Why do legions of fans come back to root for woeful teams year after year?
On the Cincinnati Bengals blog Cincy Jungle, fans are coping with (yet another) losing season. Even more disappointing: pundits had predicted that this year’s edition would finally be playoff-worthy, with ESPN.com calling it “the deepest Bengals team of the Marvin Lewis era.”
After their 4-12 season concluded, one fan fired off an email to owner-in-the-wings Katie Blackburn, who spun off a half-hearted, admonishing response full of clichés and excuses.
Yes, the ineptitude of the front office can drive fans crazy.
So what happens when another fan puts his allegiance up for sale on eBay?
My initial reaction is that this is a joke, a mere means for expressing his frustration over years of football futility.
But if he is serious—well, then this is no fan at all—it’s the histrionics of a person who probably casually watches with very little emotional investment in the outcome of a game, and then formulates this “woe-is-me” shtick to bring attention to himself. After all, he loves sports, hates to see his home team lose year after year, and wants the world to know.
Give me a break.
Sports allegiances are like arranged marriages: you’re born into them, and stuck with them for the rest of your life. So when the going gets rough, prostituting yourself out isn’t an option. In Afghanistan, it’s punishable by death; in the states, we’ll call you a bandwagoner or fairweather fan (OK, you might get the ax if you’re in Oakland).
Disclaimer: I’ve been spoiled. Very, very spoiled. Over the past decade, Boston has produced more champions than most fans get to see in their lifetime: two World Series wins, three Super Bowls, and an NBA championship. I’ve also been on the losing end of a Super Bowl, an NBA finals, and two ALCS matchups—which both came down to seven games.
But it wasn’t always that way. And it didn’t matter when we didn’t win—it only made me want it more.
See, the joy of rooting for a team is all relative. In the absence of a Vince Lombardi trophy or World Series ring, you hold onto moments or the individual performances of players. During the woeful Butch Hobson years, I adored Jody Reed, the diminutive second baseman with the ’70s porno ’stache who happened to be a doubles machine.
From there it was Mo Vaughn, the “Hit Dog”—the first player I truly worshiped, a hulking slugger with the mammoth upper-cut swing that left my 7-year-old self completely awestruck. In 1995, he went onto lead the team to its first division title of my (conscious) lifetime, winning the American League MVP award along the way.
We didn’t win the World Series that year (we were swept by the Indians in the division series). But on that warm September evening when the Hit Dog and a little-known knuckleballer named Tim Wakefield galloped around the infield on horseback, donning flat-brimmed “1995 A.L. East Champions” hats, it was if we had.
Then, in 1999, Pedro Martinez emerged from the bullpen in game five of the ALDS, with a shot back, frayed shoulder, and the game tied 8-8 in the third inning (keep in mind this was the heart of the steroid era). With no control over his fastball or change up, he relied exclusively on his curveball—and no-hit the Indians for six innings to clinch the series.
And I still get the chills when I see footage of Derek Lowe striking out Terrence Long to clinch the 2003 ALDS with a two-seam fastball that started out behind Long, before jutting across the inner half of the plate. Nomar threw his glove up in the air as he giddily sprinted towards the mound, D-Lowe fired off a “suck it” directed at the A’s bench, and I almost choked on a Hot Pocket jumping up and down in my TV room.
No championships, but these were my moments; these players, my heroes.
But when we started getting close—so close, so, so close, when I could almost taste it, it drove me absolutely nuts. Please, God, please let this be the year. I want to feel it. I would close my eyes and fantasize the moment, wrought with emotion, when it would finally happen.
And then it did.
So here I am today, in 2011, with more championships than I could have ever dreamed of, and the future looking just as swell. But a part of me (note: a part) yearns for the years of perennial disappointments: because from this point on, I know none will ever feel as great as the first.
Something’s been lost. Gone are the days of lining up baseball cards on my living-room carpet to mimic the lineups of opposing team, ripping up cards of those players who had especially hurt us in the past. I no longer engage in that ritualistic channel surfing routine where I had become convinced, through some manifestation of the butterfly effect, that I could have an effect on the outcome of games. Those mornings jolting awake upon hearing the thwap of the Boston Globe landing on our front steps at 5:00 a.m., skipping three steps at a time down the stairwell in order to see the score from last night’s game (ah, the days before the Internet)? No more.
I also miss being the underdog, because there’s no greater advantage than going into a game with no one believing in the team except for its players and its fans.
Heading into the playoffs, for the second time in the past four years the Patriots are the hands-down favorite to win the Super Bowl (let’s not talk about the first time this was the case). Analysts have been gushing about it for over a month now—Brady’s having the best season of his career, this is Belichick’s finest work, yada yada—and while I try to remain quietly confident, a part of me is absolutely terrified. To win is to not lose; to lose is to become a team that cracked under pressure and crumbled under the weight of its lofty expectations. I can’t have another 2007. I just can’t.
But I’ll always maintain a quiet respect for the legions of Browns, Lions, Raiders, and Bengals diehards. They say, “You’re worried about losing in the playoffs? Fuck, we’d kill to just be there.” And it’s true—but unfortunately, that’s just the way it is when you’re used to success. I’ve been tested, but not nearly as hard as they have.
Still, I think there’s a common thread among all fans that transcends the win-loss column, whether you’re stuck with rooting for a futile franchise or lucky enough to have a perennial powerhouse. It’s why we stay loyal, and why the thought of changing allegiances on a whim is incomprehensible.
It’s learning how to read by sounding out the names of the opposing teams from the box score in your paper’s sports section. It’s stories about old players and teams from your dad and grandpa. Your first hat, jersey, and favorite player. It’s the first time you set foot in your home stadium, completely blown away by the throngs of cheering fans. It’s the collective grief after another losing season. It’s holding out hope for next year.
Then it’s that first team that defied everyone’s expectations, coming out of nowhere to achieve real success. And then the subsequent anxiety over that first playoff game—as if you were about to take the field yourself—can we really pull this off?
And, knock on wood, when the time comes—trust me, the first one’s always the sweetest.