Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Cheering for the underdog is an underappreciated passion. It's easy to cheer for the favorite, to expect victory, and be disappointed but not diminished in defeat. Easy, but ultimately boring, if you ask me.

There's something special about defying inevitability, though. Even the possibility of that kind of defiance gets me juiced.

As a Mets and Jets (and XFL!) fan, I know all too much about being the perennial underdog and the inevitability of defeat. If the Yankees lose to the Red Sox, their fans can justifiably look forward to next year. Like they did last year when they lost to the Marlins. Or the year before when the Angels knocked them out in the League Championship. Or the year before when the Diamondbacks beat them. And so on...

When it comes to the Yankees, there is no bigger favorite in sports to root against. The NFL has parity; the NBA no longer has Jordan; and the NHL is only worth mentioning because they're sitting it out this season.

"We are not the cowboys anymore — we are just the idiots this year," says Boston's Yeti-lookalike, Johnny Damon. "Cowboy Up!" was one of my favorite slogans ever, political incorrectness aside, and while the Red Sox don't exactly qualify for the David role opposite the Yankees' Goliath, they are definitely the underdog, battling both history and their own self-consciousness. No different from the sense of entitlement many superstars feel, be an underdog long enough and you start believing the hype.

Interestingly, though, while being an underdog can suck, being a fan of one doesn't have to. When the Mets' season falls apart mere days after the trading deadline, it's not quite as disappointing when you're used to dramatic failures. Mets fans expect the worst and appreciate the best. When the Jets start the season 5-0, it's reason for enthusiastic celebration because you know a 5-game losing streak could be waiting right around the corner. Jets fans have had their hearts broken too many times before and know that it's best to simply live in the moment.

Tony Brown posted an article from the NY Times entitled Maybe Red Sox Fans Enjoy Their Pain which offers an interesting theory about fans like me:

People who root for losers also quickly learn how to explain and adjust to failure, skills that psychologists say are emotionally protective...

This ability to consider multiple and combined reasons for failure - of spreading blame, if appropriate - can be especially helpful to people who blame themselves for things they have very little control over. It's a strategy that comes in very handy in other areas of personal life, said Dr. David Zald, a psychologist at Vanderbilt University. For instance, it can help any parent explain to a 7-year-old why her soccer team just lost by five goals.

Finally, supporting a losing team gives fans a psychological trump card. The long-denied supporters of teams like the Chicago White Sox, the Los Angeles Kings, the Colorado Rockies - the list is too long print, but you know who you are - know that one day, their team will almost certainly win it all, and the magnificence of that coming victory grows in the imagination with every blown save, every fumble, every mind-boggling collapse.

They know, too, that the fantasies of this deliverance are so cherished that the championship itself, if and when it happens, may somehow fall short.

The party will end, the curse vanish, and there will be no more heroic striving toward a paradise not yet found, but therefore not yet lost.
While I'm not sure how I'll handle the five goal loss with my kids - I'm as likely to be the parent getting into a fight with the coach - I totally agree with the idea that the "ability to consider multiple and combined reasons for failure" is an invaluable ability to have, if sometimes aggravating to others who lack it.

It can also be an obstacle, though, as the article's conclusion alludes to: "...and there will be no more heroic striving toward a paradise not yet found, but therefore not yet lost."

I've been accused of having a fear of success before, with financial gain typically the definition of success. I don't like playing the corporate game beyond the minimum effort required to survive. It's much deeper than not liking to wear suits or not wanting to kiss someone's ass now and then, though. It's an understanding that success defined financially is ultimately a black hole and, in that regard, I'd rather have never loved than loved and lost.

It's like the short story, The Rocking Horse Winner:

Although they lived in style, they felt always an anxiety in the house. There was never enough money. The mother had a small income, and the father had a small income, but not nearly enough for the social position which they had to keep up. The father went into town to some office. But though he had good prospects, these prospects never materialised. There was always the grinding sense of the shortage of money, though the style was always kept up.

At last the mother said: "I will see if I can't make something." But she did not know where to begin. She racked her brains, and tried this thing and the other, but could not find anything successful. The failure made deep lines come into her face. Her children were growing up, they would have to go to school. There must be more money, there must be more money. The father, who was always very handsome and expensive in his tastes, seemed as if he never would be able to do anything worth doing. And the mother, who had a great belief in herself, did not succeed any better, and her tastes were just as expensive.

And so the house came to be haunted by the unspoken phrase: There must be more money! There must be more money! The children could hear it all the time though nobody said it aloud. They heard it at Christmas, when the expensive and splendid toys filled the nursery. Behind the shining modern rocking-horse, behind the smart doll's house, a voice would start whispering: "There must be more money! There must be more money!" And the children would stop playing, to listen for a moment. They would look into each other's eyes, to see if they had all heard. And each one saw in the eyes of the other two that they too had heard. "There must be more money! There must be more money!"

...Yet nobody ever said it aloud. The whisper was everywhere, and therefore no one spoke it. Just as no one ever says: "We are breathing!" in spite of the fact that breath is coming and going all the time.
I hear those whispers everyday, some days louder than others. I'm not sure if they're real or in my head, though; if my fear of the worst holds too much power over my hope for the best.

So I cheer for the underdog, comfortable in the knowledge that while the worst is likely, there's nowhere to go but up.

[NOTE: I'm not sure how this ended up going where it went, and not even sure it makes any sense, but what I meant to say initially was "Go Red Sox!"]

1 comment:

Dan Diaz said...

Lets put 80 years of history aside for one moment and think back to last week. The Red Sox were favored against the good ol Yanks. So your really behind the favorite. You should be cheering for the Bronx Bombers!!