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Staying Loyal to Losers

April 1, 2014

Yesterday, March 31, was opening day for the Pittsburgh Pirates.  And it was quite an opener for the Pirates: a 1-0, extra-innings triumph over the Chicago Cubs.  I only caught one at-bat, but it was the one that counted most: Neil Walker’s walk-off solo shot over the right-field fence.  Here’s the play-call from

It was a dramatic ending to a game between two teams who, historically speaking, are not known for winning.  In fact, in my cultural memory, both clubs are the epitome of doormats.  So let’s talk about that.

The Cubs haven’t even been to World Series since 1945, and the Pirates hold the record for the most consecutive losing seasons in MLB history with 20 (1993-2012).  But despite their lack of success, both the Cubs and the Pirates have maintained loyal fanbases.  Maybe it’s their beloved home stadiums (Wrigley Field and PNC Park, respectively), or maybe it’s that both teams are woven into their cities’ cultures.  Whatever the cause, their fans have held out hope and keep buying tickets.

This loyalty is not something to just brush aside.  Following a baseball team is hard work: 162 games per year, with games practically every day from April through September.  Even when rooting for a pennant contender, it can be a slog.  Hell, watching the highlight reel on ESPN takes effort.  Now try staying involved when the losses pile up and the “games back” number increases.  There must be better things to do with your time.

And when the losing stretches out over years, the effort becomes harder to justify.  Someone my age can’t have many positive memories of the Pirates.  How many events can a young Pirates fan look back on and say with pride, “Yep, that’s my team, all right.”  At a certain point, I’d expect a fan to ask, “Why do I bother?” and look for another team.  Or just tune out entirely.

I’m not completely foreign to supporting losers.  Not in baseball, mind.  Though I’ve been living in Pittsburgh, I’m still a Yankees fan.  (Okay, yes, they’re not nearly as good as they were a decade ago, but at worst they’ve been “decent”).

I’m talking about the NFL here, because I root for the St. Louis Rams.

I really have just one good memory as a Rams’ fan: Super XXXIV, their 20-16 win over the Tennessee Titans.  Granted, that one game has multiple good memories: Kurt Warner’s go-ahead TD to Isaac Bruce, Mike Jones’ tackle at the 1-yard line, etc.  But that was also my first year watching football.  It’s all been downhill from there.  Following that Super Bowl win came a steady slide to the basement.  They haven’t finished over .500 since 2003, and haven’t made the playoffs since 2004.

If you pressed me for all my memories of the St. Louis Rams, I’d wager 95% of them would be negative–and even the positive ones would be positive only in a relative sense.  I think I better remember Az-Zahir’s muffed punt against the New Orleans Saints in the 2000 NFC Wild Card Game than Super Bowl XXXIV.  The entire Scott Linehan / Steve Spagnuolo era is a blur of utter ineptitude.  Simply winning back-to-back games in 2008 counted as a legitimate achievement.

But I keep watching.  (Well, listening on the radio, but the point stands.)  And I don’t have the possible explanations that Pirates and Cubs fans might have.  I’m not from anywhere near St. Louis, so it’s not woven into my cultural DNA.  I’m surrounded by teams that have accomplished much more, more recently.  They just don’t attract me the way that the now-mediocre Rams do.

I have no rational explanation for why I or anyone else remains loyal to that kind of loser.  Sure, there’s the expected joy when things finally turn around, but habit causes us to believe what was true in the past will be true in the future.  In others words, why not believe the Cubs will always be pathetic and the Rams will be tedious-if-not-pathetic?

There may be ethical reasons at play.  Our society holds loyalty to a cause as a virtue, and switching team allegiances–especially to a winning team–is often framed in terms of treason.  But what I call “loyalty”, someone else may call “stubbornness.”  And the choice of favorite sports team is so minor that framing the choice in terms of a moral imperative sound ludicrous.

We fans of losing sides could just be mad.  But who knows?  Maybe this is the year…


From → Sports & Games

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