Winning through Losing

October 18, 2010
A thought by James Berardinelli

Hopefully, this entire column won't be about sports (or, rather, one sport in particular). There is a larger message in here somewhere; I only hope I'm able to bring it out.

I started watching baseball on television in 1973 during the summer between first and second grades. My team of choice was based on geography and radio/television availability. Since I lived in the New York market, I had two options: the Mets or the Yankees. I chose the Mets, in part because we got better reception of channel 9 (which aired Mets games) than channel 11 (Yankees). (This was a few years before it was fashionable to purchase cable to improve reception.) Upon such trivial things is fandom based at an early age. I followed the sport with all the enthusiasm of a kid, meaning I watched the games on TV and extended that passion to playing Little League ball. Although I couldn't hit to save my life, I had such a small strike zone that I was always drawing bases on balls. So, even though my average struggled to stay on the Interstate, my on base percentage was ridiculously high. That happens when you're six inches shorter than everyone else.

At any rate, my enthusiasm for baseball waned around the time I developed an interest in monster movies. Saturday afternoons on the diamond were incompatible with Creature Double Feature and I'm not the best multi-tasker; there's only enough room in my life for one obsession. By the time we moved out of the New York market and into the Philadelphia one (May 1977), I was disinterested in baseball (even to the point of having carelessly disposed of all my baseball cards - a big mistake). I recall having an argument with my father over television domination the first Saturday we were in the new house. He wanted to watch the Mets/Phillies game. I wanted to watch The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (this was back when silent films were occasionally shown on television, albeit PBS). I ended up watching the movie on a small b&w set in the kitchen. Kids never win those arguments.

The Philadelphia Phillies' "glory decade" ran from 1974 through 1983. During that period, they were in contention every year, made the playoffs six times, captured the pennant twice, and won a world championship. Until the current era, it was the best epoch of Phillies baseball in history. So, of course, I started following the team in 1984, the year after it ended. I don't have a clear recollection of the precise reason I began watching baseball games during the summer of 1984. It was probably a casual thing - something I did one evening to kill some time. I found that I liked it and did it again. By August, I was a die-hard, taking a radio with me if I wasn't going to be near a TV. I remember one evening early in the month when the family was at the Jersey shore for two weeks. There was a TV in the house but it was reserved for the Olympics. Reception of the Phillies radio station was terrible, but that didn't stop me from lying on my bed and listening to the voices of Harry Kalas and Rich "Whitey" Ashburn through the din of white noise and in between bursts of more violent static. The next night, I couldn't hear anything because there were thunderstorms in the area.

I attended my first Phillies game in person in 1985 then went to a few games each year during my college period, 1986-1989. In 1990 and 1991, I was a season ticketholder with a partial plan (16 games in 1990; 32 games in 1991). In 1992, I took the plunge and bought a full season plan (all 81 home games). I kept that until 1995 - the year baseball returned after The Big Strike. With my enthusiasm dampened by said strike, I dropped back to a 13-game Sunday plan, and there I have been since, through the transition from the ominous, cavernous Vet to the crowded, cozier Citizens Bank Park. But a strange thing happened along the way: the Phillies, perennial losers, started to win. From 1984 through 2000, they exceeded the .500 mark exactly twice - in 1986, when they finished in second place 21 games behind the Mets, and in 1993, when they captured lightning in a bottle with a bunch of old, scrappy players having career seasons. All those years of losing taught me the proper mindset for being a Philadelphia baseball fan. You care not so much about winning, and certainly not about the standings, but about the game.

An entire generation of Phillies' fans bore the scars of 1964, and therein lay the origins of some deeply rooted cynicism - a cynicism that not even the Glory Decade had wiped away. I did not experience 1964 (not having been born yet) and for that I am grateful. It's the kind of thing that would have driven me away from baseball for good. The Phillies led the division by 6.5 games with 12 to play. One ten-game losing streak later and they were in second place. A last-day shot at a three-way tie for first fizzled when the St. Louis Cardinals beat the Mets to take the pennant outright. Until 2007, this was viewed as the most devastating collapse ever in the sport. It probably still is, although the Mets deserve honorable mention for losing a seven game lead with 17 to go.

The Phillies began winning consistently in 2001. Since the turn of the century, they have finished under .500 only once (2002), and that was with a record of 80-81. After multiple near-misses (2001, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006), they finally returned to the playoffs in 2007 after a 14 year absence. That began a four-year reign of National League East dominance. It's almost hard to remember the lean years when the Phillies were loveable losers. For many not forged by seasons of bad baseball and meaningless Septembers, it's not even a matter of memory but of history.

