Friday, October 23, 2015

Week 8: It is a Sad Day, When Your Sports Team Loses the Game

Sports fandom is inherently silly.  Watching people you do not know chase balls up and down fields or courts or regulation handball galleons is pointless.  Touchdowns? Meaningless.  Slam dunks? Wastes of time.  Butt bumps? Sophomoric, airborne, gluteal showoffery.  Bullpen cars? Only three have ever understood the point of bullpen cars-- Chief Wahoo, who is dead and problematic-- Tommy Lasorda, who has gone mad-- and I, who have forgotten all about it.

The baseball helmet-shaped car taps into the primal fear of hitters, 
reminding them that all that stands between them and a baseball to the 
cranium is a thin, plastic helmet, but look there is a larger helmet, and its 
cruel master is the relief pitcher and he probably has a mustache

Spectator sports are a pointless diversion. Instead of spending free time screaming at neckless people slam dunking on each other and then making fart faces, we should probably learn how to harvest legumes, fend off attackers with nunchuks, and successfully build operational nunchuks.  Or maybe read a goddamn book or something.

Emotional involvement in sports is ridiculous; some guy runs to the other end of a field with a ball and a bunch of people throw their arms up in triumph like we just walked on the goddamn moon and other people watching the same thing are visibly exacerbated, only slightly less devastated than discovering that it was Earth all along you maniacs.  For a ball!  It's madness.

And yet, here we are.  If you are reading this blog you probably like sports to a level of derangement that involves locating a blog about Northwestern football that is only less ludicrous than actually writing several thousand words about Northwestern football and nineteenth-century mustaches and reviews of books about botanical piracy that are read by fewer people than attendees at a Lincoln Chaffee rally, he wrote, chuckling then pausing to adjust his blogging gloves at that topical political reference.

Of course, the reason why it is fun to get all wrapped up in sports is because there are no real consequences.  There's three hours of yelling and cheering and incredulously making gestures at the referee and feeling elation or dejection at something that we have no control over and has no bearing on the rest of our complicated lives.  There's a simple line: there's our team and the other team and our ONE WEEK DAILY FANTASY SPORTS TEAM IT'S SO EASY JUST SELECT YOUR PLAYERS AND GIVE YOUR CREDIT CARD INFORMATION AND YOU TOO CAN MAKE MILLIONS JUST LIKE THIS MONOTONE IN A WES WELKER JERSEY WHO LOOKS LIKE THE WORD ACTUALLY BROUGHT TO LIFE WHEN A BOLT OF LIGHTNING HIT A PACKET OF COMBOS.

Or maybe this is all just a long justification for why it is kind of a bummer when all of your sports teams lose badly in a single week in the Anthology of Sports Horror.


Northwestern has been mercilessly clobbered in its last two football games.  Have the Wildcats just run into two very good teams?  Are they still good at football?  Have they entered some sort of ranked football Logan's Run scenario where whenever they hit a certain AP Rank they are then hunted down by Big Ten teams and run over by fullbacks?  No one has any idea.

Iowa takes a commanding 33-10 lead at Ryan Field

The vaunted Wildcat defense has succumbed to a rash of injuries and tired as an unceasing succession of punts and turnovers has kept them onto the field.  The offense over the past two games has resembled a hungry dog spotting a raw stake on a counter but unable to devise a plan to get it because it is a dog.  Northwestern's struggles to move the ball are nothing new; the 'Cats have relied on defense, turnovers, and special teams all season and remained content to use Justin Jackson as a battering ram against lesser defenses. Now, against tougher Big Ten defenses that have had seven games to scout the Wildcats' leather helmet offensive playbook, the offense needs to find ways to stay on the field and score points or Mick McCall needs to reveal that college football's new inefficiency is punt muffs, and Northwestern will revolutionize the sport by giving opponents as many opportunities to drop punts as possible.

