I hadn’t cheered for anything or anybody in three years–since my rejection by the leggy girl–and had even mistakenly come to believe that my new-found restraint was a kind of maturity. Oh, I had had my enthusiasms, but they were dark, the adoration of the griefs and morbidities men commit to paper in the name of literature, the homage I had paid the whole sickly aristocracy of letters. But a man can dwell too long with grief, and now, quite suddenly, quite wonderfully, I wanted to cheer again…
–A Fan’s Notes, Frederick Exley
Today I am inappropriately sad. The Sox lost to the Rays Sunday night in Game 7 of the ALCS, 3-1. This after an improbable, Lazarus-like comeback in Game 5 at Fenway, when the Sox were down 7-0 in the seventh inning and looked, to all intents and purposes, like their season was finished. You could spin their losing in seven as the Sox losing with dignity, but I don’t buy that. A loss is a loss, and it always feels like a punch to the throat.
I say “inappropriately sad” because I am a grownup, and I know cognitively that I shouldn’t feel this way. I’ve also experienced enough heartbreak seasons to have developed a thicker skin, and more than my share of victories to sustain me through dismal moments like today. But, if you’re still reading this, you know that no one watches sports to feel or act like a grownup. That may be the reason why you got suckered into this bipolar mode of existence–to emulate and impress your father, your grandfather, or, in my case, your older brother–and started reading the sports pages when you were eight years old and obsessively tracking stats before you ever learned long division, but that’s not why you stayed. That’s not why you kept watching losing season after losing season, why you persisted in loving a team that didn’t love you back, why you dreamt of winning a Super Bowl even when the only good thing that you could say about your QB is that he also knew how to punt the ball on that inevitable 4th down, why you intermittently believed in the power of prayer, why you didn’t turn the TV off and go to the movies when your team was down seven runs in the seventh inning of an elimination game. Loving a team is, in other words, totally irrational. It is child-like in its devotion. It is a love that clings.
The flip-side of the pain that this irrational love brings you most of the time is the unfettered joy you experience when your team wins. Fourteen Januarys that end with you sobbing uncontrollably on the dusty, dander-coated carpet of your parents’ living room before you get your first taste of victory? Worth it. Nine seasons of getting punked by either the Lakers or the Celtics in the Magic-Bird era before the Big One? Whatever. 86 years of curses, late-inning, pennant-clinching home runs by the opposing team, rollers between the legs, and Game 7 pitching collapses for not one but two World Series sweeps? An embarrassment of riches.
But, as the saying goes, winning isn’t everything. I mean, it is and it isn’t. No one wants their team to lose, because that means they’re a loser, too. But without losing and heartbreak, winning is shallow and pretty, stuff for the beautiful people. It is for those who want courtside seats because it is a place to be seen. It is for bandwagoneers who only want their ride to the championship to purr, and not to hiss, sputter, and moan. It’s not for those of you who have put up with this rambling monologue and are actually still reading, or for me. Because we watch the game to feel something, whether it’s misery or exultation. We futilely scream and convulse in the stands while our extremities go numb from the cold because it often gives us a better high than sex or dope. And we root for our teams, year after year, pain upon pain, with the occasional joy teasing our sorrow just enough to ensure our return, because everything else in life is far more complicated, tedious, and disappointing.
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