What’s Worse: Playoff Pain or Rooting for a Cellar Dweller?

What’s Worse: Playoff Pain or Rooting for a Cellar Dweller?
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Better to have loved and lost in the baseball season than to have never loved at all? Is rooting for a loser really that bad? RealClearSports editor Ben Krimmel and contributor Jack Beaman discussed baseball heartbreak, the ghosts of past losing seasons, and the pains of fandom.

Jack Beaman: The majority of baseball fans are tortured on a yearly basis. Heartbreak in baseball comes in many forms: We watch as our team either flails miserably out of the gate, falls apart as the year goes on, or collapses in October.

Ben Krimmel: Baseball is cruel. We know that three hits in 10 at-bats is an incredible achievement that earns players immortality. And we know baseball’s cruelty to fans and players extends to the postseason, as just one-third of the league (10 of 30 teams) can qualify. (Compare that to 12 of 32 in the NFL, 16 of 30 in the NBA, 12 of 22 in MLS, and 16 of 31 in the NHL.)

If just reaching a multi-game postseason series is your standard goal, it is very likely that your team’s season will end in failure.

JB: But, not all failure is created equal. Is it “better” to be irrelevant all season long with no hope, done by Tax Day, with a summer free to dream of the NFL? Or is it better to see your hopes steadily build month after month as your team steamrolls through 162 games, opening yourself up to potential emotional ruin? Both situations often leave fans heartbroken.

BK: Before getting to that answer, a bit of context on the joys and pains of fandom.

There’s a quote I really like from Eric Simons’ book “The Secret Life of Sports Fans”: “Critics of sports fans write often about recognizing that sports isn’t real life, and about not heaping meaning on something that ultimately means nothing. The game itself doesn’t mean anything, but the attachment to it certainly does.” [Italics mine.]

The bond that heartbreak creates among supporters is one of my favorite things about fandom. That connection between fans, the community that is formed among fans of the same team, from the same area, is really what defines sports fans. And suffering such a collective disappointment is a big part of that.

So, first, I would argue that heartbreak is often a good thing, as group commiseration strengthens bonds among fans. And isn’t the bonds and the community that we form from them what fandom is really all about?

JB: Ironically, heartbreak does often serve to unite a fan base. Not only does misery love company, but misery means the joy of winning down the road will be even sweeter. We love to put things into narrative arcs, so this is the fans’ own journey to a championship.

And context is everything to a fan base. A Cinderella run to the postseason after years of irrelevance is spectacular and will assuredly overshadow a tough exit. However, another “this is our year” season ending with a tough exit in October is a different scenario entirely. And in recent years, perhaps no team has illustrated that better than the Washington Nationals.

I latched onto the Nationals the second they moved to Washington, D.C., in 2005. Those early years were rough: In the first six years, the Nats finished last in the NL East every season but one, rifling through three managers, and a revolving door of underachieving players.

When they acquired a significant talent, the results were a joke. Alfonso Soriano smacked 46 home runs in 2006 and the team lost 91 games. He left after one season. Adam Dunn bested Soriano by lasting two whole seasons, hitting 40 homers in both seasons to the tune of 103 and 93 losses. Ryan Zimmerman was the only star the franchise had, and he didn’t make his first All-Star team until this season. The Nats were garbage in the truest sense of the word.

BK: Six years of irrelevance is a tough slog, but I’ve been through worse. My baseball life began with postseason heartbreak: When I was 4 years old, a kid named Jeffrey Maier helped end the Baltimore Orioles’ 1996 season in the American League Championship Series. The next year Armando Benitez gave up a solo home run to Cleveland’s Tony Fernandez in the 11th inning, and it was the Indians who advanced to the World Series, not my Orioles, winners of 94 games and champions of the AL East.

What followed was my entire adolescence and 14 years of losing baseball. I went from Kindergarten to going bald between winning seasons for the O’s. [Editor’s Fact Check: 100 percent true.] I’ve described it before as the wandering years, banishment to the baseball “land of Nod, east of Eden” (Genesis 4:16).

The Orioles losing (and losing) and comically building rosters featuring the likes of a 34-year-old David Segui, a 32-year-old Marty Cordova, and a collection of other has-beens stole joy from my youth. There is no reason I should like this sport.

During that span, division foes won five World Series championships and the awful, no-good Tampa Bay Rays won an AL pennant. What did I do to the baseball gods to deserve such a punishment?

