The Truth of Rooting for a Terrible Team

Fans may not be filling the ballpark right now, but the Rangers are still worth watching (via theterrifictc).

Fans may not be filling the ballpark right now, but the Rangers are still worth watching (via theterrifictc).

Full disclosure: I will never be a great baseball writer. First, like any writer who ain’t Philip Roth, I am not a great wordsmith. Feed my prose into a Sparkling-Prose Detection Machine, and it will cough up “sentence sprawl” and “faulty parallelism” as if they were hairballs made of gibberish.

Second, and more germane to these pages, I am not a great baseball man. Prime among the reasons—and the reasons are more than a few—is that I am a total homer, a partisan, without apology, of my beloved Rangers.

Indeed, while others display the cool detachment of a seasoned reporter, I ponder the various and vibrant options for an Adrian Beltre tattoo. While others perform comparative analysis of release points as they relate to pitch framing, I watch the home team and occasionally adjust my tricolor cap.

Allegiance, for me, is always red, white and blue.

The problem, as every reader knows, is that the Rangers are positively terrible this season, the baseball equivalent of the doormat Washington Generals—actually, the Generals’ B team, with four of its five starters injured and the water boy playing point guard. At this point, I’m surprised the Angels haven’t doused Jim Adduci with a bucket full of confetti and, for good measure, pulled down his pants. Seriously. Feed the Rangers into an Awesome-Baseball Detection Machine, and it will cough up Mike Carp and J.P. Arencibia as if they were hairballs made of a poor contact rate.

The question is this: Why—and secondarily, how—does a fan root for his team when the rooting is paid back with ineptitude? Why—and again, how—does a fan remain loyal, both emotionally and televisually, when clownball is the return for allegiance? What’s the reward for watching games on TV?

For answers, the fan could seek counsel from a Cubs supporter; a century of failure would inform that sage advice. And yet for all their experience with heartbreak, Bleacher Bums still have style on their side. They’ve got Cubbie hipness, the cachet—by now a birthright if not a quality encoded in North Side DNA—that comes with good-natured forbearance and cold summer beer. Sure, they’d trade that lovable-loser crown for a drive down Trophy Lane, but in the meantime, they can bask in the vibe of Wrigleyville. What’s more, the cavalry is coming. Baez, Soler, et al—those dudes are a championship waiting to happen, a Champagne shower in its last oak barrel.

Astros fans? Burdened by six title-free decades, they could give some pointers. “Multitasking is essential,” they might advise. “When watching a game on TV, make sure your time is more productive than our left fielders. Fold some laundry. Do the dishes. If you do nothing but watch the game, you’ll wonder where the time went and also why the dishes are dirty.”

But Astros fans, like Cubs fans, are watching the rise of the titans, studs in team colors, with barely a whisker among them. Bad baseball is forgivable theater, almost endearing, when better baseball is poised to redeem the past.

Oh, and Phillies fans? They have cause for dejection, sure, but a trophy is still in the case. Astros fans can look forward, but Philly fans can always look back. History is a salve to the moment when the moment is grim and empty, which is why, among Rangers fans, the 2011 World Series loss is still such a painful gut punch. The win would have made everything better, even now—a kind of clemency for the inevitable failure that any team suffers, and a touchstone, always reachable, of that one and eternal time.

So, as a Rangers fan, I have carried on with this inquiry: Why? And how?

Answers would come in back-to-back games, bookends in education.

It is the top of the eighth inning of a game at Globe Life Park, home of the worst team in baseball and scene of the action on my Samsung screen—action, I might add, selected as an alternative to the TV show Wipeout, the ideal metaphor for a season that’s far less amusing.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

The Angels are ahead, 2-1, as a certain Mr. Trout steps to the plate. A certain Mr. Trout, with menace in loaded shoulders and with hazards, all kinds, in hands that promise a white-hot swing, is now in the box. Bad news. From my chair I watch, and as I do, I realize that for the first time ever—well, the first among times when the Angels have played my team—I am watching with an unobstructed view. Indeed, in past seasons, I’ve watched Mr. Trout like a wimp watches The Exorcist or like Dad watches Junior in the regional championship game.

