Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Column Thingy #3: Dr. (rooting for the) Story-love OR How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bandwagon

I realized I wasn't a true fan on September 1, 2007. For those who don't immediately recognize the significance of that date - and hell, I had to look it up to know the precise day, so no worries if you don't - we might as well run through my team allegiances, which might make things a bit clearer...

MLB: Cubs
NBA: Bulls
NFL: Bears
College football, not-my-own-college division*: Michigan

*That division is otherwise known as Division I-A. And no, I didn't forget about the name change. I just don't care.

Now, as much as the Cubs' 4-3 victory over the Astros on September 1 was traumatic in its own way (it was a Jason Marquis start, after all), that isn't what I'm talking about. I am of course referring to Appalachian State's 34-32 upset of Michigan, which, if I was any sort of real sports fan, should have been the most embarrassing moment in my real sports fan life. But really, my only reaction (beyond a distinct lack of surprise) was, "Wow...that's pretty cool." I was actually happy - or, if you prefer antiquated nineties slang, stoked - that some I-AA upstart had beaten my supposed favorite college team. Sure, I wished it had happened to some other team, but I was just glad it had happened at all.

I think the seeds of this had been sown in October 2004, back when I was a regular Simmons reader and a true believer in the gospel of grit and intangibles. (It's a dark part of my past, but I won't run from it - Djmmm can vouch for the fact that our first ever meeting in fall 2006 was me arguing A-Rod was crap because he wasn't clutch and the Cubs were somehow jinxed because of bad fielding in one inning in 2003. Now that, my friends, is full motherfucking disclosure.) It's hard to remember now, but back in 2004 Boston was a city of underdogs that the whole nation could root for. I know, hard to believe, but still. And really, by any standard, the 2004 ALCS was just about the most insane thing that ever happened. I can't remember if I was rooting for the Sox because I considered myself a Yankees anti-fan, because I saw the Sox as a decent substitute for my even more woebegone Cubs, or just because I was a gorram adolescent frontrunner. Maybe the last one. I'm trying to be hard on myself, after all.

Anyway, without laboring the point, as much as the 2004 ALCS was arguably the apex of my sports viewership at the time, reading the Simmons columns and watching the SportsCenter highlights made me realize something that really should have been obvious: the Red Sox players and the Red Sox fans were two different groups. As much as Simmons used "we" to discuss the team's accomplishments, that just wasn't the case. I think the crystallizing moment was when I saw the clip of the Sox players celebrating at home plate after Game 4 or 5, with the fans at Fenway in the darkness far behind them. These players had actually done something, whereas those behind had just watched something. And it was then that the slow process that was my ruination as a sports fan truly began. Shit, that last sentence was tortured. Ah well.

In any event, it was then that I realized the Cubs might someday win a World Series, but I never would. The best I could ever hope for was a vicarious thrill, a championship by association. Anyone able to realize this current band of Cubbies has absolutely nothing to do with all the past losing incarnations really should be able to make the next logical steps: the fans don't even have anything to do with the current team, let alone the 1908 crew. So what, exactly, was the point of my blind devotion? What did I really want out of sports? The answer is relatively obvious - I wanted entertainment, pure and simple. Hell, it's the standard line of bloggers everywhere, and with good reason. But I don't think that's what I always wanted.

My teams have reached their respective finals four times in my memory - the Bulls from 1996 to 1998 and the Bears in 2007. I can't imagine more different fan experiences. As an 8-to-10-year-old rooting for those Bulls teams, it really did seem like this was a matter of life and death; I remember Game 6 of 1997 was basically three hours of adrenaline overdose. But the Bears? Well, I guess I was rooting for them...I guess. It was just my luck - and again, Djmmm can confirm this - that I arrived at the (very lame*) Super Bowl party I had chosen to attend about ten seconds after the game started. Which means, as anyone who actually remembers the Super Bowl can attest, I missed the only ten seconds that went well for the Bears, what with Devin Hester scoring a touchdown and all.

*Although really, is there any other kind of Super Bowl party? Frankly, based on prior experience, I'm dubious.

On some level, I was glad the Bears hadn't won. If nothing else, Peyton Manning could never again be considered a choker (or at least that's what I thought), and that had to count for something. It moved the NFL's ongoing story along in a way the Bears winning wouldn't have. I'm not sure, to be honest; maybe it was just that I had already conceded the game midway through the third quarter and spent the rest of the time crafting the perfect Barbaro-related Deadspin comment. Needless to say, I failed. (This was back before I scammed Harper Collins as part of my Machiavellian scheme to get a commenting account, of course.)

But maybe it was just because I didn't feel anything towards this Bears team. Their inconsistency was vaguely cute back when it produced epic comebacks against the juggernaut that is the Arizona Cardinals and resultant Dennis Green rants. As much as I was over the concept of "destiny", I was rather amused by the notion that the Bears might luck their way into a Super Bowl in the most ass-backwards way possible, sort of like the end of Slapshot or "Homer at the Bat" or something like that. I don't want to go too far with such revisionism - I certainly wasn't consciously transforming the 2006 Bears from epic drama to slobs vs. snobs comedy, but by Week 8 I didn't seem to have many other options. By the Super Bowl, it was clear that to root for the Bears was to root for the worst Super Bowl champion in history, sparkly 13-3 record be damned. And as a lover of the great story, I was against that.

