A World Series for the Losers Is Anything But Sad
Baseball, the great Roger Angell once wrote, is “a sneaky quick-change artist,” and this year has brought the biggest switch in decades. They’re calling the 2016 World Series the battle of the Lovable Losers, and I couldn’t be happier. I might not be a fan of either the Chicago Cubs or the Cleveland Indians, but I’m more excited about this World Series than any one since 1983, when my Baltimore Orioles trounced the Philadelphia Phillies. Since then, it’s pretty much been lights out in Baltimore, and the Washington Nationals -- the hometown team that didn’t exist when Washington was actually my home town -- keep getting tantalizingly close, and stumbling at the next hurdle.
So why the excitement? Because both the Cubs and the Indians have hard-earned reputations for losing, and we live in an era that seems only to value winners.
I’ve always had a certain affection for losers, particularly in sports. Turn on a random football or baseball game in which I have no rooting interest, and at once I’m on the side of the underdog. It’s in my DNA. I grew up as a fan of the second iteration of the Washington Senators, who had only one winning record in 11 years before moving on to Texas. When I was a kid, one of my favorite players was Ernie Banks, who won not one but two Most Valuable Player awards while on losing Cub teams. Another was Sudden Sam McDowell, an exciting pitcher who struck out batters in great bunches for Cleveland teams that always seemed to finish with more losses than wins.
I’ve always thought that sports fans come in two kinds. Type A cares only about whether the home team wins or loses. Of course Type A is passionate. Type A’s are the ones who call up sports talk shows to demand that the manager be fired and visit sports sites to scribble asterisk-veiled obscenities about the umpires in the comment threads. Maybe they will perk up and pay attention in October if the Yankees or the Cardinals or somebody else important is in the Series, but otherwise, unless they happen to live in Cleveland or Chicago, for Type A’s this year’s baseball season is over.
The Type B fan loves the game itself -- the slow-burning beauty of a summer afternoon contest, the cleverness of a speedster on the bases, the moves and counter-moves of the managers. The Type B fan respects the hometown team for trying, and remains interested long after that same team is eliminated. For Type B’s, this has been a wonderful year.
As tout le monde knows by now, Cleveland’s last World Series win was in 1948. Chicago hasn’t won since 1908. The last time the Cubs were even in the World Series was 1945, meaning that the games weren’t televised. Fans in both cities have long muttered darkly about curses.
Consider: The Indians last reached the Series in 1997, and actually led going into the bottom of the 9th inning of the final game. They lost. As for the Cubs, in the middle of August 1969, they were in first place by eight games. They wound up losing the pennant by eight games. Nobody had ever seen anything like it.
Nor anything like this year.
Okay, the baseball purist in me has a handful of concerns. Like why on earth we’re playing baseball at nearly the midway point of the football season. Or why we stick to this nutty idea that home-field advantage in the World Series should be determined by who wins the All-Star Game. But never mind. This year’s Series is going to be fun. No matter who wins, or how. The lovable losers finally have their innings.
The term, by the way, was apparently first applied to a baseball team by the estimable Jimmy Breslin in 1963. He was writing about the terrible first season of the New York Mets, who had come into existence the previous year. But he also noted a peculiar phenomenon. There were adults who with perfectly straight face would say things like, “I’ve been a Mets fan my whole life.”
To Breslin, the comment seemed nutty. But I think I know what they meant. The people he met had rooted not for the team but for the concept. They were backing, with passion and affection, the underdog. He had discovered yet another type of baseball fan -- a type whose ranks, I now realize, includes me.
I am pretty sure I have never had occasion to root for either the Indians or the Cubs. Yet now I realize that I’ve been a fan of both teams my whole life.
There’s a memorable Peanuts cartoon in which Charlie Brown, managing his little league team, tries to get them pumped for the new season. “The only thing that matters is to come in first place!” he cries. “No one ever remembers who comes in second place!” To which Linus replies, “I do, Charlie Brown” -- and proceeds to list second-place finishers, year by year.
Well, this year the joke is on all of us. We tend to think of second-place teams as losers. Then we forget about them. But this time around, the teams nobody remembers are finally having their chance. And in a delicious break from the dreary electoral season, everybody seems to be cheering.
Yes, there is a Type C, the casual fan who ignores the game all year but will watch the World Series.
The first World Series game ever held in November was in 2001. Game 4 began on the evening of Oct. 31 and ended at 12:04 on the morning of Nov. 1 when Derek Jeter hit a walk-off home run for the New York Yankees. The start of the Series was postponed that year because of the Sept. 11 attacks.
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