With the Nationals down 2-0 in their NLDS series against the Giants, I started thinking a little about why we bother to follow sports at all, given the (real, but ludicrous) grief we feel when the team we love happens to lose. Because for almost every sports fan, in every sport, the team we love will eventually lose, so (again: real, ludicrous) grief is almost guaranteed. Every single year. Anyone who is a sports fan with a rooting interest isn’t just actively courting heartbreak, but inviting it to stay overnight forever.
And yet… it’s fun. It’s like a roller coaster. Would you avoid going on a roller coaster just because you knew in advance that you were going to throw up at the end? Yeah, you probably would. It’d be stupid not to. Throwing up is horrible. So not the best analogy. But we do a lot of other things that we know (if only deep down) may or must end up causing us heartbreak, and we do it because we decide it’s worth it. We fall in love, we adopt animals, we build these incredible attachments to things that could be taken away from us. Obviously for the non-deranged, the loss of a potential championship isn’t in the same league as the loss of a loved one or a beloved animal. But it still leaves a hole.
Anyway, I was wondering if there’s a right way to prepare for this kind of potential heartbreak. (And by “this kind” I mean the silly kind that doesn’t really have any lasting impact on my life.) And I think it comes down to hope vs. expectation. Two cliches come to mind right away:
Don’t get your hopes up.
Hope for the best and expect the worst.
Starting with the second one: sounds great, until you realize it doesn’t mean anything. Obviously you aren’t going to hope for the worst, that’s just silly. But if you’re expecting the worst, then haven’t you also kind of deadened your heart? That can’t be the right way to enjoy a game — to already experience the grief beforehand, and just hope that by some miracle it doesn’t come to pass and you’re granted a reprieve. It’s understandable why people do that, I get it, but I don’t think it’s the right way. It’s no fun watching a game like that. And It feels too much like renouncing a drunk friend just because he’s about to get you both arrested, or maybe beaten up. (Or both!) Yeah, he’s awful, but he’s your friend.
The first cliche is misleading, because again: it’s irrational and stupid to not hope for the best. You can say don’t get your expectations up, and that makes a little more sense.
The Nationals, for example, are not likely to come back and win against the Giants. That’s managing expectations. If they lose, it won’t feel like the gut-punch it did in 2012, when they were up 6-0 in Game 5 and our friend started checking her phone for NLCS playoff tickets, thus setting in motion the terrible collapse that followed. It wouldn’t feel like that.
So what to do? Maybe just remember that it could be the last baseball game they’ll play for a while, and try to enjoy it. And keep hoping, even when it might seem ridiculous, even when it starts to seem like simple self-preservation to back away and resign yourself to defeat. Because there’s something wonderfully human (and tragic, and funny) about our ability to not give up hope…
(Also: not quite Shel Silverstein, but in the same spirit from Dumb and Dumber…)
Lloyd Christmas: What do you think the chances are of a guy like you and a girl like me… ending up together?
Mary Swanson: Well, Lloyd, that’s difficult to say. I mean, we don’t really…
Lloyd Christmas: Hit me with it! Just give it to me straight! I came a long way just to see you, Mary. The least you can do is level with me. What are my chances?
Mary Swanson: Not good.
Lloyd Christmas: You mean, not good like one out of a hundred?
Mary Swanson: I’d say more like one out of a million.[pause]
Lloyd Christmas: So you’re telling me there’s a chance…