Sunday, May 23, 2010
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The above video is what sports are all about. It's both heartwarming and heartbreaking—a collection of Cleveland “celebrities” who have to be identified by subtitles (like Peter Lawson Jones, the Cuyahoga County Commissioner, who I imagine does very important work) make a plea to LeBron in song form. LeBron James, in case you didn't know, can choose where to play next year, and if he chooses to play somewhere else than Cleveland, the Cavaliers will revert back to being one of the worst teams in the NBA, as they were before the Coming Of LeBron, and Cleveland will once again become a city without any winning sports franchises. Stripped of the half-sung melody, that song embodies the motto of every poor sports fan in Cleveland: “Please stay, LeBron. Please, LeBron, stay!”
But the fans have no control over what LeBron will do, just like they had no control over the selection of the ever-changing, always-inadequate supporting cast he had for the past seven years. Yet a whole lot of Clevelanders are going to be upset when (if) he leaves, or ecstatic if he stays. This is the problem with being a sports fan, this is why people who don't follow sports are mystified by the whole process: why do we choose to be emotionally invested in something we have literally no control over?
I'm not referring to the individual games, which can be frustrating, exhilarating, gut-wrenching, sometimes even fun to watch. The more maddening thing is the larger games that go on outside of the playing field: the free agent markets and the drafts of the various sports, the hiring and firing of the people in the front office who make choices about the players, the politics and economics of constructing new stadiums, the occasional departure of teams from cities—and in LeBron's case, the departure of a player who basically was the entire team. Franchises are affected for years by these decisions (in the case of a team's moving away from a city, they're literally destroyed), and the fans can do nothing about them.
This is worth complaining about because outside of the NFL--where short careers and a salary cap have made it possible for a team to be very bad, then very good, then very bad again in a short number of years—most franchises are mired in a perpetual slump. Baseball teams like the Mariners, Astros, Nationals (nee Expos), Royals, Rangers, Orioles, Giants, Padres, Reds, Brewers Blue Jays, Pirates, and Indians have gone an entire generation without reaching the World Series, and mostly without hope of doing so. It's sort of weird that the Pirates and Royals still have fans, actually. Why subject yourself to lost season after lost season? In the NBA more teams make the playoffs, but only seven teams have won any championships at all in 26 years—and that's because of the aberrational Mavericks-Heat Finals a few years ago. What is a fan of the Kings or the Bucks or the Pacers to do? Your team is just the guys who the real, actually good teams have to beat in order to play each other in the finals.
There's the pain of watching your team lose on the field, and that's bad enough. (My personal low was watching my Mariners, after winning 116 games in the regular season, lose to the Yankees in the 2001 ALCS. It didn't even go seven games.) But how much worse is it to know that your team is definitely going to lose even before they get on the field? Atlanta Hawks fans know this feeling, as do Kansas City Royal fans. Or if they do win one game, you know that it's a fluke, and the season is going to be another forgotten struggle to reach mediocrity. New York Knicks fans know this feeling, as do Seattle Mariner fans like me.
Fans of losing teams can't even claim to be “cursed” as some of the more famous losing teams in history have claimed to be. The reality is that most of the times, teams are bad for a long time because the people managing them are incompetent. The Knicks' Isiah Thomas years are one example (remember when he gave Jerome James all that money?), but less widely known is the case of Bill Bavasi in Seattle. I won't go through the list of bad signings Bavasi made, but you can read about them here, or just start typing his name into Google and “Bill Bavasi worst GM” will appear as a suggestion.
The Mariners finally fired Bavasi two years ago, but becoming a good Major League Baseball team, let alone a consistently good one, takes a long time and a lot of luck, and they aren't a perfectly managed organization by any means—they still believe that Ken Griffey Jr. is a Major League player, for instance. If I have any hope for the Mariners, it's that five years from now they will make the playoffs and probably lose to the Red Sox and then have their best players hired away by the Yankees. And I guess I also hope they don't leave Seattle and then start winning for another city's fans, the way the Thunder (nee Sonics) did. That's not inspiring. Someone once said, “The sports section records man’s accomplishments; the front page has nothing but man’s failures,” a quote that wouldn't be understood by anyone from Seattle, Cleveland, Buffalo, or Kansas City. Our teams fail and fail again, yet we feel bad each time.
If I wanted to make some broad connections between sports and society, I might note that nearly everything, not just the success of our favorite team, is out of our hands. (The Cold War was so terrifying because everyone on the planet might die for basically no reason at all, and without having the chance to escape. The recent financial crisis is upsetting in the same way—you might do everything right, or think you were doing everything right, and you lost your house or your savings anyway.) But let's keep it simple. Being a sports fan means subjecting yourself to years of rooting for the losing side, opening the paper to sad box score after sad box score, and you hope that your team winning a title will balance it all out. Does it? I don't know and I doubt anyone from Cleveland will know any time soon.