Northwestern has had a baffling season.  Few fans started the year with high expectations as the 'Cats had to break in a freshman quarterback and faced two tough non-conference opponents.  Then, Northwestern surged to 5-0, inspiring dreams of a run for the West.  After two brutal blowout losses, Northwestern seems lost.  Two years ago, when Northwestern's last dream season fell off the rails, the 'Cats suffered a series of ridiculous close losses.  This season, they have been completely outclassed, unlikely to be favored in a Big Ten game again except home against Purdue and maybe against Illinois in Hatpocalypse: Soldier Field.  It is still possible, even likely that Northwestern grabs a bowl bid, which would be a vast improvement over the past two miserable bowl-less years.  But six or maybe seven wins and a bowl, which would have delighted fans over the summer, now feels hollow.  A win over a reeling Nebraska team could give the 'Cats an opportunity to turn the faltering season around.  Another miserable blowout could put in the meager bowl dreams in question and allow Northwestern's lawyers to file an injunction against the Associated Press from ever ranking them again. 


The NFL season is not even halfway finished, but there was already no point to a Bears-Lions game. The Bears had come off two consecutive thrilling comeback victories and the Lions had yet to win a single game all season, but everyone had seen enough to know that these two teams specialize in futility.  After 60 minutes of uninspired nincompoopery, the teams proved themselves equally bad and, for some reason, the National Football League allowed the game to continue into overtime. After some 11 minutes of helpless flailing, the Detroit Lions managed to scrape a field goal, win the game, and begin a season of jockeying for position against the Bears in order to determine who will draft a guy who will instantaneously shed all of his ligaments like a molting caterpillar, completely forget how to tackle people, or disappear of the face of the earth only to return a decade later with an eyepatch and a team consisting of 52 helmeted brooms to apply for an expansion franchise.  

Detroit's overtime win prevented the team from sinking into the ignominy 
of the Matt Millen era, who has slunk back to television as a professional 

The game was marred by a questionable call on an apparent interception in the endzone by a Bears linebacker that was ruled a touchdown.  The Lions are no strangers to bizarre catch calls.  Calvin Johnson was famously victimized by catch ambiguity in a 2010 game-- now the so-called "Calvin Johnson" rule is invoked whenever a wide receiver makes a spectacular catch in the endzone that, after 25 minutes of review and a pixel-by-pixel analysis and Troy Aikman saying "Joe, I don't think that's a catch. Joe" a dozen times, the the catch is inexplicably ruled an incompletion.  At this point, the NFL no longer needs an instant replay booth-- it needs to send questionable catches to a conference of French postmodern philosophers who, after two years of peer review, will determine that a catch is shaped by systems of language and state-imposed power structures while a desperate crew of NFL broadcasters grow haggard in their booths, surrounded by copies of Representations. 

AIKMAN: Joe, if you take a look at that discourse there, I mean that's just
a philosopher's thesis right there, just the type of argument you want at the
philosophy position.
BUCK: Joe.

Regardless of the call, the Bears had no business winning the game. It featured a patented Jay Cutler endzone interception, which he tosses out at this point like a catchphrase from a washed-up sitcom actor at a mall appearance before wearily collecting his check. The Bears have actually had exciting games; the maligned Cutler seems to have found his niche heroically leading comebacks against other terrible teams as every other phase of the team falls apart around him. Meanwhile, the Bears have fallen into traditional Bear dysfunction. The Bears released Jeremiah Ratliff after the police removed him from Halas Hall because he reportedly got into a screaming altercation with the General Manager.  Maybe it would help to change the name of the Bears' facility because Halas Hall sounds like the name of an English estate where languid aristocrats pass the summer months scheming against each other and enlisting footmen their intrigues. 

