few more years, they will always win.

And I can deal with that. My mom deserves it.

My mom is keenly aware of how absurd it is to get stressed about baseball. Like, really stressed: the white knuckles, face red, heart-pounding kind of stress. She has high blood pressure, a family history of heart disease; when a game goes south for the Yankees, when Dellin Betances walks in runs or Aaron Judge strikes out with men on, she often wonders aloud why she bothers with this sport. Her frequent habit as a baseball watcher is to proclaim that she’s no longer going to watch the game, and to disappear into another room. I will call status updates to her, and she will respond, muffled by a half-closed door: “Don’t tell me! I’m not watching!”

But she always returns after a few minutes. She loves these Yankees too much to abandon them for long. And when things seem like they have a chance to turn around, as they almost always do, she is just as invested, cheers just as hard— even if it all comes to nothing, and even if the moments of triumph turn out to be nothing but more heartbreak. (At least, as much heartbreak as can be had by the Yankees.)

So she understands how, when the Jays perform poorly, I can get a bit sad, a bit snippy. She didn’t mind that I skipped class in 2015 and 2016 to watch them in the postseason; she doesn’t mind that I monopolize the family TV to watch games, or that I drag us all down to Seattle every year because it’s my only chance to see them play in person. She doesn’t like the Jays much, but she supports my fanaticism. When I sit on the couch complaining as the Jays leave yet more runners in scoring position, she sits with me, nodding in gentle commiseration. When I’m at school or work and can’t watch a game, she’ll text me with updates—“Donaldson just homered,” or “Stroman’s pitching really well!” And even in the offseason, she will listen as I tell her about the latest Jays hot stove gossip, all of the wisps of hopes and trades swirling in the winter air. I’m sure a lot of it is deeply uninteresting to her. She never complains.

All of this is a strange degree of magnanimity coming from someone whose team is a direct rival of mine, and from someone who cares so deeply about that team. It always makes me feel loved, in that specific way that comes of knowing someone is putting your desires above theirs.

But I think it makes her feel loved, too. I think it’s important to her that I love the Jays as much as I do. It means that, in this small way, she’s a little less alone in this world.

“See, I used to think I was crazy,” she tells me. “I thought, why do I care so much about baseball? Why do I get so stressed out when the Yankees are playing? I thought I was the only one in the world who felt that way.”

We laugh about that. Now, at least, there are two of us.

RJ is the dilettante-in-residence at FanGraphs. Previous work can be found at Baseball Prospectus, VICE Sports, and The Hardball Times.
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6 years ago

Joy da-coy (I know, bad spelling). Nice article.

Craig Tylemember
6 years ago

What a great story; many thanks to you and to the Hardball Times for posting it.

6 years ago

Such a natural, flowing writing style. I could read your work all day, Rachael. Thanks for another excellent piece.