I’ve watched, alas, through spaces between my fingers, frightened at the future—bleak, dark, full of frogs and locusts and floods—that his bat surely will trigger, as if Heaven will punish the home team for drafting Purke, Matt, ahead of Trout, Mike, in the first round of the 2009 draft. Thou shalt never forget thy blunder. And here’s another reminder, ya bums. Ka-boom!

In an epiphany born of a million bits of dawning, it comes: I am free. I. Am. Free. For four straight seasons, from the 2010 Series debut to the 2013 play-in ouster, we Rangers fans endured the throat-clenching, vein-constricting angst that always accompanies excellence. Be careful what you wish for, right? Fans of the aforementioned Generals raise no flags, but neither do they curl up and whimper when the game is in its final thumping moments.

Now, I realize, I am one of them, a fan who watches the game and its most entertaining players without pinning joy on outcomes. I can watch Mike Trout without wanting to carpet-bomb the team he represents. When envy is at last overcome, when the ill wishes and voodoo dolls are at last put away, hatred is leavened by your own team’s crumbled fortunes. Why bother with bitterness? Let them have some fun. Hard luck and the truth that followed—the injuries and this awful record—can soften the edges of warlike instinct, call for a mental cease-fire. It’s humanizing. The enemy is no longer foul.

And so I sit and watch. I watch the game’s best player as he settles into the box. And I don’t mind if he hits a screaming missile. True! The outcome doesn’t matter because the game, from the Lone Star side of the field, is almost trivial, a pointless exercise in a nihilistic time. And the score is of no real consequence, honestly, because the season has pulled a Hoffa. It’s gone.

But then again, it’s not. In isolation, the season is meaningless because the team is a trillion games out of first, but its moments still matter because you want to see your guys perform. Even if it no longer kills you when they fail, you want to think—and truly believe—that they are not the second coming of the 1899 Cleveland Spiders, who finished 84 games behind the first-place Superbas. You want to believe that baseball is a thing they’re still good at.

More, when considering a team’s ecology, you understand that every game and every action inside it is a seeding for future growth. Guys don’t arrive fully formed. When Trout hit .220 across 40 big league games as a 19-year-old, he didn’t ace the test, but neither did he fail the audition. In defeat he learned…and now, as the best player in baseball, he stands at the plate.

Pitcher Nick Tepesch, learning on the job and auditioning for a role, gets set to deliver the pitch. Mechanically, the moment exists as it always has: pitcher and hitter, locked and loaded, ready to duel at 60 feet, six inches. But no longer is it freighted with your own hopes and fears. Freed of that old burden, the instant marks the edge of whatever; anymore, it’s not the space of some super-weird experiment, some strange test in which Schrödinger’s cat is named Agony or Ecstasy but certainly not both, not as far as I’m concerned.

Instead, it frames the space where you watch some baseball. You like the game, and you root for the guys who play it. Trout is a beast, and you want to see him discharge that duty with ease, a duty to the talent he owns and to the theater he creates. Tepesch, though older than Trout, is a hopeful contender, and you want to see his dream made real in flesh and victory.

You know it’s not possible, but somehow you want them both to succeed.

Later in the inning, after each player has sort of succeeded—Trout by walking, Tepesch by not allowing a bomb—reliever Neal Cotts is facing the Angels’ Efren Navarro with two outs, bases juiced. In seasons past, anxiety would have proved itself as a tangle of nerves in my gut, but now, relieved of the rule of outcomes, I watch as Cotts works his way to an 0-2 count.

The crowd, as small as it is, is getting loud. Fans have gone to their feet. Suddenly, you can’t deny their honesty. They care. The season is over, but the game is not. They’re rooting for the men in home-team threads, even if those men are in large part a collection of understudies and castoffs who owe their sojourn to a weird run of injuries. But still, the men are Rangers—at least for the time being—and the crowd wants them to win…whoever they are.

Moments later a fist pump anoints their faith—or really, their hope.

You watch, and you have kind of joined them.

In the bottom of the ninth, with the team still down by a run, the crowd begins to chant. The volume is low, the cadence relaxed. The chorale is free of the tension that once crept back from October to fill the August stadium.

