By Jason Fry
Three of the eight teams that advanced to this year's playoffs were naturals for the time-honored role of underdog, Cinderella story or whatever you want to call it. The Pirates, A's and Rays are all franchises whose challenges include annual financial headwinds, or have been downtrodden for years. This is an ancient sports narrative, one that will endure for as long as we let an unhealthily large chunk of our happiness depend upon the outcome of an unsettlingly random contest among young millionaires wearing motley uniforms. In other words, forever.
It's great fun, if you're a bandwagoneer, to adopt a team for a month. I've been rooting for all three of the teams above, going so far as to daydream about which of the overdog franchises opposing them would make the best World Series villains. But that's baseball tourism, not real fandom. If you're a day-in day-out fan of an underdog team, I bet you're sick of the whole thing.
Real fans of underdog teams aren't thinking about budding redemption, with a chance at blissful, transformative triumph. Well, maybe they are, but that triumph is hazily distant, a promised land on the far side of bad luck and grim history and disasters yet to be revealed. For now, those fans are mainlining pain and anxiety, and hoping their thick calluses are thick enough.
Speaking of pain, the now-vanquished Tampa Bay Rays are run intelligently and shrewdly, with secret sauces for bullpen construction, platoons and defensive metrics that any modern baseball team would love to reverse-engineer. But despite fielding an exciting club that's a perennial contender, fans stay away in droves. Part of the problem (though not all of it) is Tropicana Field, which is even worse in person than it looks on TV. The roof looks unsettlingly like it's going to slide off and crash into the parking lot, the artificial turf is mangy, and the roof leaks. It's like watching baseball in a giant carport. The Rays are done, but the Trop isn't going anywhere, and neither are its tenants -- they're locked into their lease until 2027, with no political appetite for building a new park.
The A's have a similar plight -- low payroll, a horrible stadium with sewage backups that have forced players to flee the clubhouses, and significant obstacles in the way of a new stadium or relocation. Through it all, the A's have persevered, pioneering the search for market inefficiencies in baseball (perhaps you've heard) and then continuing to exploit those inefficiencies successfully, even as richer organizations have adopted the same strategies.
The Pirates don't have a ballpark problem -- PNC Park might be the nicest stadium in the major leagues -- so their woes have been more basic. This is a franchise that was run incompetently for a generation, following a brutal, scarifying loss in Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS with 20 years of baseball famine. What happened in Pittsburgh, after Andy Van Slyke plopped onto the Fulton County Stadium turf in numb despair, was something out of a particularly mean-spirited fairy tale.
If you're a Rays fan, you're drawing little consolation from James Loney's smart, acrobatic double play that delayed execution Tuesday night, or from Jose Lobaton's homer into the ray tank Monday night, or from the nightly spectacle of Joe Maddon pressing buttons and turning dials like the merriest of mad scientists. Instead, you're reviewing grimly a sad parade of catchers scampering across the Trop turf after wayward baseballs, and remembering the final image of Evan Longoria trudging disconsolately away from the plate into winter.
Don't ask an A's fan if Tuesday night was a moral victory, or if it built character. The lasting image isn't those innings spent driving up Tiger pitch counts, or the scare thrown into Joaquin Benoit, it's Josh Reddick's frantic lunge for ball four from Max Scherzer. A's fans will spend Wednesday knowing their team is facing their sixth Game 5 of an American League Division Series, knowing they have an 0-5 record in such contests. If you're an actual Athletic that means nothing, but if you're a fan, well, enjoy spending the off-day with an elephant on your chest.
As a proud member of the Pirates bandwagon, I'll be rooting hard for them in St. Louis. But when they lost Monday, I frowned, was sad for about 30 seconds and then … well, I don't remember. I think I read a magazine. It's safe to say no Pirates fan bearing the scars of Sid Bream and Lloyd McClendon and Bryan Bullington and Matt Morris was able to flip idly through a magazine right then, or for some time afterward.
Casual fans and baseball tourists like me love underdog stories. This is human nature, even admirable so far as it goes. But we can pick and choose from new stories every October -- and if we're honest, we'll admit that it's bittersweet when an underdog escapes the role and becomes something else. For us, underdog stories mean boring sequels.
For real fans, this is nonsense. Real fans are desperate for their underdog stories to end. They're tired of being clutched to the bosom of drive-by fans who are only temporarily sad that they've had it so darn hard. They want to be able to grouse about scarce tickets, long bathroom lines and newbie fans whose caps have never seen a sweat stain or a creased bill. They want fans like me to despise them and decry their good fortune. They want to be outraged about suggestions that their monopoly on October is Bad for Baseball.
And failing that, they just want to be normal fanbases - unromanticized and even unregarded.
That's the thing about being the underdog -- it's a great way station but a horrible destination. For those who live such stories every day, instead of during the occasional October, the tale's only satisfying if it ends with escaping the role.
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Jason Fry is the co-writer (with Greg Prince) of Faith and Fear in Flushing, the blog for Mets fans who like to read. A writer, editor and journalist consultant, he lives (inevitably) in Brooklyn, N.Y.