There is a dirty truth that professional sports keeps hidden from fans. And that truth is: Watching sports sucks.
There is a dirty truth that professional sports keeps hidden from fans, i.e., guys like you and me who spend winter after winter wondering, What if? And that truth is: Watching sports sucks.
By Matt Taibbi
If you actually pay attention to your life as a sports fan, you’ll probably notice, as I have lately, that you spend most of your time trying to cope with the disappointment and shame of (a) desperately seeking an escape from the reality of your day-to-day life through the fantasy of sports, but finding instead that (b) in 99 cases out of 100, you’re spending the off-season nursing agonizing memories of crushing defeats. “Why couldn’t the wind have pushed that field goal a little to the left?” or, “If only Fernando Freaking Rodney hadn’t hung that one slider, the Tigers might still be playing!”
The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who, depending on your point of view, was either the funniest human being of all time or the most relentlessly depressing motherfucker who ever lived, perfectly described the awful dynamic of sports misery well over a century before Bill Buckner. Schopenhauer believed that the essential calculus of existence was skewed toward pain and misery. He constantly chided human beings for their baseless, ultimately self-defeating optimism, which leads ostensibly rational people to voluntarily sign themselves up for the pain of misplaced expectation in addition to the pain they’re already getting in huge doses, just by virtue of being citizens of the perpetual misery factory called Earth.
Happiness and pleasure are the temporary absence of the horrible norm, he insisted. We revel in those moments, but they are fleeting, temporary, and, as it happens, seldom comparable in duration, intensity, or scope to the miserable. If you want an idea of how the pleasure-pain ratio plays out, Schopenhauer said, “compare the feelings of an animal engaged in eating another with those of the animal being eaten.”
It’s hard to think of a better description of a business in which each year, only one team out of 30 or 32 actually wins, while fans of every other team put their hearts and souls into rooting for months at a time, only, when all is said and done, to go home feeling like they’ve had their livers sliced out with a band saw. Losing is a terrible agony, comparable to the experience of that proverbial Serengeti antelope that finds itself being eaten by the yawning and merciless predator that nature has chosen to win — usually the Yankees, incidentally, whose fans experience a merely routine, relief-like pleasure in victory. (“Man, it would have sucked to come up short with our payroll!”)
If you’re a sports fan, the system is set up so that you always lose. In the end, that’s actually what they’re selling you: loss and pain. But you don’t know that, not at first. Because they get you when you’re a kid. When you’re stupid. When you don’t even know what pain is yet.
Here’s how they got me: When I was five years old, my father took me to a World Series game. It turned out to be the greatest baseball game in the history of the sport. No lie, I was really there. Game six, the 1975 World Series, I was sitting in the bleachers, just a few rows above where Bernie Carbo’s home run landed. I remember my father spilling a thermos of hot chocolate on my little blue snow jacket when Pudge Fisk hit his famous homer.
This was heaven — the five-year-old version of being dunked in a vat of pure liquid cocaine and getting a 47-hour blow job from Anna Kournikova. My father could have been Adolf Hitler and Jeff Dahmer put together, could have spent the next five years bringing my mother home human heads in a burlap bag to serve for dinner, and he still would have been okay in my book for having taken me to that game. Years later I would be surprised to learn that the Red Sox ended up actually losing that World Series. Someone forgot to tell me that part. It didn’t matter: I wouldn’t have believed it anyway.
From that point forward, associating as I did sports with extreme happiness, I learned all the worker-elf mechanisms of fandom; learned to study statistics, even the obscure ones (I particularly remember the 406 total bases Jim Rice racked up in 1978); learned to fortify the fan experience with knowledge and expectations. Then that one year, 1978, the Sox finished the regular season in a tie with the Yankees and there was that one-game playoff scheduled at Fenway Park. My father, a reporter, promised to take me to the Red Sox clubhouse to meet Pudge and Jimmy Rice and Fred Lynn if the Red Sox won. Life was awesome! I was going to get another blow job from Anna Kournikova, and this one was going to last forever!