Alex Rios rips a single, Beltre another—runners at first and second. Up steps Carp. The moment has a million analogs. Some are heavy with consequence. Others wait for neglect. If not in emotion and memory, all have equal measure in stats. But this one, like the others, has a shape all its own. And when Carp strokes a single to center, the game is tied. You feel good for a guy like Carp, a journeyman who’s just made a nice go of a quick stop. You feel bad for Huston Street, a nice guy. But hey, he’s wearing the other uniform. Here you feel the connection—the reconnection—to the thing that brought you here. Threads of allegiance are dyed.

Moments later, a bunch of men are boys. They are jumping around and laughing. You press rewind and watch the gallery of reactions, all joyous, as Adam Rosales heads toward first on the game-winner. In a minute you watch the interview, usually so meaningless, just fluff.

“There’s nothing like it,” he says. “That’s what we play for. It’s so fun.”

It is the top of the fourth inning of a game at Marlins Park, and Beltre—beloved muse of potential tattoos—is batting. As is so often the case this season, he is batting in an empty parking lot; the bases are vacant, little squares of sad desolation in an otherwise populated place, as if some precision germ strike has emptied the team of its last run-scoring candidates.

Still, I watch. For the most part, Beltre has remained the lone star in this grim production, a superb leading man whose supporting cast is a bunch of has-beens and bit players. So often, his home runs are solo performances, and his singles leave him stranded on first. You feel for him. Just as you root for Rosales to enjoy a career moment—his first professional walk-off hit!—you root for Beltre to enjoy a moment in a career that the Hall of Fame will stamp.

And yet much of his measurable production—those RBI and runs!—are chronically undercut by Triple-A players in big league duds. Stripped of traditional proofs, his performance seems a sort of physical soliloquy, a gorgeous achievement for which there is no corresponding acclaim.

But two things keep you happy: One, it ain’t 1999 anymore. Sabermetrics knows the score! While Beltre’s RBI total is down at leadoff-man level, his OPS is in the top 10. And by the time he is Hall-eligible, the dinosaur bloc will have weakened and Rosales will have a hold on history: On Aug. 17, 2014, he plated a Hall of Famer with the game-winning run.

Two, and more vital to this moment, Beltre’s lack of support has actually heightened your appreciation of his game. Here the dinosaur tropes apply: He comes to play, et cetera. And it’s true. Somehow, despite the losing, the dude—how else can you say it?—does it the right way.

I mean, just watch him. And you do. Boom!—a double to deep left center.

And two innings later, whoa!—a stunning off-balance throw, one of three.

Even in a bad production, there are standout scenes.

The game moves on, though, just like everything else, and you realize that Beltre is not your sole motivation. A lost season is exactly that, a lost season, but just as Ecclesiastes declared and The Byrds repeated, the seasons turn. Fans understand that life doesn’t end when the offseason begins. Next year is a thing. Just as the Rangers’ walk-off win suggested, each game is a period unto itself, a time independent of future and past, but it’s also a link in a chain. Upon stepping back, the fan sees the bigger picture. You see this one on a Samsung screen.

Players apart from Tepesch are auditioning for next year’s roles, and you want to seem them work. Some are men matched now to names, players whose minor league ascendance you’ve only read about. Here they are, in the televised flesh, trying to make their bones. Miles Mikolas, Roman Mendez, Phil Klein—pitchers all, and you wonder how their nerves connect to the brain and heart. You get your answer, a good one, when Klein strikes out Adeiny Hechavarria with the bases loaded to end the seventh inning.

The game is tied, 3-3, as it moves to the eighth. And here you see that those twin numbers, equal in value and profile, mirror the tension between emotion and logic, the tug between short-term and long-term joy. By this point, you’ve had to rework your calculus of fandom. You’ve rejiggered the formula, pitting head against heart, for determining the pleasure that winning versus losing will bring. You hope your players succeed as individuals, but you know it’s best, maybe, if they lose as a team.

The reason, of course, is draft positioning. Finish in last, you get the first pick. As far as the Rangers are concerned, it’s a race to the bottom on crutches. Some fans endorse TWTT: The Will To Tank. They understand that if the team finishes first in the reverse standings, the Rangers also get the first pick in each successive round, the largest bonus pool and the largest bonus pool in J-2 signings. Turns out, you can win for losing.

