If I were a Cubs fan I would wax poetic about the lost cause, generational loyalty and the pleasures of masochism. But I am not from Chicago or from Boston. I do have the experience of hopelessly rooting for the Kansas City Athletics, the worst team in baseball for 15 years, before they morphed into the Oakland power rangers. I have had to suffer through this season with the Seattle Mariners.
Sitting through another awful season and watching your team implode into the second worst team in baseball has not been fun. These experiences reveal for me what loyalty to team and cause mean. Fans have a number of stances to take when all we have is loyalty to a team that is not worthy of our loyalty.
One stance takes perverse satisfaction in just how bad the team is. Bordering on Cubby self-flagellation, I can linger over exactly how the team played 16 games at home without scoring more than 3 runs. This team scored 0 runs in 9 of the 12 Felix Hernandez's losses. The team's incompetence will deny Felix his deserved Cy Young. The team cleanup hitter has hit 25 home runs. The team barely broke the 100 home run mark and stumbles around at 235 batting average. It comfortably snuggles at the bottom of every offensive category in the American league and probably some categories sabermetricians have not yet invented. The bathos mutates to pathos as the team staggers to the last out.
This approach has its rewards but comes too close to home. If our team loyalty does grow from our connection to community, memory and identity, wallowing in how bad the team is borders on self-loathing.
A second stance resembles responding to endless battering. At first a fan gets angry; then makes deals with God to save the team; then goes into denial. A numbness sets in at the endless mistakes and ineptitude. At this point I turn off the sound while watching the games. Later a whimpering acceptance and finally despair set in. The sane fan ends up watching Burn Notice instead of the games.
Even the ritual firing of a manager and staff make little difference and feel as absolutely meaningless as they are. A sort of last gasp attempt arrives with the let's play for the future moment. Fans revel in each single or home run of a future star. Veterans are benched or dismissed, and the entire triple A team seems to arrive and get playing time. More miscues, more incompetence, more abject failure, only this time it can be attributed to growing pains and getting experience so that Justin Smoak or Mike Saunders or whoever we are pinning unrealistic hopes on can be excused. The horribleness at least possesses a meaning; it is prelude to future success. But, to be honest, when you are 28 games behind, on your way to 100 losses, it does not carry much weight.
For me the solution to keep sane and loyal rivets on the islands of excellence and the beauty of the game itself. Granted not much beauty exists on a team this misbegotten, but moments surprise me as baseball always does. However, I had the chance to watch Cliff Lee's laser concentration and exquisite control for three months. He incarnated exceptional pitching. I can view Felix Hernandez' burgeoning greatness and admire his growth, his amazing arsenal of pitches and his ability to stay calm even as his team betrays him night after night after night. Finally, I admire the meticulous preparation and concentration of Ichiro and revel in the precise movement and skill of his hitting and fielding. The exemplars epitomize what the sport can be, and amid the ruin of the season give the team a reason to exist.
At the end of the day, my loyalty resides with the team, but loyalty to the team manifests a deeper loyalty to the game, its beauty and fun and memory.