My phone rings.
“Hey man!” I say. I am greeted with a huff.
It’s Dan Lichtenstein, previous owner/wearer of my North Stars hat, and as soon as he huffs, I know what’s coming. Not the content, but the act: the Dan rant. Dan is one of the nicest, most thoughtful, most considerate people you’ll ever meet, and generally he’s pretty calm. But when something takes hold of him, it really takes hold, and that’s when you know a Dan rant is coming. The Cubs do it to him worst; Dan is one third of my Holy Trinity of Cubs fans, the other two being Ari and Jonny C. When Dan gets going on the Cubs, it’s chaos. “Let me tell you,” is his normal starter, and he says it in a stern and serious manner, and then he’s off, riding a Big Opinion to a seemingly overdone conclusion.
He’s silent for a beat after his huff, and then he begins.
“Let me tell you what…” And we’re off. I’m almost laughing already, giddy in anticipation. “If the Cubs get Barry Bonds, I’m done. I’m done. That’s it.”
I laugh. Dan’s awesome. “First off, why would the Cubs get Bonds? Is there talk? And second, what do you mean you’re ‘done?’”
“No, there’s no specific talk, but they were talking about him on the Score, and how would you feel if your team signed Bonds, and most people were cool with it, and it was just sickening. Have some class! The guy’s a cheater! If the Cubs signed him, that’d be it.”
“What would you do?”
“I’d become a Twins fan. I like the Twins.”
“You’d really give up the Cubs?”
“Oh absolutely. For Bonds? Absolutely.”
While finding a favorite player is like falling in love, finding a favorite team is different. There’s love with a team, but it’s a familial love rather than a romantic one. You’re born into your favorite team like you’re born into your family, which, of course, is exactly the case, because most people get their teams from their family. Your team is just like your family, in that you stay with each through good and bad…or, to be cynical: you’re stuck with it, so you’d better learn to like it.
Of course, there’s an element of romantic love as well, but that tends to be more on a year by year basis. I love the Cubs like family, but I fell in love with the 2001 Cubs in a more intimate way. They hooked me, and surprised me, and as that was the last summer I spent home before returning to camp, and as they made a serious run at the division title despite being a mish-mosh team that seemed to be held together by clothespins, and as I watched and listened to nearly every game that season…well, I fell in love. Plain and simple. I loved the 2001 Cubs. I love the Cubs. That’s as simple as I can put it.
Still, it always gets back to family, and because we are by nature a loyal breed, we stand by our family through all difficulties. When you’re a kid, your team protects you. You don’t know much about wins and losses and playoffs and championships. You just know these heroic players who live on television and in baseball cards and in yourself every time you pick up your glove or your ball. For a little while, at least, everything is great.
But then it happens. Something goes wrong. McMahon is sent to the Chargers, and the Cubs lose to San Fran, and for some reason the Bulls just can’t beat Detroit. That was the worst for me. When we lost Game 7 in 1990, I cried. It was May, I was eight and a half, and my team had just lost to Detroit in the playoffs for the third straight season. And I just started crying.
Why didn’t I pack it in right then and there, I wonder? Why didn’t I stalk out of Donny Burba’s TV room, head out the door, down the street, and never watch another Bulls game again? After all, when you’re eight and a half and something makes you cry, that’s it. You don’t ever want to deal with that thing ever again, be it a creepy carnival booth or a clown or the climactic scene of Lady and the Tramp or an orange Jolly Rancher. Crying as a kid is a tremendously lonely feeling, and when you’re eight and a half it’s even worse because you’re old enough to feel strongly that “crying is for babies.” And yet there I was, crying in clear view of my closest friends. I could have very easily decided to be done with it all, but looking back, I don’t even remember that as being anywhere near to a realistic possibility. I never even considered it. It wasn’t an “I’m-stuck-with-them” realization, as I was still far too young to be that bitter…I must have just had a sense somehow that this was my team for good or ill. I was given my teams by my family and by my region, and that was that.
Later, we recognize the feeling as responsibility. That’s what this is all really about. Being a fan of a team is a responsibility. If this were a movie, the sports fan would be Dustin Hoffman, and the sports team would be his son. All of a sudden Meryl Streep is gone, and now he’s got to raise this kid all on his own, obstacles be damned. I have to do this. That’s what it feels like to be a diehard. I have to root for this team. As a kid though, it’s different. It’s about the privilege. As a kid you get to root for your team. I started that way with the Bulls. But then things go bad as they eventually do, and you begin to feel responsible for them. That’s what happened with me; when we hit Detroit, I started aging like mad. In 1987, I was a kid and the Bulls were my team. They were big and fun and mine, a big red toy. Three years later, in 1990, I felt like a teenager forced into the burden of raising his younger brothers on his own because his father is dead and his mother is drunk. Everything had shifted. It was up to me. After all, if I don’t root for this team, who will? Sports teams only matter because people care about them. If nobody cares for the Bulls, then they don’t exist. I have to care for them. Somehow I felt like it was my responsibility to get them past Detroit, like it was up to me specifically…and yet, of course, I had no actual control over them, which makes responsibility rather difficult. How can you be responsible for something you do not control? Well, we don’t know. We just know that it’s what we have to do.
