Tuesday, October 26, 2010

soapboxing: rooting for the laundry

Soapboxing is an occasional series that prairie-dogs up out of the ground whenever I have something to get off my chest. This would be one of those times. I can do this because it's my blog. Warning: stream-of-consciousness (probably long) and occasional yet purposeful tangents ahead.

Who do you root for? (OK, fine: for whom?) This is a Virginia Cavaliers-focused blog, so the answer might seem obvious. Gee, dumbass, I root for UVA. So do you, so do I, so do all those people we argue with on message boards and sit next to in the stands and everything. It's what we have in common.

Sometimes, I'm not even sure we have that. You want UVA to win this game; I want UVA to win this game. Stipulated. Now: why? Another question that probably seems silly to you.

Over the past few weeks, Marc Verica has taken quite a beating, both in cyberspace and in the real world, on Saturdays in the stadium. This is a Pope-is-Catholic kind of surprise; his play has wavered between adequate and subpar, and the team is losing. Death, taxes, and the quarterback bearing a disproportionate share of the blame; if Mark Twain had been alive in the age of ESPN he'd surely have added this third certainty in life. Verica has been booed; worse, his departure from the field has been cheered. Online he's been called an asshole. He's been called worse. His name has been treated like an unspeakable curse word. Are UVA fans unique in this respect? Not an ounce. The backup quarterback is usually the most popular person on the team, but that's true from coast to coast.


The Detroit Tigers just re-signed their starting third baseman, Brandon Inge. Inge is a rarity: a player who'll likely spend his whole (quite long) career with one professional team. A player who wants to. Inge debuted in 2001, and gutted out the miserable 2003 season when the Tigers received all the wrong kinds of attention for their hideously bad 43-119 season. (I did not have to look those numbers up, and I will swear by their truthfulness.) He worked his way up from catcher-by-necessity to third baseman, stuck it out when the Tigers traded for Miguel Cabrera to play his position, got it back when Cabrera moved to first base, and has just taken a hometown discount to remain a Tiger; he'll be 35 or 36 at the end of the contract. This is the kind of behavior that earns you a fierce loyalty from the Detroit fanbase.

This, too, is not unique. I like to think, however, that it's stronger in Detroit than anywhere else. Detroit is not a place that most people are willing to adopt as a home or develop a loyalty to; do so, and Detroit fans will reward you unconditionally. Most Detroit fans.

Inge, you see, is no Hall-of-Famer. He's made just one All-Star Game appearance, and in doing so he became just the eighth player in the history of the Home Run Derby not to grace the bleachers with even a single baseball. Inge holds the Tigers' record for career strikeouts; a really impressive feat considering he's played just half the games of Tiger greats like Al Kaline and Ty Cobb. He's a .250 hitter at best, and though he has some pop he's not in the upper half of major-league third basemen with the bat. The glove is another story; there, he's one of the best.

Not enough for a smallish faction of Tiger fans, whose hatred for Inge is at least as burning and irrational as the love shown him by the rest of the stadium cranks. I posed a question to one of them as we discussed the Inge re-signing; this particular fan had such an extreme dislike for Inge he blurted that he'd rather have anyone (emphasis his) as the Tigers third baseman than Inge - give him Matt Stairs, he said. Even Matt Stairs would be better than than that no-hitting piece of crap Brandon Inge.

Matt Stairs is 42 and batted .194 in 2009, and would be slightly less effective than a dead manatee as a glove man at third base.

The question I posed was this: Do you want to see the Tigers win the World Series, or is it good enough if nine faceless, anonymous guys who happen to be wearing a jersey with the Tigers' logo on it win instead? The answer was longer and delivered in a manner easily imagined with the voice of R. Lee Ermey, but it was basically a wordy way of saying the latter and boiled down to this: It's the pros, not college. Just win, baby.


Just win, baby. USC just won in 2004 and 2005, making repeat trips to the national title game. Florida State didn't do quite as much winning in 2006 and 2007, but the record books for both USC's 2005 season and FSU's '06 and '07 show the same number: Zero. It's possible to take Vince Lombardi's maxim - "winning isn't everything, it's the only thing" - to harmful extremes. It cost one team a national championship and one coach the all-time wins record; it would be hard to imagine a greater cost of ignoring the "peripheral" stuff. Unless you threw a Heisman Trophy into the conversation, too.

So winning can be tainted. Winning can be more satisfying and less satisfying. We could probably agree that if the school's strength and conditioning program took a page out of East Germany's playbook and turned women into near-men, and men into Ivan Drago, any wins that would result would be worthless to us. Worse than worthless. College or pros, this holds true.

