David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Sporting Headaches

December 28, 2015

Yesterday afternoon, I painfully watched a half of football between the Green Bay Packers and the Arizona Cardinals.  The Packers were 10-4 and set to go to the playoffs again, and yet I was anticipating a depressing showing.  They didn't disappoint and as a result, I never even watched the second half.  It's one of the spoils of sports that seasons with winning records don't mean anything if our teams flame out in the playoffs.  And there is no doubt that is what will happen to the Packers.

It has gotten me thinking about whether having favorite teams in sports has been a good thing in my life.  Unless one thinks that being happy 11% of our lives is a healthy way to get through life, the answer is a resounding "no."  Allow me to explain how I came to this conclusion.

In short, I have passionately followed 179 seasons of 6 sports' teams over the course of my life.  Out of those 179 seasons, I figure 19 of those seasons ended me with being happy (generally, meaning that my team won the championship).  I don't claim to hold myself up (or down) as more miserable than the average Cleveland fan (of all sports), or of a Cubs' fan.  I do believe that my results here are pretty typical for the average sports' fan in general.  Heck, even the biggest New York Yankees' fan has probably had his or her happiness diluted by fondness for the Knicks or the Jets.

And if I have been ecstatic 11% of my life, as it relates to sporting events, I have been worse than miserable, downright destitute, many, many more times.  Allow me to explain by delving into the specifics.  I will list the teams in declining order of years of Fleming loyalty.

The Pittsburgh Pirates (Fan for 45 years)

Twice since 1970, the Pirates have won a World Championship: 1971 and 1979.  Great years, wonderful teams, and overall the 70's were a good decade for being a Pirates' fan.  But there is pain, within that decade and much later:

1972 -- Pirates blow a ninth inning lead in the deciding game of the NL championship, losing eventually on a wild pitch by Bob Freaking Moose.

1973 -- The Pirates' franchise player, Roberto Clemente, dies in a plane crash and the team completely falls apart. 

1975 -- Reds beat Pirates three straight in the playoffs to go to the World Series.  My dad and I go to our only playoff game, the third game, and watch Pete Rose hit a freaking homerun in the 8th inning to change the game. 

1980-1987 -- Pittsburgh baseball is better known for its drug habis in the 80s than its dugout habits.  1985 at the height of the drug trials, the Pirates are trotting out players like Sammy Khalifa, Steve Kemp, Mike Brown, R. J. Reynolds, and the only joy when going to a Pirates' game is yelling at a player for "sniffing the baseline."

1990 - The Pirates are back, winning their division for the first time in 12 years.  The damn Reds beat us again in the playoffs, and Bobby Bonilla trying to stretch a double into a triple to be thrown out by Eric Davis is the nightmare every Pirates' fan will have for two years until another outfield throw haunts us worse.

1992 -- Three straight division championships, three straight losses in the playoffs. A 2-0 Pirates' lead in the bottom of the 9th blown with ex-Pirate Sid Bream scoring on a pinch-hit single by Francisco Cabrera, a guy with 89 lifetime hits.  I end up walking the streets of Bloomington, Indiana, in complete shock. In retrospect, why would I ever care for another sporting event?

Between 1993 and 2013, there are 19 years of Pirates' misery.  No single game registers as a milestone, how could individual games be made out of 3078 games featuring such un-noteworthy players like Keith Osik, Adrian Brown, Josh Fogg, and Midre Cummings.

Even these last three years, with playoff appearances, the joy has been snuffed at the end by St. Louis Cardinals, Madison Bumgarner, and, out of all teams, the Chicago Cubs.

West Virginia University Football (Fan for 40 years)

College football complicates my computations.  College Football coaches are the only coaches in sport who can get a pat on a back for going 7-6, as long as they go to a bowl game, and even moreso if they win the Pinstripe Bowl. 

As a result, I might give 6 Mountaineer football seasons as ending "happily":  1975, 1981, 1984 (WVU beats both Penn State, for the first time, and a Doug Flutie-led Boston College team), 2005, and 2011.  However, 1984 needs an asterisk, because after the highs of beating those two teams mentioned above, we proceeded to lose to Rutgers and Temple.  I am not sure any other college has ever had to write that phrase "lost to both Rutgers and Temple."

2007 might have been included as the greatest joy any Mountaineer has ever felt (as that is the year we destroyed Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl), except that it also represents that team's Francisco Cabrera moment, losing to Pitt in the last regular season game, when all we had to do was beat that mediocre team to go to the National Championship game.

In addition, there is the depression of seeing Major Harris get injured on the third play of the 1989 Fiesta Bowl, against Notre Dame (my dad and I in attendance), and never really compete in the national championship game.

It doesn't take long for Mountaineer fans' to relive the horrors of the following:

The 1989 Backyard Brawl against Pitt, we blow a 20-point lead to end up in a 31-31 tie with Pitt.  If a tie is liking kissing your sister, a tie to Pitt is like kissing your transgendered sister.

A 1993 humiliating loss to Florida in the Sugar Bowl, culminating another perfect season ending up dramatically imperfectly.

1996's Backyard Brawl ends up a triple overtime loss to Pitt.

