Chock Full of Half-Emptiness

 A guy at my office is a sports pessimist.

“Cutler’s terrible,” he says, since we live in Chicago Bears territory.

“Trestman will eat your soul,” he likes to say about the Bears’ new, professorial-looking coach.

He’s hardly alone. Local sports talk radio crackles with fans and pundits pessimistic about every facet of local teams.

“I’ve seen this all before,” a caller said about the Bears’ good start. “8-8 at best.”

One longtime sports-talk host guaranteed the Bears will not win the Super Bowl.

“They just won’t,” he said. “Zero chance. They’ll crumble. Because that’s what they do.”

Some fans always expect the worst. They find joy in unhappiness. Maybe it’s a coping mechanism, built over a lifetime of deflating losses, of watching your team try and fail year after year. For some, it’s been building since childhood.

When I was 6, I rushed home to watch my favorite team, the White Sox, play in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series against Baltimore.

I sprawled out on the living room carpet in front of the television in time to see the final dream-dashing innings, when the Orioles’ Tito Landrum broke a scoreless 10-inning tie by blasting a home run into the old Comiskey Park grandstand. The Orioles went on to win the game, 3-0, and thus the pennant, and continued on to defeat Philadelphia in the World Series. For years, just hearing the name Britt Burns, the Sox pitcher who gave up the home run despite not allowing a run for nine innings, made my stomach turn.

In the Octobers that followed, when other teams faced off for baseball supremacy, my stepfather would shake his head and mutter, “Ah, the Dybber,” then stare off into the distance as he recounted, again, how the Sox’s Jerry Dybzinski helped kill a seventh-inning rally in that scoreless game by running past second base, forcing a rundown because the runner ahead of him was held at third. It was a crucial baserunning error, and coupled with Landrum’s homer, squashed the Sox’s chance at extending the series.

It was my first experience with disappointment as a sports fan. The guys whose pictures I clipped from the newspaper and pasted into a scrapbook, the ballplayers whose baseball cards I collected and whose batting stances I mimicked, had let me down.

The teams I cheer for aren’t too successful. But through it all, I hold out hope that they may someday turn it around. Next game, or next season, they may eventually be on the other side of that crucial play.

Others aren’t so optimistic. Heartbreak is inevitable.

For some perennial pessimists, like my co-worker, the odds are clearly on their side. History tells fans of many teams, especially those chronic basement-dwellers, that this season will be another on the disappointment pile. Recent parity in all pro leagues has changed the game, with more teams than ever rotating into the postseason, dynasties pushed aside by wild card playoff runs and 12-seed upsets. But only one team ends the year with a win, and anything less than a championship leaves plenty of room for disgust and diagnosis and second-guessing. Even the Yankees miss the playoffs.

In this age of abundant commentary – in print, online, on the air – it seems many sports fans have been conditioned to look for flaws at every turn. We’re the hardest on the teams we care about most, and it can be easy to overanalyze every snap and every at bat.

What I don’t understand is why some fans seem to take pleasure in their team’s failure and are convinced things will always go south. Is it fun to think the team is going to fail? Is it a defense mechanism in case your favorite players disappoint? Is it instilled in us to criticize athletes at every turn, egged on by the shouting pundits on TV?

Some fans seem to be building a barrier against that which they cannot control. With no active role in the games they are watching, fans are powerless to affect the outcome. Bracing for calamity means insulating yourself against the emotions that accompany losses. Deriving happiness from the accomplishments of millionaire athletes you have never met can be a dangerous and emotionally precarious proposition.

I think most negative fans enjoy their sports just as much as I do. They just enjoy it differently. They like getting upset. It’s cathartic, a release. It’s harmless to yell at quarterback through the television (unless your kid’s napping in the next room) because, despite what many of us think, he can’t hear us. Neither can the umpires.

I’m not naive. Undefeated starts can lead to stretch run collapses. The bullpen – you just feel it – is going to implode. Your team will inevitably screw it up. More than likely, your team will disappoint at least as much as they win.

Growing up with a team and sticking with them, never abandoning an allegiance, never switching when the going gets tough, never succumbing to the temptation to root for another city’s winning team, even when you move there, links you more strongly to a squad. If you’ve become accustomed to losing and the choking in the clutch, you’re conditioned to expect it’s going to happen again.

As a kid, my favorite team’s losses sent me into a funk, sometimes for days. I sulked and obsessed over games. Now I tend to look for the positives amid the tattered roster or the squandered season. Perhaps it’s finally realizing that I enjoy watching sports even if my team loses, that part of the fun can be that the guys I root for never seem to make it over the top. Maybe I’m closer to pessimist territory than I think. Of course, it’s often depressing and maddening when they lose. I swear more than I should and occasionally throw things. But the cloud lifts more quickly.

Part of that is shaped by 2005, when I cried (yes, I cried, both after the final out and during the championship parade) when the Sox finally won the Series. It was the South Siders’ first title in 88 years, a fact that often gets lost in the celebrated failures on the North Side of town. The next week, though, when the giddiness wore off, I knew it didn’t really affect my day-to-day life, my job, my bills or my long-term happiness. As a spectator, I was emotionally invested in something that didn’t directly involve me, even if I could buy a championship T-shirt and brag to Cubs fans family and friends.

Unpacking boxes of sports memorabilia during one of our recent moves, I found the daily journal I kept — in a little green spiral notebook — of every Sox game of the 1991 season, complete with recap and commentary. I was both amused and disturbed by my level of involvement, the all caps passages expressing frustration or elation.

I still chronicle Sox and Bears results on team schedules I hang up at work. Heck, one recent season I kept track of DePaul basketball results until I finally crumpled up the schedule instead of writing the 17th straight “L.” But I’d like to think I’ve changed as I’ve gotten older. Events of real life occur to push spectator sports to the background, especially when I became a father.

I care about my favorite teams, and set aside countless hours to watch, listen to and read about the games and the off-season maneuvering. I attend games in person as much as I can, where I can’t stop myself from heckling Adam Dunn and players who don’t hustle down the line. Yet I’m rarely devastated when my guys lose, because I can’t change the outcome.

The Bears can still make the playoffs, I tell myself. Really, they can. At least I told myself that until Sunday’s second quarter.

Now, dammit, Cutler’s out for at least a month. And the defense — with or without leading linebacker Lance Briggs, also injured Sunday and off the field for weeks — can’t stop anyone.

Pessimists across Chicago are smirking.

Patrick M. O’Connell is an award-winning writer and editor who has covered news and sports for publications throughout the Midwest since 1998. One of these days, he might actually win a fantasy baseball league. You can follow him on Twitter @pmocwriter.

There’s no crying in baseball.

Go Bucs.

MattO    Oct 25, 10:39 AM    #

Double Garcia’s and a trio of Cubans! Things will get better!
Wood!

— MikeM    Oct 25, 10:49 AM    #

So this is how I was able to kind-of, sort-of get you to root for the Blues.

Greg    Oct 25, 10:53 AM    #

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