And that's really the point. Since I'm now unable to figure out why I should irrationally root for the Bears, Bulls, Cubs, and Wolverines, I've just started rooting for the best story. After all, if sports is about entertainment, shouldn't I root for the most entertaining thing to happen? Boise State, Hawaii, George Mason, the Golden State Warriors, the Atlanta Hawks, and, yes, Appalachian State. These are the teams I've rooted for, if only temporarily. Some actually came through (Boise State, George Mason, the Warriors, Appalachian State), some didn't quite make it (Hawaii), and some probably did us all a favor by merely teasing us (much as a Hawks upset would have been awesome, I dread to think how boring the East might have gotten without the Celtics involved). All of that is easy enough to understand - I love me some underdogs, just like pretty much everybody else, with the possible exception of everyone involved in ESPN. Of course, when you're the self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader, I guess it makes sense to root against the little guy. But I digress.

There are three teams I've recently rooted for that I should probably discuss: the Patriots, the Giants, and the Lakers. Obviously, the Patriots and the Giants are intertwined. During the season, I was more interested in seeing the unprecedented (14 wins is less than 16, Djmmm, and that's all that I mean by that) happen, despite the fact that rooting for that Patriots team seemed even worse than rooting for those early millennium Yankee teams that I so righteously despised. I wasn't really rooting for the Patriots; I was rooting to be an observer of history. But by the time they had reached the Super Bowl, I felt as though the point had already been made. I'll never quite understand why people took the Patriots' loss as evidence that it was somehow impossible to go completely undefeated. All the loss proved was what we already knew to be the case - it is really, really hard to go 19-0 (and don't get me started on 20-0). But the Patriots getting it that far put it squarely in the realm of possibility, however remote. In all probability, by 2040, another team will have made a very serious run at a perfect season. Sure, that's a hell of a long time to wait, but it's awesome to know that it really can happen. Hell, maybe even my Bears will be the team to do it. Well, OK, not really "my" Bears. Da Bears. Yeah, that's what they all say. They all say "Da. "

But what of the Lakers? What of those soft, disappointing, oh-so-European scamps? Entering this year's playoffs, I had no obvious rooting interest, so I just went ahead and hoped for Lakers-Celtics. You know, for history's sake, both of the historic and instant variety. (Yes, I know I just referred to "historic history." I humbly request that you motherfucking deal with it. Oh, and I also rooted for the Hornets.) Even so, for the first three rounds of the playoffs, I wasn't all that bothered by who won as long as the Spurs and Pistons ultimately went down. And then, as the Finals started, for whatever reason, my rooting interest snapped into place - for whatever reason, I wanted the Lakers to win.

I honestly have no idea why. Certainly, I don't consider myself a bandwagon fan. I had no intention of rubbing a Lakers victory in anybody's face (of course, you'll just have to take my word on that), and under no circumstances did I intend to claim anything more than a passing fling with the team. (And, if worst came to worst, I'd just do what Shaq does and pay his women the team off.) As a Bulls fan, I still feel very favorably towards Phil Jackson, but that wasn't enough to make me root for him when I almost gave a shit back in 2004. I dunno.

I guess my point, if I have a point, is that there are thirty or so teams in each of the three (OK, Passive, four) leagues. Only about half of those teams even make the playoffs in a given year (even less in baseball, of course), and of those half are, by definition, gone by the end of the first round. At least 75% of the teams in a given league end their seasons in unequivocal disappointment, and that figure is probably up to 95% these days, seeing how even making the Conference Finals isn't always enough to guarantee continued employment. Unless you're rooting for the handful of teams that have been good for decades, more often than not the season is going to end on a sour note. And for a country that so seems to love happy endings (Casablanca notwithstanding), that seems like an odd arrangement for something that's supposed to be entertainment. That seems all too depressingly realistic to me.

And so that's why I just root for the best and most entertaining story, and why I've made peace with the fact that that puts me on the bandwagon more often than not. I've always got someone to root for come championship time, and with so little emotional investment it's fairly easy to quietly spin a loss and move on. (I belive the words "Well, at least KG finally has a ring" were uttered as I switched over to The Daily Show midway through Game 6.) But there's an obvious downside. The Cubs look to have as good a chance as any to win the World Series this year, and since I no long believe in stupid fucking bullshit like jinxes I've got no problem openly saying they've got a great shot. But, as much as they were obviously not nearly as good a team in 2003 as they are in 2008, I sorta wish the Dusty Baker/Sammy Sosa/Mark Prior brigade had come through (or, if I'm really pushing my luck, that 1998 Wild Card crew). I suspect, as much as the Cubs winning the World Series will entertain me, it won't affect me nearly as much as it could once have. At least back in 1998 and 2003 I was stupid enough to think sports actually meant something.

And I'm still not sure whether losing that feeling is a bad thing or not. Eh, at least I've got Deadspin...

No comments: