Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Road Fans, Staying until the End, the Mushroom Stool Curse, and Other Ramblings

I.e. What you think about during losing seasons

“Go T-Will! Go S-mardo!” For what seemed like the millionth time this year, I found myself sitting in front of a road fan during last Monday’s Georgetown-Louisville match-up. She was loud and obnoxious and she even brought her own “3” signs. (I don’t ever remember seeing someone bring props to a road game before.)

Thankfully Louisville got a big enough lead that she was eventually quiet in the second half. (The Louisville fan in the lower level who was going nuts over a charge call with a 16 point lead on the other hand, may need some help.)

She also definitely beat the Marquette clapper woman who was sitting next to me at the previous game. Every time Marquette got a basket, there was this extended clap. Clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap. Got it, Marquette got a basket.

Basically, it has been a season full of painful home losses and painful losses in general. And when my team loses, I find it is hard to focus on the minute details of gameplay or technique. (I will say that Louisville has an incredible ability to know which players to leave open in which situations.) But mostly, the losses just run together and my grim expression is only broken by flipping on the TV and seeing some random upset. Or Blake Griffin jumping over the scorer’s table.

(For the record, I’d also like to thank Georgetown for beating Villanova and then blowing a 15 point lead to St. John’s. It was like you wanted to make me relive the whole painful season in two games. Thanks for one last punch in the gut.)

But the worst part about this whole experience is that instead of writing my normal blog posts, I end up writing rambling essays like the one that follows. Some of it ties together, but I’m not even sure it has a point at the end. Consider yourself warned.

The Lower Deck Outfield is Much Nicer

My first memories of live sports occurred as a Minnesota Twins fan. My grandfather would take us down to the game; we would park miles away from the stadium; and we would sit in the cheapest possible seats in the upper deck outfield. It seemed like every game we went to had the same flavor. We’d be playing the Oakland A’s. We’d lose 8-1. And the only real highlight was Kirby Puckett getting a couple of hits. Let’s just say I didn’t really like sports when I was in grade school.

By 8th grade, I had become friends with a kid who had regular access to Twins season tickets. That year, I got my first taste of sports magic. A mid-summer game went to extra innings, but in the 15th inning, the road team scored to take a 2-1 lead. And just when all hope appeared lost, the Twins put together a few hits, loaded the bases, and won 3-2 in the bottom of the 15th. It was at that point that I decided I was a “stay to the last minute fan”. I don’t care what happens, I’m not leaving until the final buzzer sounds.

The Mushroom Stool Curse is Born

Around this time, the Twins won arguably the closest and most dramatic World Series of all time. Six of the seven games were decided in the 7th inning or later. Most games were decided by 1 run. Kirby Puckett even hit a walk-off home run in game six.

We had a mushroom footstool in our living room at the time, and I remember leaning on that thing at all different angles, desperately cheering the team to victory. And sometime during game seven I remember kneeling at that footstool and saying something to myself that I have long regretted. A self-imposed curse, if you will.

“Come on Twins, win this game! I don’t care about all those other teams. I don’t care about the Timberwolves, the North Stars, or the Vikings. I’d just really like to win the World Series. If you win the World Series I don’t care if those other teams ever win a championship. I don’t even care if the Twins ever win again. I just want to win right now!”

And in the bottom of the 10th, Gene Larkin hit a walk-off single and the Twins won the World Series. I was a complete geek throughout my youth and never missed school, but I missed school for the Twins victory parade. I didn’t know it at the time, but my future wife was also braving the freezing temperatures and early winter snow flurries to cheer for the Twin’s parade. Turns out she had a knack for sports fanaticism then too.

Within the next few years the Twins went from champs, to competitive, to an extended decade of futility. A decade of losing seasons meant a whole generation of youngsters grew up without ever knowing that the Twins could win. I lost interest in baseball, but that might have happened even if the Twins had been decent. That’s because, in the early 90’s, my mother got season tickets to the Minnesota Vikings.

Cris Carter in the endzone, Touchdown Vikings!

I think a game against Green Bay from 1993 epitomized why I loved being a Vikings season ticket holder. It was a dreadful defensive game. Neither team could do anything right. Minnesota had kicked 4 field goals and Green Bay led 13-12. But with 6 seconds left, Jim McMahon rolled out and saw seldom-used return made Eric Guiliford wide open down the field. Guiliford caught only one pass in two years with the Vikings. And this was that pass. Weak-armed Jim McMahon heaved a 45-yard bomb down the field and the stadium went nuts. The Vikings won a few plays later.