For someone born no earlier than the mid-1990s (that would encompass children up to and including those now in their mid-teens), the Phillies have always been "winners." True, the team danced with 100 losses in the late '90s, but those future fans were still in their playpens and cribs during those lean years. By the time they were old enough to begin to understand what it meant to appreciate the sport, the obstacle of scaling Mount .500 was a thing of the past. The team was no longer a perennial laughingstock. It's safe to say that the young Phillies fan has never suffered adversity. They're used to winning. They expect winning. They feel they are entitled to it. Woe be unto the Phillies when the inevitable happens and they are unable to provide the avalanche of victories and annual postseason trysts. Baseball is cyclical. Those at the top today will eventually tumble down the mountain into the valley. Some teams do this more slowly and with greater grace than others (the Yankees, for example). Others flat-out collapse and can't seem to find the path back to the top (the Pirates, the Royals). For the Phillies, who are stocked with aging players, the downward spiral looms as the front office struggles to keep the contention window open. And, when the team falls from grace, it's a certainty that fans unused to losing seasons will abandon it. Citizens Bank Park will become a half-full reminder of better days (at least until those days come again).

When did sports become all about winning and losing? When did the proverb "It's not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game" become an outdated cliché? Yes, winning has always been better than losing but, at the end of the day, it's all a dim memory. Where's the value if winning is the only thing that matters? Is it impossible to enjoy a game if one's chosen team loses? In 1992, the year I became a full-season ticket holder for the first time, the Phillies were coming off a bad season and headed for a worse one. Of course, I hoped they would win more than they lost, but the logic centers of my brain recognized that would not happen. It didn't matter. Today, there's a waiting list for Phillies season tickets. Watch that evaporate after a year or two of not making the playoffs.

Here's a curious thing about winning it all. In 2008, the Phillies triumphed in the World Series. I was, of course, ecstatic at the moment it happened. I celebrated by having a small glass of Bailey's and talking excitedly with a friend on the phone for about an hour. I watched some of the post-World Series analysis shows on TV. Then I went to bed. The afterglow was brief. A few days later, with the baseball season fading in the rearview mirror, I moved on to other things. For a fan, the aura of winning has a frustratingly short duration. Those who watch sports only to see victories are chasing an elusive quarry that, even when cornered, will escape. Those who watch sports for the enjoyment of the game (in addition to the hope of winning) will find far more steady and lasting satisfaction.

The rabid desire for victories in sports is little more than a reflection of a societal malaise - one that brands anything other than a decisive triumph as without value. Through the media and by example, we are taught not only to win, but to dominate. It isn't good enough to be better than the "opponent"; it's necessary to obliterate them. Politics has always been a dirty arena but now even the thin veneer of civility has been stripped away. It seems to me that the level of intolerance in all areas of life is higher than I can remember at any time during my life. And the culture isn't just about winning but about an entitlement to win. When we lose - as must happen to everyone at one time or another - do we accept the defeat with grace? Do we acknowledge that someone else did a better job on this occasion? Usually not. We whine. We cry "foul!" We blame everyone else except ourselves. Of course, there aren't many gracious winners, either. Rarely does the victor stop to acknowledge the vanquished with more than a hollow platitude. Too many winners sneer and preen. Poor sportsmanship for the losers is mirrored by the winners.

As I write this, the Phillies are embroiled in a National League Championship duel with the San Francisco Giants - one they may lose. If the Phillies fall to the Giants, the local hand-wringing will begin. I'll be bummed out for a day or two but, hey, what's the value in winning if you don't lose from time-to-time? It's like the weather. The blast-furnace heat of summer is all the sweeter once you've gone through a long and brutal winter. That's why, even though I detest the cold, I Iive in the Northeast instead of Florida or Southern California. For me, the weather (like night and day) is all about contrast. And so is winning in sports. Winning breeds apathy. Remember those 14 straight NL East championships in Atlanta? By the end of the streak, the Braves were having trouble drawing crowds for regular season games. Until playoff time, the fans didn't care. Losing, on the other hand, generates an insatiable hunger for victory. The thirsty man values a sip of water far more than someone who is sated. Consider that the next time you think about the relative value of winning and losing and whether, in a society where winning has become everything, it might not be better to occasionally lose.