I’ve learned a lot in the last two years about baseball fandom, why my hair turns gray, and possibly why Just for Men and Rogaine spend fortunes targeting baseball fans. Most importantly, I’ve learned that the conclusion of the epic journey that is a baseball season is intense because a team’s failure, and the fear of it, is more dramatic than success or its desire.
It is human nature to be loss-averse. In a 2006 article in the New Yorker, John Cassidy explored the phenomenon in relation to financial decision making:
“If you present people with an even chance of winning a hundred and fifty dollars or losing a hundred dollars, most refuse the gamble, even though it is to their advantage to accept it: if you multiply the odds of winning—fifty per cent—times a hundred and fifty dollars, minus the odds of losing—also fifty per cent—times a hundred dollars, you end up with a gain of twenty-five dollars. If you accepted this bet ten times in a row, you could expect to gain two hundred and fifty dollars. But, when people are presented with it once, a prospective return of a hundred and fifty dollars isn’t enough to compensate them for a possible loss of a hundred dollars. In fact, most people won’t accept the gamble unless the winning stake is raised to two hundred dollars.”
While aversion to losses easily translates into my baseball fandom, my definition of “loss averse” has changed over the course of the past two years.
2010 was the most exciting season in Texas Rangers history. The team caught the national media and most baseball fans off-guard as they won their first pennant. I was thrilled. Rangers fans were thrilled, and hundreds of thousands finally discovered or rediscovered the local team.
To reach the World Series in 2010, Texas had to overcome the two biggest demons on its unflattering historical ledger. They had to win their first ever postseason series, and they had to beat the team that stepped on the team’s head each time the franchise finally rose up for air in the late nineties. The October road to the Series was tense and dramatic, and the Rangers prevailed despite national expectations.
However, when the Rangers opened the World Series in San Francisco, I experienced something strange and unexpected. After hoping and dreaming of a Rangers World Championship all my life, I was content with any outcome once the team finally reached the big stage. Fat, happy, satiated, and shocked by my indifference, I realized that my desire for them to succeed was trumped by my recently eradicated fear of the team’s failure.
The World Series seemed almost anticlimactic.
While it’s ridiculous to expect a team to win or even reach the World Series, I held the much more reasonable expectation of them to be in the final October mix. I would have been disappointed had the Rangers simply met that objective.
When the Yankees and Phillies were eliminated on successive days earlier this month, the media’s narrative turned to hand-wringing over potentially low World Series TV ratings. Sure, the two teams have large fan bases ready to watch their team vie for another title. But of equal importance, they also have swarms of detractors who hope for nothing but the worst for the big-spending, dynastic, titans of the Northeast. The real ratings boost would likely have come from outsiders tuning in to root for their failure.
Die-hards and purists realize the drama associated with failure. It makes sense. To me, the single most gut-wrenching and dramatic moment of the postseason didn’t take place when the Rangers were at the plate. The most intense moment of the Rangers season thus far was a Nelson Cruz rope; not off his bat, but his throw that nailed Miguel Cabrera at home and overcame a pending disaster.
The unindoctrinated, late-arriving, and casual fans often don’t experience what truly makes baseball great. The enduring investment of emotion and time over the course of a year, or years, exponentially raises the stakes. April optimism becomes Summer faith and loyalty. The July trade deadline inspires hope for either October or next season and beyond. General managers must trade away resources for instant returns, or build their portfolio for the long haul. Either way, the fans’ emotional nest egg grows larger.
The upstart Rangers organization’s 2010 success significantly grew the club’s fan base for 2011. Fans who may not have truly appreciated a parade down Mckinney Avenue, to Nolan Ryan Expressway, to Sundance Square were given the opportunity to “buy low” for the 2011 season. Still, local DFW TV ratings have unsurprisingly doubled from the LDS to the World Series. The million+ fans who are tuning in now are not fully invested, and unfortunately can’t share the full excitement generated by what they’ve missed. They may rejoice in the potential success, but have missed the real drama fans enjoyed while watching the team repeatedly sidestep failure at every step all season while on their way to a 3-2 World Series lead.
On the Brink
The closer this season gets to its conclusion, the more I appreciate where the Rangers stand. As bright as the future looks, and it is very promising, things can unexpectedly turn around in a hurry.
In a “perfect” world, each of the 30 Major League teams would win a championship every 30 years. The 27 World Championships you might have heard about from a certain American League team? Take away the other-worldly four in five years at the end of the century, and they have “only” three in the last fifty years. After that? In the last half-century, the second highest total is three, shared by three teams including the Cardinals.
This week the Rangers will win their first ever championship, and my lifelong investment will reach maturity.
Unless, of course, they do what they haven’t done in two months – lose consecutive games. That would be a failure I’m not ready to deal with.