But the sound of that 45-yard pass still gets my heart pulsing today. The sound of 63,000 people going nuts cannot be replicated. I’ve never felt it in a baseball stadium. Maybe if I had been in the Metrodome for the World Series, I would have felt it. But this was game 5 of a regular season NFL game. The Vikings went on to finish 9-7 that year. But the emotional response of 63,000 fans going crazy changed my life as a sports fan forever.

Purple Pride, Purple Pride, Purple Pride

The Vikings era was also significant for another reason: The 1998 season. It started with Brad Johnson hitting Randy Moss for his first career TD right in front of me. And by the end of the season, the Vikings were 15-1, and the radio was blaring “We’re going to Miami”. I had never been more confident in a team. And then Gary Anderson missed his first FG of the season in the NFC Championship game.

And in overtime, Atlanta’s Morten Anderson was the one lined up for a kick. As the fans around me stood and waved their arms, I stared through a tiny little window at the Atlanta bench. I didn’t watch the kick. I watched the bench. And when the Atlanta players started jumping up and down, I knew the kick was good. The Vikings had lost. The 15-1 season was blown. The Mushroom Stool Curse was just beginning.

The Mushroom Stool Curse held in Champaign as well. Despite a 32-1 record in 2005 and 5 NCAA tournament wins, Illinois lost in the NCAA championship game to North Carolina.

And the Mushroom Stool Curse held in DC where Georgetown went to the Final Four, but no further.

And the Mushroom Stool Curse has held up over time in Minnesota too where none of the four teams (Vikings, Wolves, Wild, or Twins) has won a title since 1991.

16 Years of Home Wins

But more shockingly, despite my curse of no championships, life has been good. In roughly 9 years as a Viking’s season ticket holder, and in roughly 8 years as a college basketball season ticket holder, I have never been a season ticket holder for a team with a losing record at home. Even in 2001, my final year as a Viking season ticket holder, when the Vikings went 5-11, they went 5-3 at home.

But not this year. Georgetown is 3-5 at home in Big East games. And a win against DePaul in the finale won’t change that.

I’ve cheered for a lot of bad teams in my life. I’ve seen a decade of T-Wolves first round losses and a decade of last place Twins teams. I’ve been a Gopher Football fan and pretty much no team has had more heart-breaking losses than the Gophers since 1967. (If you don’t believe me, go pick up the ESPN College Football Encyclopedia.) But I’ve never actually held season tickets to an obviously under-achieving team.

I’ve never had to watch as the student section shrink from filling seats all the way up to the upper deck vs Syracuse, to leaving 1400 unclaimed foam fingers for a game against Louisville.

And this losing season has been made worse by Washington DC, a city where it is always painful to cheer for the local teams. With so many people from other states living in the DC area, there are road fans at every game.

At last Tuesday’s Flyers – Capitals game, I ended up watching a Flyers fan taunt us with how we had never won a Stanley Cup. Ouch, you’ve got me. I’ve been to a handful of Capitals games in my life, I’m sitting in the cheapest seat in the stadium, and you feel the need to stand up and yell in my general direction that I suck? Good times.

The Value of the Regular Season

It makes me wonder how much we take for granted the regular season. In Minnesota, Denny Green was practically run out of town, but I regularly polled season ticket holders, and found they had a completely different view.

My hypothesis:
If you have season tickets, winning the home games is very important to you.
If you are a casual fan, all you really care about is an occasional championship run.

Obviously season ticket holders love titles too. But that seems like a pipe dream at this point. Unless you believe that Sage Rosenfels, Brian Cardinal’s expiring contract, or Nick Punto are the answer.

The 15th Inning

Well, I don’t care if Georgetown lost to St. John’s tonight. I don’t care if Minnesota doesn’t know how to make a jump shot. Maybe its naïve, but I’m staying til the 15th inning. It’s almost time for the conference tournaments, and I still have hope. Championship week is my favorite week of the year. And even if I don't have the heart to tell you why, click here. (That’s a link to Card Chronicle at the end for those of you who stopped reading twelve paragraph’s ago.)