Monday, December 11, 2006

Welcome to the Bandwagon

When I was young, and I mean pre-teen young here, I was a rabid sports fan. The best way I can think of to convince you of this is to tell you a story:

It's around Christmas-time 1980, and I'm too sick to travel to the extended family gathering. Instead, I stay home, wrapped up in a blanket and with soup handy and watch the Minnesota Vikings take on the Cleveland Browns. The Vikings were 8-6 at the time, and needed to win at least one of their final two games to clinch a playoff spot. Since the second of the two games was in Houston against the then-strong Oilers, one of the best defensive teams in the NFL that year and featuring All-Pro running back Earl Campbell on offense, it didn't seem likely the club would get the win if they had to rely on that one game, so the home game against Cleveland was considered key. The Browns, however, scored late to take a 23-21 lead in what looked like a game-clincher. Vikings start near their own 20 yard line.

Folks who watched the game and have solid memories can tell you that the first play from scrimmage was a pass from "Two Minute" Tommy Kramer over the middle to tight end Joe Senser, who immediately flipped the ball back to trailing running back Ted Brown in a perfect hook-and-ladder play, then went to ground at his defender's knees to take him out of the play. The Browns were in a prevent defense, though, and Senser's defender was not the last man between Brown and the end zone, so Brown scurried out of bounds near midfield to stop the clock with only a few seconds left.

Most folks who are long-time Viking fans can recall the next play: a hail-mary pass from Kramer toward the end-zone, tipped up into the air by a Cleveland defender, then caught by receiver Ahmad Rashad one-handed while falling backward into the end zone for the game-winning touchdown.

Granted, those are both memorable plays, so I wouldn't have had to be a rabid fan in order to have remembered them over 25 years after the fact. The part of the story that counts, though, is that the telephone rang within moments of the play's end. It was my mother. The first words out of her mouth were a question: "Is the house still standing?" She knew I was a crazy-mad sports fan to the point where even being sick to the point of vomiting wouldn't stop me from whooping and hollering at the playoff-clinching win.

(Of course, the Vikings lost their first playoff game that year to the Super-Bowl bound Philadelphia Eagles, and I had to look that one up to verify who the Vikings had even played. So much for the mojo from the last-second win, and the memories that it kindled. Though keep this in mind, because it will become relevant later.)

It goes without saying that these days I'm not nearly as rabid a fan as I was back then. The best way to convince you of that is to report my performance in fantasy football the past three years: seventh out of eight teams, ninth out of ten teams, and eighth out of ten teams. So, no, I haven't kept up my NFL fandom. I can't even use the 'stadium argument', as I do for my loss of fandom for the Twins. I suppose I could try to spin the whole thing as a maturation process - there's a reason women tend to avoid guys who talk about sports a great deal, unless they actually are professional athletes, and sometimes not even then. Unfortunately, that argument fails when I explain that, instead of being a sports fan, I play with little plastic men in a game store on the weekends. Real adult, huh?

But that's how I figured out I'm not all that big on sports anymore. I tried putting together a last-second gathering of my fellow minis-players for this past weekend, though only one other person showed up. Of all the reasons I heard for not attending, the oddest to my ears was that there was a chance that rookie Tarvaris Jackson might start the Vikings game against the Lions.

Now I understand the reasoning behind this thinking: one of the Holy Grails of sports fandom is to be able to say, once a player has achieved 'greatness' and is about to be enshrined in the appropriate Hall of Fame that, "I saw his first-ever start!" Such a comment generally scores major points in sports fandom circles. Of course, if you go back and look, most first-ever starts by Hall-of-Fame football quarterbacks weren't all that impressive, not to mention the argument that Tarvaris Jackson probably isn't going to end up in the Hall of Fame anyway, but to a 'true sports fan', those things don't really matter.

So by realizing this, I realize I'm no longer a 'true sports fan'.

'True sports fans', by the way, have a word for folks who barely follow the local team unless they're winning: bandwagon fans. They live in blissful ignorance of the depth of suck the local team sinks to from time-to-time, until they recover enough to compete for the post-season, at which point a bunch of bandwagon fans come out of the woodwork to cheer the club on. This irritates 'true sports fans' to no end; in their eyes, if you weren't around to cheer on Scott Stahoviak in 1997, you have no business calling yourself a Twins fan in 2006.

Now granted, back when I was a rabid sports fan, I rooted for some pretty poor clubs; the Vikings were still good, at the tail end of their Super Bowl years, though by 1984 they'd sunk into the cyclopean depths of the NFL under the tutelage of former Marine Les Steckel. The Twins, meanwhile, were notoriously bad in those same years, during which time owner Cal Griffith simply refused to spend major money on these new-fangled free agents. The 1982 Twins opened their new ballpark, the Metrodome, by promptly losing 100 games.

Nevertheless, 'true fans' will argue that there's good reason to follow a team when it's bad; only then do you find the players to root for that become heroes when the team gets good again. Take the 1982 Twins as an example: five men who were regulars on that roster were still regulars five years later when the Twins won the World Series (though interestingly, Kirby Puckett was not among them). Nevertheless, just because sometimes a team can develop young players into playoff performers, that doesn't mean they do so all the time. As a counterexample, take the 1997 Twins, mentioned above for the performance of Scott Stahoviak. Only one regular on that team, pitcher Brad Radke, was still playing for the club in 2006, and Radke in 2006 was a broken-down veteran trying to reach the end of the season so that he could retire.

In other words, most if not all of the players you're rooting for when the team sucks won't be around when the team gets good, so why waste effort rooting for them? Ah, but that's bandwagon fan thinking, not 'true fan' thinking.

Meanwhile, 'true fans' wonder how the Twins come-from-behind finish in 2006 will impact their fan following in 2007. Well, given that the Twins were humiliatingly swept out of the playoffs in the opening round, I can say that, if the club stumbles coming out of the gate in 2007, most folks will likely stay away in droves, just as they've done over the past couple of years for the local NBA franchise, once just two games from the NBA finals, and only now looking as though they might escape the draft lottery for the first time in two years. Again, the 'true fans' will hem and haw, and wonder how it can be that more people don't recognize the talent and dedication of the local sports teams. Why don't more people care?

I used to, until it finally sunk in that sports teams don't exist to make me happy; they win games in the regular season and then lose them in the playoffs, they trade popular players to bring in 'proven winners', and they simply can't overcome the statistical reality that, in a 28-to-30 team league, it's difficult for a team to win consistently, and nearly impossible for them to win it all consistently.

So now, my butt is firmly planted on the bandwagon. I've got other things to do.

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