I’ve never been a huge fan myself, so I kind of hate to admit this, but Jerry Seinfeld has basically become this generation’s Shakespeare. He’s said a lot of things, and a lot of them are brilliant, but they’re heard and interpreted by so many people that eventually, someone thinks of ways to make them even better. So at the end of the day, like Shakespeare, Seinfeld gets credited with saying a lot of things he almost said. One of those things is the concept that, as North American sports fans, what we’re really doing is “rooting for laundry” — a really perfect phrase the origin of which I can’t pin down. Here’s what Seinfeld actually said:

Loyalty to any one sports team is pretty hard to justify. Because the players are always changing, the team could move to another city. You’re actually rooting for the clothes, when you get right down to it. You know what I mean? You are standing and cheering and yelling for your clothes…to beat the clothes from another city. Fans will be so in love with a player, but if he goes to another team, they boo him! This is the same human being in a different shirt [and] they hate him now! Boo! Different shirt? Boooooo.

Seinfeld wasn’t the first to notice the phenomenon, either. Here (courtesy of John Thorn in his excellent book Baseball in the Garden of Eden, which I’m currently reading) is Pliny the Younger, writing about chariot races more than 1900 years ago:

If indeed it were the swiftness of the horses, or the skill of the men that attracted them, there might be some pretense for [the passion of the crowd]. But it is the dress they like; it is the dress that takes their fancy. And if, in the midst of the course and the contest, the different parties were to change colors their different partisans would change sides and instantly desert the very same men and horses whom just before they were eagerly following. . . . Such mighty charms, such wondrous power reside in the color of a paltry tunic!

It was a good observation in 109 C.E. and a funny joke ca. 1995 because it encapsulates an almost universally true, and really bizarre, aspect of spectator sports. As a Minnesota sports fan, it’s not as though Torii Hunter or A.J. Pierzynski were ever my favorite players (very far from it), but it sure became a lot easier to take note of their less desirable qualities once they were wearing different uniforms. It was incredibly easy to hate Brett Favre, until he put on a purple jersey and started winning a bunch of football games. And so on. In almost every instance, we root for “our team” to win, above (and generally to the exclusion of) everything else: the only things that identify “our team” are the city it plays in and the colors of the clothes they wear.

So it doesn’t happen often, but when you find yourself rooting for something other than laundry, it’s worth taking a second and thinking about why. And that happened to me on Friday night, when the Mets’ Johan Santana threw a no-hitter.

See, ordinarily, what happened on Friday night is the kind of thing that would bug me, at least a little bit. The Mets had never had a pitcher (or even a group of pitchers) hold the opposing team hitless for nine innings. That’s a surprising, extremely unlikely thing — Craig Glaser had a good look into exactly how unlikely it was just a few days ago, bizarrely enough — but because it’s a New York team, it had a tendency to get blown way out of proportion. Whenever a Jonathan Sanchez or Philip Humber or Dallas Braden threw one, you’d see some Mets writer or fan making it all about the Mets: “______ effin’ ______ threw a no-hitter, and the Mets have still never had one!” Now, I have nothing against the Mets at all, but that gets annoying. You’ve got the Padres, who have been around for almost as long as the Mets and have never had a no-hitter or (as I discussed recently) a cycle, but you never hear that kind of complaining from Padres fans or writers. Mostly because there aren’t very many.

So ordinarily I’d be rooting against what happened on Friday night, and rooting hard. If you’re going to make that big a deal out of never having one, I’m probably going to hope you never get one. And I would…except that it’s Johan Santana. And I was rooting for Johan to get that no-hitter. I was rooting so hard for Johan to get that no-hitter that I could feel it in my teeth and hair.

I suppose it’s almost enough to explain my affection for Johan Santana just to say that I’m a Twins fan. I mean, he was the best pitcher in the major leagues with the Twins for three straight years (I’ll never completely get over that ridiculous 2005 AL Cy Young vote). But it goes beyond that. For one thing, Santana was born a day after I was in the same year. In 2000, the Twins took him in the Rule 5 draft, and were thus required to stick with him through a 6.49 ERA in 86 innings, and so (as the 4th-youngest player in the AL that year) he was one of the first big-league players I was as old as.

In 2002 and 2003, I was just learning about sabermetric analysis, and he became the subject of a “Free Johan Santana” movement on Aaron Gleeman’s Twins blog, a movement into which I dove wholeheartedly. I remember dragging my wife along to a rather poorly-attended autograph signing of his at a Twins Pro Shop in probably the summer of 2002, convinced he was going to be a superstar; that remains one of the only baseball things about which I’ve been completely right (he was a really nice guy when we met him, too). And it’s not as though you could fault Santana for his departure; he was simply worth more money than the Twins had any business paying him, so he was traded. And it’s not Santana’s fault that the return Bill Smith was able to negotiate for him was terrible, either. Then came the injuries, limiting him to 25, 29 and 0 starts for the past three years, shifting him very quickly from the “likely future Hall of Famer” column to the “hey, remember that guy?” one.

So Santana is a guy I’ve just always rooted for, and always will. He could join the White Sox or Yankees and badmouth Joe Mauer, and other than when he actually faced the Twins, I’d always want him to do well. And so on Friday night, while much of the rest of the baseball-loving world watched the Mets try to shake off a fifty-year bugaboo, I was watching and rooting for Santana. His fastball is down a tick or three from the guy I remember, but the changeup was always the moneymaker anyway, and was as tantalizing and unhittable as ever. When it finally ended, I clapped at my kitchen table and was near enough to tears — not because the team in those particular clothes finally had its no-hitter, but because the guy I’ve always rooted for had been as good as the guy I remembered, and because Friday night was not only a really special, dominating performance, but signified (or seemed to me to signify) his return all the way back from the brink of oblivion.

I don’t know that that’s any better (or worse) than rooting for laundry, really. It just tells me that it’s a lot more complicated than Seinfeld or Pliny want to make it. We root for clothes, sure, and in most cases, it doesn’t even really matter who’s in those clothes. But then we get invested in players and stories, and we root for those players and those stories and we root for laundry. I’ll always root for anyone wearing Twins colors, and against (almost) anyone wearing Yankees or White Sox uniforms, no matter who they are. But that doesn’t quite cover all of it, and that makes our sport and our fanhood just a bit better, or at least more complex, than a stand-up comedian (or a Roman writing about chariot races) can capture.