Newsletter 88: Those Very Special Sports Seasons

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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’s from January 2018, written right before Georgia lost to Alabama in the National Championship Game. The timing seemed right on this one, considering my Blues are now one win away from their first-ever Stanley Cup. I am not as dedicated a Blues fan as I am a Cardinals fan and Illini basketball fan, so if they win, they’d go in at №6 on this list, between the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals and the 2008–09 Arizona Cardinals. If they lose, they probably don’t crack the top 10. Them’s the breaks. Go Blues.

On Monday night, the Georgia Bulldogs will either become national champions of college football, or they will fall short to the hated Alabama Crimson Tide once more. This season, as I wrote in an SoE piece this week, has been a dream season in just about every way for Georgia fans, and no matter what happens Monday, that’s something that doesn’t come along often. In that piece, I tried to nail down recent examples of Dream Seasons — in which every possible thing you could want to happen happens, when all the years of watching your team fall just short and lose pay off for you with everything falling just perfect start to finish — in that piece, and I couldn’t come up with many. A few recent examples:

  • 2017 Houston Astros
  • 2016 Chicago Cubs
  • 2015–16 Villanova Wildcats
  • 2009–10 New Orleans Saints
  • 2007–08 Boston Celtics
  • 2004–05 Texas Longhorns
  • 2004 Boston Red Sox
  • 1999–2000 St. Louis Rams
  • 1996–96 Chicago Bulls
  • 1986–87 Indiana Hoosiers
  • 1985–86 Chicago Bears

I’m sure I’m missing a few, but you get the point. As I put it in the piece:

There are certain seasons that are just special, essentially from start to finish, a team that gave its fans everything they could have possibly asked for at every available opportunity, and did so in a historically breakthrough fashion. Your fans have suffered for decades, desperate for that one season that makes all those years of investment worthwhile. Then one year … everything clicks, everything falls into place, all your dreams come true. It’s the Dream Season. Every year your team wins a championship is in its own way a Dream Season. But the true magnificent seasons, where every week brings more manna from the heavens, where you honestly cannot believe this is happening, and it culminates in a glorious championship … they are rare. They are truly special.

I have written before about my favorite sports teams, and how invested I am in them, and how much I obsess over them every day, even in the offseason, but I have to say: I’m pretty sure I’ve never had one of my teams have one these seasons. I’ve come close a few times. But I’ve never had a year where the team was just special, from the very beginning, and they followed through on that specialness and won the whole shebang. I’ve cheered for champions before. (I am a Cardinals fan, after all!) But they’ve always taken odd routes to the title. Every year they’ve been the team, they’ve fallen short; only the odd ducks, the underdogs, went all the way. I think that’s the pinnacle of the sports fan experience when that happens. I’m still waiting for mine.

Thus, my 10 most satisfying sports fan season experiences, none of which, alas, quite reach the level of where Georgia fans will be if their team wins Monday. As glorious as this has been, though, I have to admit: A Dawgs win would push this team further up my top 10, but probably not the top spot. Passion counts. And while I love this Georgia team, and cheering for this team with my family … they’re not the Cardinals, and they’re not the Illini. There is in fact a limit to my carpetbagging.

Honorable mention: 1983–84 Illini Basketball, 1989–90 Illinois Football, 1998–99 Arizona Cardinals, 2000–01 Illini Basketball, 2002 St. Louis Cardinals, 2003–04 Illini Basketball, 2007–08 Illinois Football, 2012–13 New York Knicks, 2014–15 Arizona Cardinals, 2015–16 St. Louis Blues, 2017 Atlanta United.

10. 1982 St. Louis Cardinals.

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The first baseball team I ever followed and, handily, the first time I ever watched a team I root for win a championship. (It would be the last time for 24 years.) Talk about being spoiled: The first time I’m into baseball, my favorite team wins the World Series. I must have thought that would happen every year. The only thing that keeps this from being higher on the list is that, well, I turned seven years old during the NLCS sweep of the Braves and thus probably had to go to bed about the third inning of every game. I remember Bruce Sutter striking out Gorman Thomas as vividly as I remember anything in my life.

9. 1983–84 Illinois Football.

Still the only Big Ten team to beat every team in the conference en route to a conference championship — and considering there are four more teams in the Big Ten than there were back then, their record is safe forever — the Illini had their own version of a revenge tour that year, wiping out all their hated rivals, including a glorious 33–0 shutout of Iowa that ended with a goal-line stand to keep the shutout. They lost in the Rose Bowl to Rick Neuheisel and UCLA; an argument could be made that if they’d have won that game, they would have been the unofficial national champions that year. I still have an unopened Coke bottle commemorating this season.

8. 2017–18 Georgia Bulldogs.

This is as high as I can put a team I’ve only been cheering for for about seven years, though if they win Monday, they could sneak in the top five. Good heavens, what a year. Even if they win a national championship after this season, it will never be this fun again. This team definitely gets bonus points for being the only one I’ve been able to enjoy every game alongside my sons.

7. 2008–09 Arizona Cardinals.

A team that was better during the regular season than it looked caught fire in the playoffs and gave me three of the most giddy sports weeks of my lifetime. That Super Bowl still kills me, but this season secured Kurt Warner as my favorite NFL player of all time and gave A.J. Daulerio his first tattoo.

6. 2006 St. Louis Cardinals.

If you would have told me at the time that this team would only be №6 on a list like this, I would have thought you were nuts. After all, I got to be in the stadium, with my parents, to watch the clinching game, something I’d never done before and never have since. (The above photo was taken seconds after the final out. I am as fond of it as I am anything on this planet.) But now that 11 years have passed, I can admit: That team wasn’t very good, Jeff Weaver was a fluke, Albert Pujols didn’t even hit well that series and the World Series itself was a bit of a dud. Still: I couldn’t admit any of those things to myself until 2011 happened.

5. 2004 St. Louis Cardinals

Still the best team I’ve ever watched on a day-to-day basis. They were one of those teams that felt like it had a 5–1 lead in the fifth every night. This was also the MV3 team of Pujols, Jim Edmonds (still one of my favorite Cardinals ever) and Scott Rolen. If this team would have won the World Series, it would no doubt be №1 on this list. Alas, it’s difficult to pretend that World Series didn’t happen, and that it ended up being a supporting character in someone else’s big story. When I play the MLB Manager game app on my phone — which I do a lot more than I should admit — this is always the team I play as.

4. 1985 St. Louis Cardinals

This ends the run of Cardinals on this list, but this was a wonderful team too, one that was picked last heading into the season but was the epitome of the running Cardinals teams that typified the whole decade. This team gave us an all-timer Cardinals moment in Ozzie Smith’s “Go Crazy, Folks” homer, but, obviously, what happened with Don Denkinger in the World Series puts quite the cloud over the whole thing. That Jon Hamm still has, and wears, a personalized “DENKINGER 85” Royals jersey is one of my favorite things about him, out of many.

3. 1988–98 Illinois Basketball.

The Flying Illini, Lou Henson’s best team and the reason everyone in my junior high school was pretending to be Kenny Battle pretty much every second until they realized they were too short to play basketball and started bands instead. The Nick Anderson shot against Indiana was maybe the first time I’d hugged my father in years. The Final Four loss was brutal, particularly because they would have wiped out Seton Hall in the title game. I had Stephen Bardo on my podcast once and it was the closest I ever came to hosting The Chris Farley Show.

2. 2004–05 Illinois Basketball.

Unquestionably the most fun college basketball team I’ve ever watched, and it remains devastating to me that they didn’t win the championship. (If they had, they’d not only be №1 on this list, they’d be unimpeachable.) Every single moment of this season was a blast; they’re the epitome of they “they’re gonna win no matter what” team. This was a team so good that Bill Murray jumped on the bandwagon. I don’t want North Carolina’s vacated title. I want this team to have won. I want that Luther Head shot to have fallen. I want one more chance at Sean May. I want this team to be the global legends they should have been. I still dream of this team sometimes.

1. 2011 St. Louis Cardinals

The thing about this team is that for the first four-and-a-half months of the season, they were as irritating a Cardinals team that I can remember — frustrating, counterproductive, LaRussa at his most cranky and self-sabatoging. I actually stopped watching them at the beginning of August; they were making me crazy. But it was only a two-week break, and once they got going, it was Pujols and Molina carrying a team that finally found itself at the exact right time. And then they had the most fun month I can imagine a sports team having, from Game Five of the Phillies series to all the bombs against the Brewers to that World Series, which was the absolute peak of my experience as a sports fan. I will remember the people I watched Game Six with — hi, Dave Holmes! — for the rest of my life. I wish the team hadn’t have been so frustrating for most of the year. But man, did they ever pay off.

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

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