on giving up, believing, and what it means to be a fan

The Joy of Sox community looks at the title of this post and rolls their eyes. Here she goes. Whether it makes them smile or cringe, they're expecting a pep talk, or a thrashing, or at least a lecture on fat ladies singing and 162 games.

Sorry. No can do.

If the Red Sox manage to seriously contend this season, if we make a run at the division or the wild card and make the playoffs, it will be an amazing comeback. But so many things would have to happen for that to occur – the Sox playing much better than they appear to be able to do, and more than one other team hitting a prolonged slide. It's looking highly unlikely.

So no, this post isn't about how we all must believe to the bitter end.

But all the talk of giving up – whether or not we have given up, when we will, why we won't, and so on - got me thinking about what we mean when we say we're giving up on a season. The Red Sox are going to do what they're going to do whether or not we declare ourselves still on board or done. It doesn't make a difference in terms of baseball. It only makes a difference in how we feel, and maybe how we approach the games.

* * * *

In 2007, the Red Sox were were 9 games up on July 29. (On July 5, they had an 11.5 game lead!) On August 13, the Sox's lead had been cut to 4 games, but on September 4, it was back to 7.

After that, the Yankees started closing in. First our lead dropped to 5 games on September 10. A week later, September 17, it was 3.5 games. On September 23, the lowest point of the season, the Sox still had a 1.5 game lead.

They never fell out of first place. The closest the Yankees came was 1.5 games back on September 23. But woe is us, the doomers were out in force.

More than anything, I wanted the Sox to win the division. I announced on a gamethread that I wanted to win the division more than I wanted to win the World Series, that the Wild Card wasn't good enough, not even if it (again) took us all the way.

This caused some controversy. I remember someone lecturing me about "keeping our eyes on the prize". It meant nothing to me. I'm not saying it was rational, or justified. It was just the way I felt. We were in full command of first place for almost the entire season. I didn't want to hear how "of course" the Yankees won it, how the Sox could only get in the playoffs through the back door. That division was ours and I wanted it.

Some people agreed with me. Others emphatically did not.

But I also knew we didn't have to win the division by 10 games. Or by 5 games. And in a pack as good as the American League East, the chances of winning by a wide margin are very slim. So a shrinking lead didn't matter, it was bound to happen. We didn't have to win by any certain number of games. We only had to win.

Sometime during that nail-biting September, a JoS commenter - not a regular, just a drive-by - announced that he was "throwing in the towel". I went ballistic. He was throwing in the towel and we were still in first place! Smoke was coming out of my ears. It was an epic smackdown.

Now I want to look beyond my own contempt for such behaviour and ask, What made this fan feel that way? Knowing his team was in first place, he was ready to jump ship. Why?

I suspect he couldn't stand the tension as he waited for what he imagined was an inevitable heartbreak. Whether he was conscious of it or not, he thought it was better to jump now and get it over with. Better a quick death at his own hands, then to be slowly crushed by daily torture.

Maybe that towel-throwing-in fan was performing a premature, exaggerated ritual that we all do sometimes in other contexts. We want something very badly, but we say, "I'm trying not to get my hopes up." We're trying to protect ourselves. We think, if I don't have my hopes up, it won't hurt as much to have them smashed.

But I think there are other things at work, too. Some people are very heavily invested in being right. They're after putting some kind of cosmic "I told you so" on the world. Sometimes it looks like fans would rather say "I told you so" to the more optimistic fans than see their team win.

These "I told you so" fans seem to think they're more savvy, more worldly-wise, more in-the-know. Optimism is for suckers. You naive fools can get your hopes up for a sunny day. I'll sit here scowling in my dark corner predicting rain. Then when it rains -- as it always does at some point -- you'll see that I was right.

Of course, once it rains, we'll all get wet. But some of us will have enjoyed the sunshine all that time.

In sports, like in politics, people love to make predictions. You can flip on your TV and find a dozen people being paid to sit in studios and predict what's going to happen. (In Canada the national pastime is predicting when there will be an election.) The fan who gives up when his team is still in first place is like a political pundit on a cable news show. When the team is skidding, he shouts "They're finished!" If they lose, he sneers I Told You So. If they win, no one holds him accountable for his gloomy prediction.

And some people declare they have given up, I think, because they don't want to be associated with a losing team. They think if the logo on their cap represents a winning team, this somehow reflects on them personally as winners. So if it doesn't look good for the team, better back off, rather than be tainted by a loser's logo.

Of course, for these people, the only thing that gets reflected is how superficial they are. If you're only a fan when your team is winning, you're not really a fan at all. All good teams attract pseudofans. And amazingly, the Red Sox have become one of those teams. That's a good thing.

* * * *

During the 2008 playoffs, I didn't really believe we would win. I felt like we weren't a championship team, and I had a really hard time staying optimistic - faking belief. I still watched every game, and I sweat out the seven-game ALCS with everyone else, but in my heart, I didn't believe. Allan thought I was giving up - and he wasn't too pleased. But here's the thing: I didn't give up. I kept hoping and I kept watching. I was pessimistic, but I was on board.

How many of us thought the Red Sox would come back to win the 2004 ALCS? I'd be surprised if anyone can honestly say they did. We weren't just down three games in a seven-game series. We were about to be swept. In the historical context of The Rivalry, and especially after 2003, unimaginable heartbreak was on the horizon.

But we kept watching, and we kept hoping. We were going to watch and hope until the final out. When that final out turned out to be in Game 7, after the greatest comeback the sport has ever seen, we were rewarded - for some of us, after a lifetime of heartbreak. We weren't rewarded for our belief, but for our loyalty.

That's what shows we didn't give up. Not what we believed - because what we believed didn't matter. We might have thought the Red Sox would lose the 2004 ALCS, because at some point, that seemed the only possible outcome. We didn't know the impossible was about to happen! So belief or lack of belief is not the issue. Pessimistic doomer or pollyanna optimist, we didn't give up. We kept watching. We kept hoping.

So here's what I've decided. I don't believe the Red Sox are going to make the playoffs this season. But I'm still watching and I'm still hoping.

* * * *

I mostly watch regular-season games with a relaxed, zenlike attitude. I take it as it comes. I enjoy a great win and I dislike annoying losses, but I rarely get very upset about the outcome of any given game. I like the tension and drama of close games, and I get very caught up during pennant races or in the post-season. But in general I watch baseball on an even keel. People like to say, "Of course I get upset – I'm a fan." So am I less of a fan because I don't get upset?

On the other hand, I watch almost every game. As much as possible, I organize my life around watching or listening to almost every game. During a game, I don't answer the phone, I don't wander off for something to eat. I see friends only on off nights. I don't watch movies when there's baseball on. I don't watch other sports when there's baseball on. I know not everyone does that. Does that make me more of a fan?

No, and no. There are all different ways to be a fan.

For some of us, no longer believing we have a chance doesn't really change anything. If Allan thinks the team is out of contention (I'm not saying he does, only if), he'll watch every game and only miss a game if forced to. He'll still stay up for west coast games, still not leave his chair except between innings, still keep score.

For me it probably means a little less of everything. Less watching every pitch. Less scoreboard watching. Less waking up and going immediately to the computer to check the standings. I might even miss a game here and there. I guess it's just a slight change in attitude. Loosening the grip a little. A subtle shift in priorities.

So at this point, no, I don't believe. But I haven't given up.

What about you?

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