There is nothing quite so terrible and tedious as rooting for a bad baseball team. And the Cubs have been a baseball team the past few years.
I bring this up because this has been a particularly dirty week for me. I would really like to see the Pirates pull out the division, even if this seems particularly unlikely at this late date and with the Reds coming up next on the schedule. That means the Pirates really needed to catch up this series. I won’t happen now, though they won’t come away any worse than tied with the Reds heading into this weekend’s big series. They may even be two up depending on how things play out today. For all this to happen, though, at least for the past few days, I had to root against the Cubs. I also had to root for the Mets and Nationals, which isn’t quite so bad, but two teams that probably get more attention than they deserve thanks to where they play. I’ll wash away this past series with a nice, hot shower and get to root even more fervently than usual for the Cubs against the Cardinals to end the season, though, so that will be nice.
Still, geez, the Cubs were pretty bad this year, coming off a pretty bad year last year. I think many got the feeling that flaming out against the Dodgers in 2008 was the closing of that title window, but I don’t think anybody realized how hard and how quickly that window slammed. Things were still okay, if disappointing, in 2009 when the Cubs managed an 83-78 record. They were second in the division that year, finishing 7.5 behind the Cardinals. Nine games out of the Wild Card, though. Since then, though, the team has gone 272-372 to date. And will most likely get worse, seeing as they finish up with two of the best teams in baseball. If they were totally inept, it would at least be interesting to see how they found ways to lose. But they’re not. They’re just bad, and it’s hard to watch.
Baseball is an awfully long season. That’s one big reason why watching a bad baseball team is the worst. Your football team is bad? You just have to suck it up for sixteen Sundays, or ten to twelve Saturdays, depending on what level of college you’re talking about. Basketball or hockey teams are unbearable? That’s up to 82 games, which isn’t chump change, but it’s still half of a baseball season. And the schedule is structured so much differently to play that many games. You only get once a week to watch football (even if it’s not necessarily on Sundays any more). Basketball and hockey play, what, three times a week or so? Baseball plays practically every day. Every single day of summer, your local baseball team is trotting out, and in these unfortunate cases, they’re trotting back with a loss far more often than not.
Another big reason for the awfulness is how players are developed. In basketball and football especially, you are probably also following the college game and know who your team is likely to be rewarded with for losing. For Colts fans during the Curtis Painter year, it was much more bearable to watch the team flounder when you knew it would likely lead to Andrew Luck. Same idea in basketball. Fans of less fortunate teams are already wringing their hands in delight thinking of Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker amongst others. While the losing still isn’t fun, it’s much more palatable.
Hockey and baseball are quite a bit different, though. These sports have well-developed minor league systems and typically take the best players right out of high school. Sure, there are certainly those fans that keep a close eye on the minor league system and have a good idea of what’s in the pipeline, but I don’t think that’s the majority of fans. Without having any idea of who is going to make your team better gives an already very long season an even more futile atmosphere. How players get folded in is much different, too. In football and basketball, you see the player drafted, and you know exactly who to look for in training camps and preseason games. Teams market the hell out of their top draft picks, because you will see them with the team from day one. In baseball and hockey, while you will see a player after he’s first drafted, you usually won’t see him again for a few years while he puts in his time in the minors. There are some exceptions, but they certainly are rare. While you might someday hear about how Andrew McCutchen was a Pirate for (professional) life, that isn’t quite true. The money might have come from Pittsburgh, but he was also an Indian, Curve, and Crawdad, amongst others. Danny Granger and Roy Hibbert? Pacers from day one.*
*Yes, there is the D-League, and Arena and Canadian Football on the other side of things. But I don’t think there’s any argument that those leagues are used far, far differently than minor league baseball and hockey and that those affiliates (for basketball, there is no real minor league football) are far less developed. Heck, even hockey doesn’t have nearly the minor league system baseball does. Practically all baseball teams have six affiliates (AAA, AA, High A, A, Short-Season [aka Low] A, Rookie). The (defending champion) Blackhawks have two affiliates: the Rockford IceHogs and the Toledo Walleye.
When these players do join the team, it’s usually at an awkward time as well, thanks to arbitration rules. Players come up typically some time in June so teams can essentially buy an extra year on their rookie deals and save tons of money. While there are plenty of good reasons to do this both from economic and player development standpoints, it’s no good for the fan of a tanking team. Sure, I think Cub fans wanted to see what Anthony Rizzo had when he came up, but there was no way he was righting that sinking ship. There’s some measure of relief there, I suppose, but it certainly doesn’t balance out seeing your hotshot rookie starting out with a blank slate.
So, yeah, following a bad baseball team is the pits. Following a bad hockey team is nearly as bad, saved mostly that you just don’t have as many games. But, there is a pretty big perk to following both of these sports, whether your team is doing well or not. Playoff baseball and playoff hockey are just top notch. It’s worth a whole other post to explain, but the next level that both these sports go to in the postseason is something to marvel at, whether your team is there or not. And, my goodness, don’t you know it, October is only five days away. My wife might not be as pleased, but I am so pumped. Bring it on!