Debating William & Mary, sports and culture since 2011. Updated every Wednesday.

Hope

In Football, Long form on August 18, 2011 at 9:13 am

“To hope, and not be impatient, is really to believe.”

— George Meredith

That a semi-obscure Victorian poet could so succinctly capture the essence of the ever-evolving modern sports fan speaks to the permanence of its makeup. George Meredith had likely never heard of the emerging game of base ball when he inked those words in 1871, but he did linger just long enough to possibly catch news of the Chicago Cubs’ last world championship before his death in 1909. While he knew nothing about modern sport, he would have fit neatly into the present culture of fandom for he understood the one characteristic that is both ubiquitous and immutable in at least the American classification of that genre: hope, or the unshakeable belief that a team’s future representatives will surely trump the current batch.

This is most neatly illustrated each August 15, a date which, on the sports calendar, formerly sat wholly empty. August 15 represents the deadline by which drafted baseball players must sign with their respective organizations, two months after MLB’s annual June entry draft. It has become a cat and mouse affair, in which agent and general manager circle each other warily, driven by the need to maximize value against the imperative to satisfy the client. Failure, when too frequent, means termination.

This is also a fairly recent development. For decades, major league general managers were judged on the product they placed on the field, which by extension put fans in seats and dollars in the organization’s pocket. They still are. But increasingly, the star players fans wish to see reside not under the bright lights in major league cities, but in small minor league towns across the country. Careers are made not by the midseason trade that secures a lefthanded bat that pushes a small market team into the postseason; an executive’s reputation is now forged on draft day, with the proceedings monitored or watched live by a growing proportion of the sporting public.

In baseball, this is an illogical proposition. The diamond is not like the gridiron or the hardwood. In baseball, the overwhelming majority of drafted prospects never sniff the major leagues. Only a small number of first round draft picks will become every-day starters, and even fewer genuine stars. The projection of a ballplayer’s talent is currently too inexact a science to achieve a high success rate, baseball a game far too nuanced to determine who has the intangibles to survive the long slog to the majors. The sport’s best player for much of the past decade, Albert Pujols, was drafted 402nd in 1999. He is not an anomaly.

But prospects embody hope in its purest form. Once a player reaches the major leagues, his talent is charted, limited. A hot-hitting shortstop fresh off a Midwest farm represents boundless possibility, unfettered by the knowledge of what he will become. The odds may be against him, but the fan sees only his more tantalizing attributes. The plus-plus curveball, the power that could drive a fastball out of the Polo Grounds—both are valued far greater than the less measurable traits that create genuinely productive players.

For all the talk about the need for instant gratification in the modern sports world, the fan has become quite patient. The promise of hope, even deferred, has become far more intoxicating than the more corporeal, but fleeting, concept of success in the present. Take the 2011 Cleveland Indians. The prospects that fans salivated over in 2007—Asdrubal Cabrera, Fausto Carmona, Matt LaPorta—have all fully arrived. And they’ve largely lived up to what was forecast of them. Cleveland is in the thick of the AL Central title race, two games back of Detroit. But a 61-58 record in mid-August is not the peak Indians fans envisioned when building that farm system. Baseball America ranked Cleveland’s farm system 7th best in the big leagues back in May. Lonnie Chisenhall, Alex White, and Drew Pomerantz surely will garner a higher peak than this, right?

And it’s certainly not limited to baseball. From the NFL to the nether reaches of college football and basketball, fans present a clear preference for potential over results.

But maybe the words of Meredith are misleading. Perhaps there is no hope without impatience. Perhaps hope goes hand in hand with the insatiable appetite for success among fan bases. Perhaps it is more a steadfast refusal to be satisfied with anything short of outright victory. The febrility that leads Florida Gators fans to call for Urban Meyer’s job after a 7-5 record in 2010 followed two championships in four seasons.

It is no longer enough for a basketball school in a middling power conference to post only occasional football success. No, the coach must be fired, even if it’s Ralph Friedgen, an alum off a Coach of the Year honorific.

So fans yearn for more. They build up young athletes to unattainable heights only to be disappointed by the loftiness of their own ambitions. Satisfaction becomes impossible to attain, championships lose their luster the minute the confetti is swept away. And then the cycle continues, new projections providing new hope.

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