Posted by mike in Sports at 5:11 pm on April 2, 2007

99 years and counting. I’m so gullible. Even with all of the history, I’m still excited for the start of a new baseball season. I figure it can’t get any worse (and if it does, perhaps the new owner can do a better job starting in year 100).

In fact, I am of the opinion that I and those like me have had the worst possible run as sports fans over the past 5 years out of any sports fan base, ever. I know a lot of people probably say that, but let’s look at it a little closer.

  • In 2003, the Cubs came painfully close to reaching the World Series, only to have a series of bizarre incidents and supreme blunders send them packing for the off-season. In retrospect, perhaps the worst part of this collapse is the fact that it was likely the last time that Mark Prior and Kerry Wood would both be healthy at the same time. Indeed, I can recall saying, after the Cubs lost game 5 in Florida (after being up 3 games to 1 in the series), “Well, we’re going back to Wrigley, up 3-to-2, with Prior and Wood starting in games 6 and 7. No way we lose both of those games. We’re as good as in the World Series.” It’s all been downhill from there.
  • Prior to 2004, the longest streaks without a World Series win were the Cubs (none since 1908), the White Sox (none since 1917), and the Red Sox (none since 1918). Then, in 3 consecutive years, the worst possible string of World Series winners a Cubs fan could possibly imagine came about:
    • 2004: The Red Sox win the World Series. While not really a rival per se, I’ve always hated the Red Sox because they get all of the media attention, particularly for their curse and lengthy championship drought, despite the fact that Cubs fans have endured worse, and for longer. It wasn’t just the Eastern Seaboard Production Network (with their obvious biases) doing it, either–they even had a romantic comedy made about it, with the all-too-poetic necessary rewrites to make the happy ending even happier.
    • 2005: The White Sox win the World Series. This one hit closer to home, because the White Sox, while still not a real rival of the Cubs by virtue of the fact that they play in the other league, are a natural opponent by virtue of sharing the same city (not to mention the annual cross-town showdowns during interleague play). While I was happy for my friends who are Sox fans (of which there are few) that they got to see their team win, at the same time I was devastated that the rest of the Sox fan base (of which there were all of a sudden many) could continue being the renowned assholes I’ve always known them to be, with an extra layer of smugness now added on top. This also left the Cubs alone as the only team with a World Series drought of any significance.
    • 2006: The hated St. Louis Cardinals win the World Series. The Cardinals are the Cubs’ biggest rival, our division adversaries for whom the most hatred is reserved. Cubs-Cards is the great Midwestern baseball rivalry (with Sox-Yanks being the East coast version, and Giants-Dodgers in the West). Seeing your most despised rival win the championship is one of the most painful things for any sports fan.

    Each of these years was bad enough, but adding them all up, consecutively, really hurts. Not to mention the fact that the Cubs came in dead last in their division last year, while St. Louis bumbled their way into the playoffs with a barely plus-.500 record. As a Cubs fan, the situation as far as baseball is concerned couldn’t be worse. But wait, there’s more.

  • The Bears lost Super Bowl XLI in 2007. I’ve talked about this here before, so I won’t go into it too much again, except to make this important point: losing the championship game is painful. In my opinion, it hurts much more than not even getting there. You get your hopes up, you have the week (or in the case of the Super Bowl, two) lead-up to the game to think about it and get yourself psyched up for your team to be crowned champions. Then they come up short, and it’s truly devastating. It’s no coincidence that every NFL team to lose the Super Bowl in this century has had a troubling season the following year–it’s not just devastating to the fans, it is to the players and coaches and personnel, too. I don’t think that a lot of people realize this fact, so I’ll repeat it again: Losing a championship hurts. This is a lesson I really learned a couple of years ago, in 2005, when:
  • The Fighting Illini basketball team lost the 2005 national championship game to North Carolina. I don’t think it’s possible to have a 37-2 college basketball season be considered a “disappointment,” but this one certainly came close. It was on the brink of being the most memorable season in the history of college hoops, but for a shot in Columbus on the last day of the regular season, and a frustrating championship game in St. Louis. Instead, it is probably one of the most forgettable seasons ever, and that’s a shame, because that team was truly great. I’ll never forget driving up to East Lansing to see the Illini play the game that Digger Phelps “guaranteed” they would not be able to win–the hostile crowd was great as we walked into a campus bar wearing orange, and then sat through a great performance by our team as the Spartans (themselves in the midst of a great season) were humbled. And, of course, few of us will ever forget what was perhaps the greatest comeback win in NCAA tournament history, the Illini rallying from 14 down with 4 minutes to play against Arizona to go to the Final Four. It all seemed so storybook at the time, so fitting, so deserved–and yet, when they fell short two games later, it was completely deflating. The Illini, like the Cubs following their run in 2003, just haven’t been the same since.
  • While we’re at it, we also have to include the 2001 Fighting Illini football season, in which they won the Big Ten, going 11-1 (with the only loss being to Michigan, and at the time I recall a quote from Ohio State coach Jim Tressel that said something to the effect of, “I’d rather go 6-6 and beat Michigan than go 11-1 and have Michigan be the only team to beat us”). They then went on to get trounced by LSU in the 2002 Sugar Bowl, which is still the Illini’s only BCS game appearance. They’ve completely sucked ever since (although things are looking up heading into the 2007 season…).

This is only looking at what I consider to be the 4 major sports (MLB, NFL, college FB, college BB). I used to be a big NHL guy, but since the strike a couple of years ago I just haven’t been able to get back into it again. And the NBA is, well… it’s a different animal altogether. I’ll watch it, and I tune in during the post season to follow along, but I don’t have much of a vested interest in it so I’m not counting it here. I suppose if asked, I would consider myself a Bulls fan these days, as they’re the team I watch and root for the most, when I do pay attention to professional basketball. It probably says something about me as an NBA [non-]fan, though, that I root for the Jazz just as often–the one-time rivals of the Bulls now have Deron Williams, former Illini superstar, at their helm, and so I like to root for his success and follow his career.

In the interest of full disclosure, I do casually follow the Illini hockey team, and they won the ACHA national championship in 2005. I don’t really think that a college club hockey team should be counted in a discussion of major sports franchises, though–while I was proud to hear that they’d won the championship, it’s not like I was in attendance or could watch it on TV. Not to mention that they’re not a “real” team, thanks to Title IX–but that’s a topic for a different day.

I’m interested in hearing about other fan bases that have had bad runs like this. While I might not have much sympathy for them, I’d likely be able to empathize, and I think it’d be fun to compare.

Comments (7)

7 Responses to “Opening Day”:

  • I see some interesting parallels between this last season and the Illini plight of 2005: In 2005, everyone and their brother went on ESPN and said “The Illini only look so good because the Big Ten is so bad. They don’t have a chance against any REAL CONFERENCE teams.” Yet, we still managed to score many points, drub Number 1 ranked Wake Forest in the ACC-Big Ten challenge and have the season of a lifetime. Of course, both the regular season and the Dance ended in the disappointments of a lifetime, but that was how that cookie was supposed to crumble.

    This year, no one really came out and said it, but the Big Ten was a festering cesspool of slow play and boring, low scoring games. Wisconsin and Ohio State should be ashamed at their average score and every other team should be running drills and laps into eternity for horrid free throw shooting and just plain stupid play.

    The worst offense: Got 34.9 seconds left in the half and the shot clock is off? That doesn’t mean you stand around for 28 seconds avoiding the 5 second call and then spend those remaining 6.9 seconds running around to get a terrible 3 point shot, it means you run a standard play and try to score points!

    I got to the point where I couldn’t watch Big Ten basketball anymore, the play was just too damn depressing. Period. Ohio State could be exciting when they tried, but most of the time they phoned it in because all it took was a 5 point lead going into the last 5 minutes of the game and the other team was done. Half time scores of 26-12 are not good games.

    Not sure exactly how this relates to Opening Day, but you got me started and I couldn’t stop. I’m done complaining now.

