Newsletter 137: How Championships Can’t Help But Lose Their Luster

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I’ve decided to start putting some of the best newsletter essays here on Medium, so more people can read them. You’re still better off just subscribing. This one is from December 2018. I was thinking about this while screaming at the television during the Illinois win over Wisconsin on Wednesday. It’s good to still care.

On Saturday evening, along with more than 70,000 of my sudden closest friends, I watched Atlanta United, my favorite MLS team, win the MLS Cup over the Portland Timbers. I officially was there as a member of the working press — and I did write a piece about the experience — but I would be lying if anybody who saw me there would have thought of me as any sort of journalist. I was cheering for Atlanta United as much as the most diehard supporter, a team I’ve had season tickets for since they came into the league and a team that has taken the league and American soccer by storm. I entered the game through the press entrance, dropped by coat off at my press set and then used my pass to get me into a Mercedes-Benz Stadium club, where I drank vodka tonics and screamed and hugged everyone in sight for the next three hours. This is not particularly professional behavior, I will grant you, and it’s not something I make a habit out of. But I can still squint enough to convince myself it was proper operating procedure. After all, being the sportswriter who approaches sports as a fan first, second and third is essentially what makes up my professional identity. It is very much on brand.

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This is the first championship any of my non-Cardinals favorite teams have ever won. My beloved Illini came so, so close in 2005, my Arizona Cardinals came one Steelers drive away in 2009 and the adopted Georgia Bulldogs obviously just missed in January. Unless you’re counting the USWNT — and you could — this is the fourth time a team I’ve followed and cheered for from start to finish has come home with the trophy: The 1982, 2006 and 2011 Cardinals, and now 2018 Atlanta United. Saturday night was a total joy. I’m still in a good mood about it. But, if you really broke me down on this, I would be forced to admit that it was not nearly as fun as 1982, 2006 and 2011. Like, not even close?

Part of this is because Atlanta United is a relatively new addition to my life: They literally did not exist two years ago. It’s always more satisfying when a championship is a triumphant culmination of decades of frustration and suffering. In 2006, when the Cardinals won the World Series out of nowhere, I’d been watching Cardinals baseball for 24 years waiting for a title. A day I thought might never come had finally arrived. It’s also worth keeping in mind that as much as I like Atlanta United — they inspired that rarest of birds, a Will Leitch Social Media Selfie — I like the Cardinals more. A lot more.

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But it’s not just that. Being a sports fan is about overcoming pain to chase joy: You spend every day caring about a team, for years, for decades, and you hope it will all pay off without any assurance is ever will. If you get that breakthrough moment, it’s what makes it all worthwhile. Millions of dedicated sports fans never get that moment. Browns fans, Bills fans, Indians fans, Orioles fans, Illini fans, they’ll go their entire lives and it will just never happen. So when it does, it’s difficult to ever come back from that. You’ll never get the same high again.

Those moments are so rare. When the Cubs won the World Series in 2016, I know people who woke up their entire sleeping family at 1 in the morning, either in their home or across the country or both, because they instantly knew it would be something none of them would ever forget and they wanted to share it with the people they love. I had Eagles fans who essentially disappeared for a week after they won the Super Bowl last year, only popping up in blurry, gloriously soggy social media posts in which it looked like they’d just climbed up a light pole. There was even a time when Boston sports fans were able to experience actual pleasure.

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But once you’ve hit it, you can’t top it. For me, 2011 might have been even better than 2006, but that’s the exception that proves the rule: That World Series was so insane that it was the platonic ideal of how your team wins a championship: I’m pretty sure it’ll never be topped. No matter what happens, it won’t be that.

And part of this is just getting older, of course. When I was 26 years old, and single, with no family, I could convince myself that all my life was missing was a Cardinals World Series or an Illini national championship. What the hell else did I have going on? My sports fandom was my one connection to a childhood and youth that I was still desperately hanging onto, long past its expiration date. If my fanhood and the success of my favorite teams wasn’t the most important thing in my life, then what was my life about?

You grow up thinking your sports fandom is about you, and then you have kids and then realize it’s about them, and you get old and you realize that it’s really just about connecting you to different points and places in your life. I watch the Cardinals, and I think of growing up, and my parents, and the old Astroturf at Busch Stadium, and riding the two hours to St. Louis on the back of my dad’s motorcycle, and riding in an elevator with Ozzie Smith once, and hugging my parents when I was so lucky to spend that 2006 title in the stands with them. I watch the Illini, and I think of games on WCIA Channel 3 in the dead of winter, and Lou Henson, and Nick Anderson’s shot, and my time in college, and driving all the way to Albany, New York in the Daily Illini car to cover a tournament game, and getting drunk with Kiwane Garris, and that Final Four season of 2005. I watch the Knicks, and I think of New York, and my 13 years there, and the electricity of the Garden, and riding endless subway rides home with the buzzing still in my ears. I watch Georgia football, and I think of my sons, and how much they love Nick Chubb, and their “Goooooooooooooo Dawgs! Sic ‘em!” chant, and how they leap and dance when they score a touchdown, and how William will stay up all night reading the team program if I don’t open the door and tell him to shut his nightlight off. That’s what sports are, and it doesn’t matter, not really, if your team wins a title or not. The journey was the destination all along. What lasts is the sticky film that sports leaves on you that just won’t rinse away.

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A friend who is a Boston sports fan — and remains, somehow, likable and sane — wrote me the other day:

I was at Game 5 of the WS this year with my son, and we saw my/our favorite team win a WS, which is one of the rarest things a sports fan can see. I have also seen my favorite football team win a Super Bowl, on a last-second interception, no less. I’ve seen 4 WS wins and 5 SB wins and an NBA championship and like 4 NCAA Men’s Basketball Championships and like 35 Women’s NCAA Basketball Championships (I’m from Connecticut) and have recently concluded there is nothing left for me, really, in sports. When the Patriots let the Dolphins win that game on 4 laterals or whatever I actually started laughing. That would have destroyed me even like 5 years ago.

He’s right, of course — and what a place to be! — but what matters in that paragraph isn’t the titles: It’s the son. That son will remember parts of those championships, and Tom Brady, and Mookie Betts, and David Ortiz, and Breanna Stewart. But he mostly remember watching games with his dad. And he’ll do it with his sons and daughters, who will think the most important thing is the Red Sox winning a championship until they get older and all they can remember is the games with their Dad, or their Mom. Sports aren’t real life. But they remind us of what is.

My older son William was born on November 21, 2011, precisely 24 days after the Cardinals won Game Seven of that World Series over the Rangers. They have not won a World Series since, which is to say, they have not won one in either of my sons’ lifetimes. I sometimes fear that the Cardinals are about to go on a Cubs-esque century-long drought, and my son, lying on his death bed at age 100, will be telling his great-grandchildren how he is The Great Curse of the Cardinals, how all he wanted was a Cardinals title and he never got one. I hope that doesn’t happen. I hope he and Wynn get one. But that’s not really why they’re watching. And I was get older, I realize: That’s never why I was watching either.

That said: Would I consider bartering my eternal soul for an Illinois men’s basketball championship in my lifetime? I think you know the answer to that question.

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Writer, New York, NYT, MLB, WaPo, others. Founder, Deadspin. Author of four books, with fifth, “How Lucky,” coming May 2021. https://williamfleitch.substack.com

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