I remember watching that piddly-ass fly ball by Bucky Dent flutter into the nets above the Green Monster — weakly, like a badminton shuttlecock hit the wrong way by a Special Olympian whose coaches still cheered him on for trying hard — and understanding for the first time what life was all about. I felt like I’d had an Amana refrigerator covered in battery acid shoved up my ass. I’d close my eyes, open them two seconds later, try to think about something else. No dice; I’m still seeing that shuttlecock drop in the net, accompanied by that sharp pain in my side.
A month passes. Mom tucks me in at night, tells me some story not involving Bucky Dent, something about crows and pear blossoms and goodness winning out in the world. I’m not listening; I’m thinking about Don Zimmer leaving Mike (86 mph) Torrez in the game too long. I sleep poorly, wake up, hear the wind whistling through my second-floor window, and see Bucky Dent still trotting around the bases with that surprised look on his face. As in, Geez, Matt, do you believe it was me who hit that thing? I’m still as stunned as you are! I was just trying to get the ball in play! Oh, and did you sleep well, you little bitch?
It would be almost 30 years before I understood that while Pudge was the high that set me on the road to being a junkie, Bucky Dent was the reason I stayed one. The pro sports leagues, they can’t sell you the winning feeling every year. They can’t even promise you’ll experience it once a decade, or even in your lifetime — hello, Detroit Lions and Chicago Cubs fans.
What they can promise you is pain and disappointment, and lots of it, lots of watching other cities pick Michael Jordan instead of Sam Bowie, lots of watching other places get Kobe and Shaq, while you get to pin your hopes on a plugger like Emeka Okafor or a discombobulated package of half-skills like Yi Jianlian, who once a month for the next eight years will have “breakout games” of 14 points and six rebounds.
For most sports fans, this is probably your life, and what gets you coming back is the promise that if you keep watching, Yi and Brook Lopez might throw you a win or two over a real team once in a while and that Great Botulinum-Laced Hunting Knife of Eternal Loserdom just might get pulled out of your thorax for a few days. That’s why they sell the pain so hard.
That’s why, Mets fans, they want to get those images of beer-fattened Phillies fans roaring and gloating into the cameras in front of you as much as possible. That’s why you’re still going to see tapes of Luis Castillo dropping that pop-up at least 400 more times before spring training begins. That’s why every day on the way home from work for the next four months you’ll hear Mike Francesa bleating about how Jerry Manuel can’t make a real outfielder out of Daniel Murphy — “He can’t do it, Mets fans, he just can’t do it!”
And you need this why? Because the sharper the pain, the more intense your desire for even a temporary reprieve will be, and come April you’ll be tuning in again for that almost-daily chance at having it all go away for a few hours. Meanwhile, between innings, your local TV network will be selling you lots of shit, including a vast array of very fattening foods that by an amazing coincidence have the curious property of temporarily allaying psychic pain by flooding your bloodstream with temporarily stupefying endorphin-inducing fats and oils.
People who pay attention to these things have long understood that in the non-sports entertainment world, the major media networks want to make viewers feel like shit by constantly bombarding them with images of people who look perfect and have lots of money and no shortage of sexual opportunities. You watch The Hills or Gossip Girl long enough, you’ll buy almost any product they shove at you in the commercial break that promises to make you look, sound, or smell less like your actual inadequate self and more like the preening, carefree spokesmodels you follow on the show.
Men laugh at women for buying Cosmo and Marie Claire and all those other magazines full of pictures of impossibly thin models with perfectly fitting clothes and $1,800 handbags, wondering why the other sex has such a bottomless appetite for self-abasement. Then those same men spend 340 nights a year following, with racing pulses and gritted teeth, sports teams doomed to disappoint them in 98 percent of cases. What we don’t realize until it’s too late is that we are watching the same show. They’re selling us disappointment, and we can’t get enough of it. Just so long as there’s a next year to think about.
This article originally appeared in the December 2009/January 2010 issue of Men’s Journal.