JB: Believe me, I’m getting to the postseason torture.

The magical 2012 season: The Nats won 98 games en route to their first NL East title, the beginning of what many hoped would result in a championship run for Washington (it’s OK to laugh while reading that). What followed was devastating: The Nationals’ Drew Storen blew a two-run top of the ninth lead in the deciding game of the NLDS with Pete Kozma, a .217 hitter that season, driving in the go-ahead runs. winning runs.

But that’s how sports works, right? You can’t have it all at once: a few postseason setbacks should come before postseason glory. I felt like I understood why the baseball gods did that to the Nats.

And yet, they’ve won 95+ games two more times and still haven’t won a playoff series. This last postseason, Washington had Max Scherzer, the $210 million ace on the mound at home, and they lost nonetheless to Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers.

BK: Unlike the Nats, the Orioles’ reemergence has come without any expectation or pressure. And perhaps that does color O’s fans’ views on playoff shortcomings.

Having said that, the playoff pain and misery of losing in the ALDS to the Yankees, and then again in an ALCS sweep two seasons after that, and, last year, losing a Wild Card game in extra innings while the best relief pitcher in baseball sat in the bullpen, was still awful.

But to answer your question at the top of this piece: Playoff heartbreak is always preferable to the wilderness. The gut-punch of a postseason defeat is survivable. A season isn’t miserable when it ends with a loss in a game that matters. Misery only comes when the games never matter at all.

Bring on the expectations, bring on the pressure, bring on all that comes with having high hopes. It beats the hell out of being bad when you know your team is going to be bad.

JB: I feel differently. The Nats have been a World Series favorite every single offseason, including the ones in which they fell apart as the regular season went on. Still nothing to show for it.

I maintain my faith in the Nationals, but after getting bounced in the first round, I feel sadness and anger to an extent I never felt when we were cellar dwellers. I feel cheated by the MLB postseason.

That’s where I get confused. I find myself actively trying to temper expectations before I scold myself for not being a true fan. When I compare how I feel now versus how I felt in 2005-2011, I feel worse now. But that might be revisionist history. I don’t know.

BK: And you should feel anger and sadness about falling short of grand expectations. But, again, is that pain ... bad? I argue not really. Feeling that kind of pain is how you know you are a true fan. This is the pain that comes from having skin in the game.

And your reward? That wonderful, gut-punch of pain that comes from a postseason loss. That wonderful manifestation of fandom after suffering through four-years and $28 million to David Segui.

JB: I agree that the pain is, from an outsider’s perspective, a beautiful representation of sports fandom as a whole. What bothers me is that the source of the pain is a longing for more. More time to watch a good Nats team prove their worth to all of baseball.

Baseball takes a 162-game season and boils it down to a five- or seven-game series. Or worse, a wretched one-game Wild Card playoff. Players are afforded the opportunity to have 500+ at-bats throughout the season and then can be eliminated after just four in a single elimination game. It’s unfair.

BK: Right, but we acknowledged that baseball was cruel and unfair at the top.

To wrap this up, are you giving up hope? Do you wish to cast away the high expectations of a good ball club? Or are you OK with the possibility of once again uttering that famous October losers lament: “Wait till next year!”

JB: I’m not giving up hope, as no true fan would regardless of the circumstances. What I feel is simple: frustration and exasperation toward a postseason that rewards the hottest team instead of the best team. It should come as no surprise that a team like the San Francisco Giants won three championships in a five-year span without being one of the best regular season performers. There’s no rhyme or reason to MLB postseasons. That, of course, does not mean the Nats have no shot.

Washington has as good a chance as any team to win it all, and I will be ecstatic to watch them play postseason ball once more. I just hope they catch fire at the right time for a change. The law of averages is on their side now more than ever, and in baseball, maybe that’s all they’ll need. Or maybe I’m just repeating what I said last year.

BK: See, even though you are tired of postseason flops and the D.C. Sports Curse’s annual arrival at Nationals Park, you are signing up for more torture. Because playoff heartbreak is the best kind of heartbreak because it means the games mattered after all. And more than anything else, that is what fans crave: meaning.

Ben Krimmel is an editor of RealClearSports. Find him on Twitter @BenKrimmel or email him at bkrimmel@realclearsports.com.

Jack Beaman is a RealClearSports contributor.

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