[Web Special] Ode to Faithful Fans

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As of two days ago the final championship of the decade has been decided. By 11 am today the NY Yankees will parade down Broadway, otherwise known as the Canyon of Heroes, welcomed by millions of faithful Yankees fans. Despite all the big money trades, huge contracts, and inflated egos, at the end of the day, it truly is all about the fans – the faithful fans.

I heard a caller to a popular talk radio show on ESPN, who talked about watching the game with his son. The father was a kid when the Yankees won in 1977, ’78, and then he suffered through the 18 year drought – the longest in the franchise history – where the Yankees did not win a World Series. His son grew up AFTER the teams of the late 1990s, so he knew nothing but Yankee futility. To the faithful fans, the moment it becomes your team is priceless. Yesterday both the father and the son enjoyed the moment like it was their first time – and for them together, it was. (...continue reading)

The Yankees won their 27th championship this year, arguably, because they spent more money than anyone – the way they do every year – and because the pressure is on the Yankee players, manager Joe Girardi, and the management like no other franchise, to not only do well, but to win the world championship every year. Well, they also spent close to 200 Million the year before and did not even make the playoffs. Money does not buy them because championships are earned.

Let’s look at sports' other elite franchises. In the NHL, the Montreal Canadians have won 23 Stanley Cups. The Boston Celtics have a record 17; in the NFL, the Pittsburgh Steelers have won a record 8 Superbowls. Looking at college basketball, the UCLA men have won a record 11 and the Tennessee women a record 8 national championships.

Are those teams like the Yankees?

The Yankees are hated because they have seemingly unlimited cash to bring in big stars: They buy teams and buy championships. The Los Angeles Lakers incur a similar sense of hate; although they have only won 15 NBA championships, they have been in more than any other team, often losing to the Celtics. But the Lakers make off-season moves similar to the Yankees. There was a time when you needed one or two stars in the NBA; now you need three.  Well, the Lakers made sure they had four when they lined up and started this year’s season. The Celtics added Rasheed Wallace with the same in mind.

The truth is that the recipe for winning championships has as much to do with players as it does with management. The key is continuity over decades, and a commitment to excellence — it doesn’t hurt pulling in former players to become part of the management either, which ensures that the winning spirit and energy rolls over from year to year and era to era. Yogi Berra won 10 World Series and caught in a record 75 World Series games, the most of all-time. He was in the Yankee clubhouse when the Yankees won their late '70s World Series, as was Billy Martin. They mentored a young Don Mattingly, who will go down as the greatest Yankee never to win a World Series... but he was the mentor for a young Derek Jeter and that team's crop of 4 heroes. Now you have Joe Girardi, who caught Andy Pettitte in the 1990's dynasty years and took the hook off of his neck for at least another year because he got #27, as promised.

For the Lakers you always see Kareem Abdul-Jabbar hanging around tweeting about the game. He spends time with young players like Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom. Abdul-Jabbar was the consummate winner – anchoring UCLA in its college title years and doubling up with Magic Johnson in the Showtime Era of 1980’s basketball. Speaking of Magic Johnson, he still openly talks about the Lakers as “us” when he comments on a playoff win from the broadcast booth.

Winning franchises create and nurture an attitude of high expectations. It is why my producer here at The Takeaway insisted that the Yankees had better end it with game 6 – the cities of LA, NY, Montreal, and Pittsburgh insist and expect nothing less than the very best from their teams.

So how do small market teams and newer franchises cultivate a culture of winning?

I am a firm believer that it all starts with the fans. When they unequivocally support their team through thick and thin and give them nothing but love, then players will want to play there, managers will want to manage there, and management will feel pressure, not just from their owners but also from the everyday guy or gal walking down the street.

So like the father and his son, and like my dad who could not muster up to watch the games because it was too nerve-wracking, or my mother who woke up to hear the cheering and my brother who called me to share the moment: Here’s one for the Yankee fans and to all committed and faithful fans everywhere! Keep supporting your teams!

I know, I know: In D.C. it is extra tough, with the Redskins (NFL), the Nationals (MLB) and the Wizards (NBA) all having a miserable time just now – but stick by them now, and the winning in the future will be that much better. (Next up for a World Series: the Chicago Cubs. Really, it's time.)