But as with every issue in sports - even the numbers on the scoreboard - gray areas abound. What kind of win you're happy with surely does not hold true for 100% of the fanbase; there is your fourth Twain-esque certainty. And so I ask again: why do you want UVA to win? Glory for the school? Your son or daughter is playing? You have since you were six and have no answer except that you can't imagine it any other way?

I submit to you that for some people, the answer - not the one they'd give, the real answer, the one rooted in psychology and Freud and Rorschach tests and all of that - is purely selfish. They'd hem and haw and tell you things like "that's why you play the game" but the root is selfish. Just win, baby. Al Davis can get away with it; it's his team. For the rest of us, we root because that's the hometown team or the alma mater and it makes us feel good when they win. The adrenaline actually flows. So do the endorphins. I'm no biology major, but that's the truth. And then we get to brag. How terrific is that? We have something to feel proud about and we like to let our friends know it, just as we do when we achieve things on our own. At least in college, there is a personal touch. You chose that school, you went there too, and by God you chose right, at least on this particular Saturday.

That selfishness is there in all of us; the problem is that for some of us, it's all there is. There's no interest in who or how. There is only the win or the loss. Accept nothing less than the win. It's a laudable idea, corrupted. We aren't the ones winning or losing. It matters little what we accept. We can only affect that on a very macro level; too many losing seasons and we stop giving them money. Any more than that and you're just being obnoxious. It leads to a lot of very annoying things. Who cares about Marc Verica, or the work he's put in to get to the top of the depth chart, or the dues he's paid, or the leadership that his team looks to him for? No, gratification is what's important. The coaches should play Ross Metheny. He's the future. That is, until he's the present, and then eventually he's the past and just an obstacle in the way, just like Verica even though he's still playing.

And the cycle continues. Mark my words, if the team is scuffling in 2013, the same people who demanded more Ross Metheny will be demanding much less Ross Metheny.

But this leads us back to the original question: Who do you root for? What do you root for? Do you want this football team to win, or do you want any football team to win as long as they wear the orange and blue and there's a V-Sabre on their helmet? When the Tigers take the field next April, I want them to win because I've always wanted them to win, and because - selfishly - I'm happy when they do. And I want them to win because Brandon Inge, and other loyal Tigers who bust their butt for the team, deserve it. I will still want them to win if Inge is traded, just as I still wanted them to win after trading Curtis Granderson. But Austin Jackson - Granderson's replacement - has a few years of catching up to do.

But more than a whole host of World Series wins, I want a team worth rooting for. I don't just want UVA to win, I want Marc Verica to win. I want Keith Payne and Ras-I Dowling and Dontrelle Inman to win. That means not sacrificing 13 senior seasons for the nebulous possibility of what could be a better chance to win next year. It means drawing a line between discussing the ups and downs of individual performances, and using the downs as an excuse to shove the player aside. It means rooting for what you've got instead of trying to discard that in favor of what might be. I'm disappointed in the segment of the fanbase that wants the shiny new toy at the expense of the present. It's the brattiest, most selfish kids that are the most demanding at the toy store; in a sense, there's a strong resemblance.


Anonymous said...

Amen. I barred myself from message boards last year for this very reason. Fans can be so venomous and reactionary and I got tired of hearing it. It's about the players, man!
Same holds true in basketball. As pumped as I am for a big new recruiting class, I was sad to see Sylven and especially Jeff Jones leave. Jones was a rising senior who had stuck with the program through a coaching change and his own ups and downs, and took a lot of heat from fans for not living up to the high school hype he didn't generate. He was primed for a good end to his career here this year, it'll be sad to see him finish out in a Rider uniform.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed your Brandon Inge parallel. The same holds true for my "selfish" love of the Redskins. I wanted Jason Campbell to win, Jim Zorn to win. Guys like Ladell Betts, Antwan Randle-el, Jason Campbell and Mike Sellers to win. Although all of these guys aren't still on the team (except Sellers) I still root for them individually on their new teams just because they were the glue guys, the hard workers. Great analysis and keep the win-capitalists in check.

Adam said...

I can appreciate this argument, but I think the example of Verica may only be the best because it's the present. I don't give as much credit to Verica because the 'dues' he's paid and the work he's put in has only put him in the right place at the right time. This year is the only year that he was moved up the depth chart because he was better than the competition, and not because the competition left, or in some cases, disappeared. I don't hold any ill-will towards him, but I can understand the desire to throw one of the kids in to a sink or swim situation.

Brendan said...

Being in the right place at the right time is big part of any success, sure. But he could as easily not have done any of that work, being pulled in and out of the lineup the way he's been.

We demand loyalty from our athletes - how many times have you heard someone say "if he doesn't want to be here then screw him"? Even before they actually leave, like when Tristan Spurlock flirted with the idea of leaving twice - first he didn't, then he did. Why demand that loyalty and then not reward it?