These are big rewards, especially for a team that owes its annus horribilis, at least in part, to Derek Holland’s dog, Prince Fielder’s neck and Mike Scioscia’s voodoo dolls. (Kidding!) The Rangers could compete for the playoffs next year, and the year after that. Fans know it.

Seasons turn. This one is finished, but still it goes on.

In the top of the ninth, with the score still knotted and Elvis Andrus at third base, outfielder Daniel Robertson whiffs on a suicide squeeze. Elvis is toast.

You wince. But you keep watching.

You haven’t stopped rooting. You just root differently now, a pulse divided between head and heart. This is still your team. Its flag is still the one you wave. But its terms, long and short, are at odds. And you know that in this moment you can’t choose both.

Solomon, author of Ecclesiastes, ain’t here to suggest equal shares.

It is the bottom of the tenth now, and Neftali Feliz is on the mound. You ache for this guy. As a rookie in 2010, he tossed triple-digit heat with ease. Now, four years later and after a session with Tommy John, he struggles to hit 93.

You want him to hit 100 again, to blow it right past the guy at the plate, and yet a No. 1 pick might hang in the balance, poised on this very pitch. Be careful what you wish for, they say, especially when you’re not sure what you want. Moments later, Feliz hits 93, and Giancarlo Stanton answers by driving the game-winning hit to right.

Prior to the pitch, and even prior to the game, you imagined the moment as a win-win.

This sort of symmetry is what you still must reconcile.

Full disclosure: At least you have something to write.


John Paschal is a regular contributor to The Hardball Times and The Hardball Times Baseball Annual.
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Jim S.
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Jim S.

Fine writing.

John Paschal
Guest

Thanks, Jim S. It is possible that my sentences didn’t sprawl too dang much this time … unlike the Metroplex in which the Rangers play.

kevin
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kevin

skip caray & van wieren taught me that bad baseball could co-exist with very good announcing.

John Paschal
Guest

That’s an excellent (and pertinent) observation. For me, one of the many challenges in writing is that once I (finally!) hit upon an idea, I have to pick a narrative line and stick to it, without straying to equally valid routes. With regard to this piece, one path I considered is this: Now that my team stinks, I’ve begun watching other teams (and without the usual fits of envy, somehow). In the process I’ve become a slightly better baseball fan, if not a better baseball writer. To your point, this has allowed me (via the wonders of the MLB Extra… Read more »

bucdaddy
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bucdaddy

“The question is this: Why—and secondarily, how—does a fan root for his team when the rooting is paid back with ineptitude? Why—and again, how—does a fan remain loyal, both emotionally and televisually, when clownball is the return for allegiance? What’s the reward for watching games on TV?”

There’s an entire book on the subject.

http://www.amazon.com/Dry-Land-Winning-Pittsburgh-Pirates/dp/1495983986

As a Pirates fan, I can’t sympathize with you. We know as bad as the Rangers seem now, things can always get worse. Much worse. Come back in 20 years and let’s talk.

John Paschal
Guest

bucdaddy, somewhere out there is a large Venn Diagram whose big ol’ intersection includes kajillions of Pirates and Rangers fans, all commiserating and comparing emotional scars. It’s true that the Pirates, like the Royals, endured a ridonkulously long drought before getting good again, but it’s also true that the Rangers crossed many a dry desert before stumbling into success in the late ’90s, only to slam face-first into those dominant damn Yankees. Then, after another dry spell, the Rangers got good once more, only to slam into good teams and bad luck. Now here we are. If we’re lucky, life… Read more »

bucdaddy
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bucdaddy

Please do. It’s a decent read, and I ain’t just sayin’ that cause I get mentioned in a paragraph.

John Paschal
Guest

@bucdaddy

Which paragraph? You have to tell us! You have to tell us!!!!!!!!