  • Well, it relates to the plight of Illini fans in general, which is a tangent I went off on as well. I also will always associate baseball’s opening day with the NCAA national championship game… In 2005, I left work at noon to claim my preferred stool at the Pub, and spent all day there waiting for the Illinois-North Carolina game (which I believe started at 8pm). It was opening day, and I got to watch my first Cubs game of the year while waiting for the basketball championship.

    I completely agree about the Big Ten this year, much more so than I did in 2005. That year, we had 3 teams in the Elite Eight, 2 in the Final Four, and 1 in the National Championship game. That’s a pretty goddamn good year for any conference, regardless of whether ESPN wants to admit it or not. This year we knew we’d be lucky to get more than one team past the first weekend of the tournament (we did not), and Florida repeating their dominance of Ohio State from the football championship game was pretty much a foregone conclusion going into Final Four weekend.

    The bad part is, I don’t see the situation changing any time soon.

  • I basically wrote the exact same blog entry back in early October, of course from a White Sox fan’s perspective that the last 3 years have been absolutely brutal for Cubs fans. I’ll admit I have some smugness as a Sox fan, but that’s basically because of Cub fans who go to Wrigley for the Ivy, beer and Sun, believe in stupid things like a goat curse, uses nicknames like “Cubbies”, and the whole 7th inning stretch celebrity thing. And I’m also perplexed on why they keep packing the stadium when the team is so awful.

    That said, you made the choice to be a Cubs fan. And for the record, the two assholes who made the attack were not Sox fans but just trash.

    And the Bulls have a good team this year. They have a lot of likeable players who don’t have egos, and they play hard. They’re just not polished yet. But they can beat any team on any given night. Writers here are predicting the Bulls to go deep in the playoffs.

  • I think it’s funny how White Sox fans always make the same points about the Cubs–people go to Wrigley for the party more than to watch the team, they continue to sell out even when they’re losing, etc. It just seems like a projection mechanism to me–your team couldn’t beg people enough to come see them when they had the best record in baseball and were on their way to winning the World Series. You lash out at that which you don’t have… which is of course why my distaste for the Sox has grown since they added a Commissioner’s Trophy to their list of things they have that we don’t.

  • Even the Red Sox’s series against the Cards was ho-hum. The real joy in that season was the comeback against the Yankmees (excuse me while I spit). And while the Sox haven’t shown the same gutsy play since, we fans at least have had the joy of watching Steinbrenner’s overpaid prima donnas fail to show any post-season talent at all.

    The Illini’s NCAA run was the only time I really got into college hoops. The comeback win was something to remember. Although it did only serve to make you believe they’d do it again against NC. When they failed to pull that game out, I felt betrayed, because I had come to believe in a power and a destiny that wasn’t there. I was *ready* to witness history, and then it was over and there was nothing.

  • I completely agree about the 2004 ALDS (and post-season in general): it was really all about the Sox becoming the first team in history to come back from being down 3-0 and winning the series. After that, their World Series victory seemed inevitable–and thankfully they got it over with as quickly as possible by sweeping the Cardinals. As for the 2005 Illini,

    I felt betrayed, because I had come to believe in a power and a destiny that wasn’t there.

    That couldn’t have summed up how I felt any better (or any more poetically), Mark. That’s exactly what it felt like–you just figured, even though they were down 13 at halftime, that they would have another great comeback in the second half. What a lot of people seem to have forgotten, though, is that they did pull out a great comeback–the game was tied at 70 with a couple of minutes left to play. Illinois just wasn’t able to make any more shots after tying it up, and it was the most deflating experience as a fan I have ever personally experienced.

  • Comment by John at 7:37 am on April 6, 2007

    You know, allegiance to a sports team is actually stronger than faith in a religion. With religion, you can always convert. Just ain’t done with your team.

    That said, I think being a Cubs fan is akin to being a nihilist.

    By the way, I’m hurt that you didn’t add the Party Posse’s crushing defeat in the Beer League Darts finals to your list of tragedies.