Newsletter 58: The Torture of Sports Fandom

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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 June 2017, about the cruelty of sports fandom. In the wake of Georgia’s loss in the SEC Championship Game last Saturday, it feels relevant.

I have been on a family vacation in Folly Beach, South Carolina all week, awash in those fleeting moments where my children still enjoy our company and still need things from us and still are present before they grow up and run away and construct their lives in quiet opposition to our own and only call us when we can’t figure out how to use a certain piece of new technology so they can feel so much smarter than their dumb old moron parents. I have also been watching the news, in which every day brings another reminder that we have elected a con man — a lousy con man at that — to be the public representative and leader of a country that I still do love very much in spite of the current insanity. I have also tried to take some time away from the daily toil, to both improve and expand my work, to figure out what the next big project is going to be. This has been a week built to have some quiet reflection, to genuflect on this grand world and my own place in it.

Yet through all this, all I can think about is how the St. Louis Cardinals lost seven in a row.

I’ve written about fandom my entire career — I’ve always argued that fandom is, essentially, my beat — but it never fails to surprise me on the regular nonetheless. When you follow a sports team, you are essentially giving yourself, and your well being, and your general worldview, over to a bunch of strangers who do not know you and do not care about you. When the Cardinals (or the Illini, or the Knicks) win, I am happy, and when they lose, I am sad. I have written that line many times in my writing career, but it never stops being true. On my wedding day seven years ago, as I stood up waiting for my wife to come down the aisle, I made eye contact with my father in the front row. He made the motion of a player getting a base hit, and mouthed “Rasmus.” Colby Rasmus had just hit a walkoff single to beat the Brewers in a game I’d been tracking on my phone all day; I’d only put it away because the ceremony was about to start. I smiled. The Cardinals had won. Now I could get married in peace.

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When your team is winning, the universe seems calm, normal, just, and when it loses, the entire planet is askew and angry and wrong. I can have everything in my life in its proper, pleasant place, but if the Cardinals (or the Illini) lose, it can ruin the whole thing. This has been a lovely week of a family vacation, but that the Cardinals have lost seven in a row makes my mood edgy, nervy and fraught. This is not sane and this is not healthy but I know no other way. It’s always going to be like this.

The worst part is that I’m now taking other people down with me. My son William has woken up every morning this week asking me if the Cardinals won after he went to bed; every time I’ve said they haven’t, and every time he’s frowned and cried, “Why?” (I’ve tried to explain to him “it’s Mike Matheny,” but I don’t think he gets managerial dysfunction yet.) It’s always personal. My parents went to the game against Philadelphia last night, and even though I’d told myself, “I’m not keeping an eye on the game tonight, I’m not letting them ruin another evening of vacation,” knowing that my parents were there raised the stakes: I didn’t want them to be unhappy because of the Cardinals like I was. That the Cardinals finally won felt like my parents being spared the gallows.

(There’s hope for my younger son Wynn. William wanted to watch the Cardinals highlights this morning after their win, and I asked Wynn if he wanted to join us. He turned and matter-of-factly said, “No. I like my cartoons more.” Smart kid.)

I know you probably hate the Cardinals, and I’m not even necessarily sure I blame you for that, but just replace them with your team. Sports give us something external to have disproportionate control over our lives, our moods, our well-being, our connection with others. It’s no wonder sports are often referred to as a religion.

And the worst part is that it’s not just the Cardinals. The Cardinals were my gateway drug to other sports, but that drug was also a virus and now I’m infected everywhere. Here is a ranking of my sports teams, in order of how much they destroy my otherwise positive countenance when they are losing. I have spent far too much mental space determining these rankings:

  1. St. Louis Cardinals
  2. Illinois men’s basketball
  3. Arizona Cardinals
  4. New York Knicks
  5. Georgia football
  6. USMNT
  7. Illinois football
  8. Georgia men’s basketball
  9. Atlanta United
  10. Arsenal
  11. USWNT
  12. St. Louis Blues
  13. Illinois women’s basketball
  14. Illinois volleyball
  15. Georgia women’s basketball
  16. Eastern Illinois men’s basketball
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That’s a lot of sports teams to ruin one’s mood! And yet every single time every single one of these teams do anything, positive or negative, an alert pops up on my phone, and my view on the world is changed. I care too much about this stuff. But I’ll never stop. It’s beautiful outside. My family is warm and happy and near. The fate of our country is at stake this very second. And all I can think about is, “Carlos Martinez needs to shut down the Phillies today.” It’s a curse. Save yourselves.

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