Jerry Seinfield famously quipped that allegiance to a favorite professional sports team is no more than rooting for the laundry. He had a point. Given the changing nature of rosters and the sometimes questionable character of the humans who fill those roster spots, the connection between fan and team seems to be more about the uniform than anything else. When Pau Gasol wore Laker gold and blue he was the enemy. In the silver and black of the Spurs he gets my full-blooded support. I doubt Pau Gasol is a different person in this career incarnation, although a training camp with team-first Coach Pop probably opened Pau's eyes to the hipster fraud he suffered under previously; a "zen master" whose peace of mind came only from force feeding the ball to the most selfish, arrogant shooting guard...
I may have gotten off track here. The point is that for a large portion of our population, sports stirs our passion like nothing else. From an entertainment perspective, sports is the original reality show. Ask anybody who has ever been cut from a team what it is like getting kicked off the island and they can tell you. But this reality show draws its cast from superheroes. A couple of years ago I saw Odell Beckham make a catch against the Cowboys that Spiderman would have missed on his best day. LeBron James rising to throw down a tomahawk bears so little resemblance to the guy in the recliner cheering him on that it is hard to see that they (okay, we) are part of the same species, let alone that we are somehow bonded together in a common human experience. All of which describes why we experience the thrill of victory when heroes succeed.
The agony of defeat is something else. If Superman loses to the villain four movies in a row, you are probably not buying a ticket for the fifth episode. Yet, this Sunday, the Dawg Pound in Cleveland will be filled with rabid fans rooting on the only team in NFL yet to win a game. The 76ers won 12% of their games last year; by all rights that show should be cancelled, but it is not. Clearly something powerful glues us to a franchise through thick and thin.
I am no psychiatrist and even if I was, I would be hesitant to ascribe my feelings to every sports fan. I do know, however, that when the Chicago Cubs take the field for the first World Series game at Wrigley Field since 1945, fighting for their first Word Championship in over a century, my heart will be full. While I never lived in Chicago, my family is from a small town not far from the Windy City. Every summer we would visit and I would sit on the patio in the afternoon with Grandpa John listening to the game. He enjoyed an Old Milwaukee Light and or two and I would have my root beer float. Lou Boudreau was the announcer then and he could infrequently say "Kiss it Goodbye" when a Cubbie hit travelled beyond the ivy-covered walls.
In between batters, Grandpa would tell stories about the players, the city and the ballpark. Through his tales, Chicago and the Cubs became a priority for me. Ernie Banks became my favorite Cub when his aging body almost got the team to the playoffs in 1969. One of the top-ten days of my life came a few years later. Grandpa and a friend took my brother and me to Wrigley for a game. I have no idea if the Cubs won or lost, but I can still feel the sunshine and the summer breeze off the lake. I can hear the story about Babe Ruth calling his shot, told with a laugh that said that while the world order demanded the Yankees win, that fact did not shake Grandpa's allegiance to the hometown heroes. Most of all, I can still feel Grandpa's hand on my shoulder as we left the park, steering me through thousands of people who, like me, had their everyday worries lifted away by a game.
Sports can teach so many lessons. Teamwork, perseverance, maximum effort and sportsmanship are all admirable goals, useful traits for life. We learn these things when we play the game. As a fan, however, the lessons do not translate quite as easily. Looking back, I learned two things from grandfather and the Cubs. First, loyalty is a defining character trait and it is not loyalty if you qualify your love based on results. Second, life's experiences are richer when they are shared.
Cub fans are the best example of this ethic. If the team should pull off a Series win, they will be champions for the first time since 1908, when my grandfather was a five year-old boy. But win or lose, Wrigleyville will be alive with people who share something outside of themselves. Those common bonds are powerful precisely because they are built over time and through adversity. In a world divided, we need more in common. In a sour nation, we need more joy.
You can find both tonight on West Addison Street in Chicago. At the first pitch, I will raise a toast to Grandpa John. I haven't decided whether it will be an Old Milwaukee Light or a root beer float.