In 2004 we get off to an 8-1 start, but then lose three straight. and still can't win the pathetic football conference that was called the Big East

In 2009 we can't even beat the University of Connecticut, fumbling, literally, the Big East title away.

West Virginia University Basketball (Fan for 39 years)

Struggling to remember many specific games before 2000, I realize that it says everything when the Wikipedia article on WVU basketball fails to mention anything about the team for the years 1960-2000.  Gale Catlett isn't even a footnote in the team's history. 

Otherwise, college basketball, like college football, can survive on lesser expectations than championships, especially when the leading "do-it-yourself" online encyclopedia refuses to even include anything after Rod Thorn played in the late 1950s until John Beilein came in as coach.  As a result, I will count two years of unmitigated joy: 2005, when the best-named player ever, Kevin Pittsnogle, led us to the Sweet Sixteen, and 2010, when Bob Huggins coached us to our only Big East Championship and the Final Four.

However, that's a lot of lean years and disppointing losses (there are films of Georgetown losses that just merge indiscriminately in my mind).

Green Bay Packers (Fan for 24 years)

I married into a Packers' family, and given how fairly consistent they have been the last two and a half decades, you would think this would be a happy marriage (the football marriage; the actual marriage has been fine).  Still there are just two Super Bowl victories (1996 and 2010) and a lot of painful losses:

1997 -- Losing to John Elway and the Broncos in the Super Bowl.

1998 -- Losing to Steve Young and the 49'ers in the playoffs.

2004 -- Giving up a 4th and 26 to the freaking Philadelphia Eagles in route to being booted out of the playoffs.

2007 -- Losing to the New York Giants at Lambeau Field to miss the Super Bowl.

2009 -- Losing to the Arizona Cardinals in the playoffs in a game where I think Arizona just scored again.

2011 -- Losing again to the New York Giants at Lambeau Field, missing the Super Bowl, and negating a 15-1 season.

2012 -- Losing to Seattle on Monday Night Football when the replacement officials give the Seahawks a touchdown on a failed Hail Mary pass.

2015 -- Blowing a huge lead to Seattle in the last few minutes and missing the Super Bowl again.  This is the Packer's Francisco Cabrera, mediocre Pitt football team moment.

Miami Dolphins (Fan for 20 years)

Long before I met my wife and her cheesehead family, I was a Dolphins' fan. In an area where everyone was a Steelers' fan, I had taken to the team with the cute fish on their helmets.  I was 8, cut me some slack.  And they rewarded me almost immediately with two Super Bowls, 1972 and 1973, meaning that before I was 12, I had already experienced three championships between the Pirates and the Dolphins. God, is cruel, as I have only seen 3 since (I can't count hockey as it was an adult-induced fandom, as you will see in a minute).

So, instead of the joy of the only undefeated team in a major sports, I have instead the misery of the following Dolphin exploits:

1974 -- Last second loss to Oakland, basically ending the Dolphins' dynasty.

1981 -- San Diego's Kellen Winslow pretty much single-handedly beats the Dolphins' in one of the wildest playoff games ever.

1982 -- New England brings out a snowplow to clear a spot for its kicker before his kick sends the Patriots to a 3-0 victory over the Dolphins in the playoffs. (See New England haters, the cheating started well before Belichick.)

1983 -- John Riggins' plows his way through the Dolphins' defense, taking away Dan Marino's only chance at a Super Bowl.

After 1983, it is a succession of disappointing defenses and ineptitude that blend into one foggy memory.  Eventually Miami brings in Jimmy Johnson (I could take drafting a Pitt quarterback, but not hiring a snakeskin oil salesman as a coach) and I see the Packers as the obvious choice for my interest (if not, as this season has shown, always my enthusiasm).

Detroit Red Wings (Fan for 21 years)

Hockey didn't exist when I was a kid. Sure, the Penguins had a team up there in Pittsburgh, but they drafted Mario Lemieux a year or two after I had moved to Indiana. It was only after moving to Detroit and teaching in the area that I got recruited, very easily, to be a Red Wings' fan. And why wouldn't I?  Almost right away they started winning Stanley Cups (1997, 1998, 2002 and again in 2008), but along the way they lost playoff games to the dreaded Colorado Avalanche and eventually a Stanley Cup to the Penguins in 2009, made all the worse by my turncoat son rooting for the Penguins (and winning our bet on who would win the Cup).

So, I begrudgingly add the Red Wings to my accounting. If anything they brought the % of my happiness into double digits, given that they have made me happy 20% of the seasons I have followed them.  However, that's been difficult to see over the last 6 years of rather mediocre hockey.

As I said at the beginning, I don't write all this looking for sympathy.  I know there are people out there who can account for single-digit happiness in terms of following their favorite teams.  I simply ask everyone to do their own accounting.  In a week, despite three more college football teams having wonderful seasons, only one of these four teams; Clemson, Alabama, Michigan State, and Oklahoma; will feel real joy. The other three will feel devastation.

Oh, and Clemson, if you are the team that experiences the greatest high, just remember: 70-33 in the 2012 Orange Bowl.