But maybe it’s less about responsibility and more about loyalty. Leaving the Bulls after Game 7 would have been like abandoning a friend upon hearing that he has cancer. It’s cruel. But then again, loyalty is about choice, and there was no choice. This was about a feeling of deep connection, as if the Team and I were physically connected, a feeling that I was tied to my Team in such a strong way that to purposefully break those bonds would be to destroy something that could not be rebuilt. Something within myself. If the Bulls are losing to Detroit, then I am losing to Detroit. There is no leaving, no escaping, becaue it’s you. You are that team, so even if you were to pack it in out of frustration, all you’d really be doing is hiding from yourself. The team still exists, and it’s still a part of you. You’re just ignoring it. You give yourself to your team for good or ill, and that’s that. It’s family. It’s like when your parents got really mad at you for doing something wrong, yet they tempered their anger by reassuring you that “even though I’m really mad at you now, I still love you very much. Even when we’re mad at each other, we’re still family, and we still love each other.” That’s what it was like after Game 7…like sensing that even though the Bulls had hurt me, they were still my team and I still love them.
It’s not that I didn’t have a choice. It’s that the feeling itself, the feeling of connection that draws me to the team, was and is stronger than the freedom to choose. I’m drawn to them, and I am connected to them. Even at eight and a half I realized this was true…
So to give up on your sports team, particularly after supporting them for 30 years, particularly when you’ve already found ways to get over Leon Durham, San Fran, Maddux going to Atlanta, giving up on Rafael Palmeiro and Luis Gonzalez, the Braves’ sweep in ’98, Woody not developing, Corey not developing, Grace going to Arizona, Stoney getting canned, Games 6 and 7 against Florida, Bartman, the ’04 collapse, and now this extended Sosa thing ending with him leaving on awful terms…well, to get through all that, and then be moved to abandon them, that’s meaningful. Will Dan do it? No, because the Cubs will never sign Bonds. I just can’t see how it would happen. But if it did happen, then would he? I think so. Most definitely. And we’d never get him back.
It’s a horrible thing to cut your sports team loose as an adult. To actually reach a point at which you can no longer stand the pain of your team, a point at which your team has betrayed you so many times that you feel it best to leave them completely…simply awful. The bonds have been broken, the team is guilty, and the fan is the helpless victim.
That’s the thing about the fan-team relationship: no matter what, the Team always holds the upper hand. Many fans give up on the specifics of their teams without much fight. There is no short term loyalty, and certainly no patience. Fans give up on and turn against players and coaches much too quickly and much too harshly. But they never give up on the Team, the actual franchise. For them, there is no shortage of loyalty or patience. That replenishes itself. But a little bit should go a long way, and when Teams begin abusing the never ending flow of loyalty and patience, that’s when fans turn. Maybe they internalize it, feeling that it is somehow their fault that things got so bad. Or maybe not: maybe it’s all betrayal and nothing more. But most things in life are judged based on performance. Your car stops working, you buy a new one. It’s raining with thunder and lightening and high winds, you cancel your golf game. Sports teams are no different: built on performance. Your quarterback can’t stop throwing interceptions, you cut him and find someone else. It’s not about loyalty. It’s about performance. That’s how you operate with your team.
But your Team, well, that’s different. Your Team is also judged by performance, but it’s not an athletic performance. It’s an emotional and ethical one.
After all, you stick by your Team through everything, riding all the highs and lows, and sometimes the highs are six titles in eight years, and sometimes the lows are no championships for almost 100. You roll with it all. You have no choice, and you don’t even want one, because the highs and lows are about the team, but the Team provides only Highs…that’s the idea, anyway. The payoff is the experience, the lifetime of rooting. That’s the gift. That’s the High. You judge your team based on performance, but you judge your Team based on love. So to actually cut ties with a Team…it’s awful. It’s giving up on someone you love in order to protect yourself, and it happens when the pain that comes with the responsibility of fandom is greater than the joys of living the Team. And that is something I hope to never experience.