A Midnight Modern Conversation at Halas Hall 

The Bears' loss featured not only a bizarre call, but also a Detroit comeback allowed by John Fox's punt 'em all and let God sort 'em out philosophy while clinging to a lead with less than three minutes left. But it's not a particularly painful loss, since the Bears are abysmal and Fox's conservative gameplans will not affect anything that matters. Fox remains a breath of fresh air after replacing Marc Trestman, who seemed to relate to his players by having his face suddenly appear in their windows when lightning flashes. 


The 2015 season was the most fun summer of Cubs baseball I've ever experienced. The desperation emanating from a 107-year title drought dragging the corpses of generations of disappointed Cubs fans in its wake tried to ruin it. The future of the Cubs, with their heralded group of dinger zealots is bright. The future of the Cubs today and until the moment they either hoist a World Series trophy or baseball is outlawed by an Evil Future Government as described in every science fiction movie for the past 30 years remains bleak. 


There should be no heartbreak in Wrigleyville. The Cubs relied on five rookies this season. They started Kyle Hendricks and Jason Hammel in key spots. Hammel never recovered from an injury and gradually transformed from an effective starter into a batting practice pitching machine. Hendricks throws dipping, darting sinkers and changeups and looks like he spends the days he is not pitching maintaining the Clark the Cub twitter account. It goes without saying that he is one of my favorite Cubs, but he is also not the most comforting sight on the mound in a do-or-die playoff game. The team, laden with cheap rookie contracts and the deep pockets of the Ricketts family, will attempt to bolster the rotation with high-profile arms. 

 The Cubs got completely walloped in the series. The Mets' equally exciting young pitchers completely shut the Cubs down. Lester and Arrieta could not respond in kind. Nothing, though, was more dispiriting than the transformation of Daniel Murphy, Anonymous Middle Infielder, into the best baseball player on the face of the Earth. Murphy has hit half as many home runs in nine playoff games as he did over the course of a 162 game season. He has hit them off Zach Greinke, Clayton Kershaw, and Jake Arrieta, all vying for the National League Cy Young Award. It is as if the universe had allowed the Cubs to enjoy too much success and sent a scourge to the Earth in the form of a guy with a career .755 OPS. His run would be delightful and absurd except when it is your team that is being viciously murphied out of existence in front of an increasingly horrified crowd. 

The Cubs were not supposed to be here. But that is cold comfort. The Cubs certainly seem to be set up for a period of contention, but nothing is guaranteed and even making the playoffs each year is an arduous task unless you root for the grimly inevitable St. Louis Cardinals. Next season will bring an inordinate amount of pressure on a young team from Cubs fans who expect a championship. The one positive is that we have all been liberated from ever having to hear about Back to the Future again and the next person who brings up Back to the Future should be flung head first into a pile of manure that is bought specifically to ram Back to the Future people's heads in. 


There is no curse. For most of the past century, the Cubs have been inept at baseball, and they have rarely even had a chance to completely implode in the playoffs. The Cubs could one day make it back to the World Series since the invention and fall of the Iron Curtain. Until they make it, every playoff pitch carries the weight of crushing inevitability, of the possibility of never seeing them win a championship, of the punishment of an infinite series of Murphys that will only end with the Cubs eliminating their ridiculous drought and finally taking their rightful place as one of the most reviled teams in baseball that no one ever wants to see ever win anything again. 


Sports misery is absurd. We can all turn off our televisions, turn in our tickets, and go about our lives without it making an iota of difference. Northwestern can be ranked 120 or 1. The Bears can continue to play like they have all season forever. The Cubs can miss the World Series for the rest of our lives and all of the lives of our descendants. It does not matter. But it's fun that for a few hours a week, it sort of does. 

Northwestern's performance this Saturday against a down-on-its-luck Nebraska team means nothing in the larger context of our lives. It means very little even in the world of college football, with two Big Ten West also-rans slugging away at each other for bowl positioning. But I'll be tuned in on Saturday, riveted as ever. Because what is at stake should they win this game or any other is the relative prestige of hypothetical fly-by-nite bowl game operations and that injustice demands reckoning.

No comments: