By Jim Miller
Today is opening day and with it, if history is our guide, what is most likely another season of futility is born. Having grown up a Padres fan, this is par for the course as the Pads have only gone to the postseason five times and have a meager .463 winning percentage over the life of the franchise.
They are, in short, losers.
So why go? Why will I be sitting in the stands this afternoon as the Padres take on the Dodgers hoping against hope that the outcome will be different?
Sports psychologists inform me that my addiction to losing baseball might have some rough consequences. As Larry Stone reports in “The Psychology of Being a Sports Fan,” researchers have found that “When your team loses, it’s like you lose a part of yourself, because your identity is so merged with the identity of the team and the fan community . . . Sports in the U.S. makes such a difference in people’s lives, a loss can be distressing.”
True and, even worse, there are also physiological effects that result from sports fans’ vicarious participation:
A famous study by Paul Bernhardt at Georgia State University in 1998 showed that male spectators of sporting events experience the same testosterone surges as the players themselves — an increase of about 20 percent by fans of winning teams, and a similar decrease in losing fans.
Scientists have also noted what are called “mirror neurons” in our brains, activated not just by participation in sports, but by watching others participate. These findings help explain the profound sense of vicarious connection to athletes.
“It’s phenomenal,’’ said Simons. “We have this ability to understand other people so remarkably that their victories literally become ours. Our testosterone literally responds to their victory. The more we follow a team, the deeper the bond becomes. They’re us, and competing on a literal level as us — a little extension of us.”
But perhaps it’s not just the occasional testosterone surge in between the more frequent dips that compels me and other fans of losers like the Padres to head out to the ballgame. Maybe we are driven by something deeper that tugs at our ethical connection to the downtrodden.
In “The Underdog Effect: Why Do We Love a Loser?,” Daniel Engber surveys social science research that investigates whether the love of the underdog reflects a “more noble human drive,” a “primal sense of fairness. It’s the ancient emotion aroused by the story of David and Goliath: We just want David to have a shot.”
If we follow this line of reasoning, when we root for losers we are egalitarian dreamers:
The desire for equity (or the aversion to inequity, as it’s more often formulated) could explain our strange attachment to the losing team. Economists have shown that people are willing to sacrifice their own interests for the sake of restoring balance . . . The underdog effect, then, serves as ballast for crooked odds. If we’re at the stadium, we might use our fandom to influence the game directly—by screaming over the snap count or waving thundersticks at a free-throw shooter. And when we’re watching at home, our efforts to help the underdog might take the form of magical thinking: If I just cross my fingers …
Our dislike for inequity in sports could explain why we appreciate teams that appear to try harder on the court. Natural talent is unfair: You either have it or you don’t. But a game that’s decided on effort alone gives everyone an equal shot . . .
The same idea may explain why Americans in particular love an underdog. When you’re living in an unequal society, the long shot offers something precious—the belief that anyone can overcome his misfortune. (Here’s the Marxist critique of college basketball: It blunts the anger of the working class.) The average American roots for the underdog in sports because he’s an underdog in life.
But rooting for the underdog, it might be argued, is distinctly different than following a perpetually underperforming team like the Padres. It’s not an idle fancy; it’s a lifetime of sporting pain. Like Job, Padres fans must keep the faith with no answers for why they suffer.
In another interesting piece in the New York Times Magazine, Steve Almond also asks “Why Does Anyone Root for Incompetent, Failing Teams?” and explores a different set of possible answers:
In offering explanations, the afflicted tend to stress the laudable aspects of sport. It’s perfectly natural, we note, to admire the grace and strength of our finest athletes. Their contests reconnect us to the unscripted physical pleasures of childhood. They simplify and lend moral structure to a world that feels increasingly chaotic. And they allow men, in particular, a common language by which to express deep emotions (rage, disappointment, joy) that might otherwise feel forbidden — as well as activating our ancient yearning for tribal affiliation . . .
Unfortunately, these reasons don’t quite justify the more pathological practitioners of fandom. By which I mean hard cases like me, who spend decades rooting for teams that almost invariably stomp our hearts. To understand this species of devotion requires the invocation of Omar Little, the mystical Robin Hood figure of “The Wire.” As he puts it, “A man’s gotta have a code.”
To my ilk, this code amounts to unwavering loyalty. You stick with your team, no matter how lousy and undeserving it becomes. You don’t chase winners. This is why Spike Lee, patron saint of Brooklyn, will never root for the newly minted Brooklyn Nets. He’s a Knicks guy for life — even if the idiots in the front office let Jeremy Lin get away. Am I suggesting that Spike and I are morally superior to fans who switch allegiances or simply take pleasure in games for their own sake? No, though we certainly enjoy feeling this way. Given the modern sports landscape, in which contract money trumps player loyalty, we lifers are basically rooting for laundry.
But fandom is fundamentally a spiritual arrangement. It is a form of surrender, an agreement to live in a state of powerlessness. The only thing we control as fans is the object and ardor of our devotion. And this unilateral covenant, however absurd, constitutes a vital expression of who we really are.
Absurd it is but, in addition to the other wonders of baseball that I’ve written about in seasons past, it is this ridiculous loyalty and surrender to an imagined community and a form of magical thinking that connects you with something bigger than yourself that makes baseball a beautiful thing.
I was born into it as was my son who now suffers losses with me. It’s who we are. As I once jokingly told him when he asked what would happen if he came home in a Dodgers hat, “I’d throw you and that hat out the window because we don’t love frontrunners in this house. And besides, losing builds character.”
So we’ll be there again this year in our Padres gear thinking, in the spirit of Walt Whitman:
Vivas to those who have fail’d!
And to those whose war-vessels sank in the sea!
And to those themselves who sank in the sea! And to all generals that lost engagements, and all overcome heroes!
And the numberless unknown heroes equal to the greatest heroes known!