Thiago Splitchange
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Thiago Splitchange

Damn do I love your writing style. And I completely relate to your perspective. I was a classic 90s-Braves-on-TBS fan growing up, but in recent years I’ve taken a step back and begun becoming more of a fan of the game itself. I don’t particularly care if the Braves win or lose, unless the Yankees, Mets, Phillies, or Nats are involved. I enjoy the flow of the season, I watch young and up and coming players, I root for teams like the Pirates and Royals and Indians and Cubs. Watching the game and simply rooting for feats of strength, speed,… Read more »

John Paschal
Guest

Thanks, Thiago Splitchange! And damn do I love your user name! Also, you make excellent points regarding the relativity and nuances in rooting for teams in the various sports. Like you, I can watch any baseball game because, to my mind, it’s the most beautiful sport of them all. Of course, fans of other sports will disagree. And they ain’t wrong. To each his or her own. Even though I’m a football fan, I will never watch a game in which I’m not emotionally invested. I grew up in Dallas, so, by birthright, I’m a Cowboys fan, and for many… Read more »

Thiago Splitchange
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Thiago Splitchange

And damn do I love your level of interaction in the comments! Keep up the great work.

Go Nats
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Go Nats

Every long standing Royals, Cubs, and Pirates fan reads this article as a joke! You have no idea how to root for a bad team. Only how to root for a dominant team having one bad season. Sure one dreadful season, but get back to me when you have had 5-6 years of top 10 draft picks.

John Paschal
Guest

I understand your point, but in fairness, that’s really what this piece is about: rooting for a terrible team in this particular season. And as I mentioned to bucdaddy, Rangers fans have endured their (un)fair share of droughts. That said, I do have a soft spot for the Royals, Cubs and Pirates and sort of root for each. Honestly, I hope their fans can know the thrill I’ve dreamed of.

Of course, given that you’re a Nats fan, you might know that thrill this year.

kevin
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kevin

sitting in our family’s television room, watching a pirate game with my father, i sputtered that i had gone through my forties, and likely my fifties, without a winning buc team.
dad, while chewing on a cigar, muttered ‘shaddup, i’m a cub fan’.

John Paschal
Guest

“Shaddup, I’m a Cub fan.”

Love it.

It should be the name of a Broadway musical or something.

kevin
Guest
kevin

Fine writing. I spluttered at “clownball”.

rubesandbabes
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rubesandbabes

This is all brushing up against the transitive idea: “My team is a winner, and therefore, I also…” — The exact answer is patience. Downton Abbey is probably going to suck again this year, but I will watch and hope for otherwise. Not everyone has an Adrian Beltre to watch. Cool supporting cast, too – Rounged Odor, Elvis(!)Andrus, Derek Holland. Yu Darvish. Royals fans are the best at this. Bill James’ best ever essay (Baseball Abstract 1986) gets into the fan of losing team ideas so much. The original Bill James complaint against announcers spouting cliche bs comes out of… Read more »

John Paschal
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Given your user name — rubesandbabes — I’m pretty sure you went to my high school. But seriously. You make great points. I’m constantly intrigued, occasionally mystified and often amused by the transitive property as it applies to sports fandom: “I am an amazing human being because my team’s first round draft pick happened to not blow out a knee, and because that free agent signing just happened to work out, and because of that one bloop hit.” Also, you’re right about the Rangers cast: Despite all the losing, they can still be fun to watch – and suddenly a… Read more »

Johnny Ringo
Guest

Your writing is great. And, I’m one of those long time Cub fans, so you can always have a pity party with me. 🙂

John Paschal
Guest

Thanks, Johnny Ringo. Here’s the plan: I’ll bring the pity, you bring the rum. Also: Belgian beer. Also: tequila. Also: K.C. and the Sunshine Band!!!! Hey, why not?

Ken S.
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Ken S.

Your prose is very good! My favorites:

On Adrian Beltre: “he is batting in an empty parking lot; the bases are vacant, little squares of sad desolation in an otherwise populated place”
On Neftali Feliz: “As a rookie in 2010, he tossed triple-digit heat with ease.”

A non-baseball fan would not understand the latter one at all.

John Paschal
Guest

Thanks very much, Ken S. As paradoxical is it might seem, the secret to good (or halfway decent) prose is strong coffee + lots and lots of patience.

BMarkham
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BMarkham

I’m a Cardinals fan, so I haven’t had to deal with a losing team for a while. Although when I first started watching baseball in the early-mid 90’s (when I was 8 or so), the Cardinals had a lot of bad years. The pre-TLR years for instance. That was OK at the time because Ozzie was playing and Ozzie is who made me want to play SS as well as baseball itself. The year after Ozzie retired they traded for McGwire. Both were great reasons to still watch a losing team, too bad they never played together. Like somewhat else… Read more »