In Memoriam Stonn the Invincible: The Psychology of Losing
As fans we get caught up with our teams fortunes, for good or ill. This is what makes it fun, of course, but some of us take it way too seriously. Take my Steelers garden gnome Stonn. The picture at left is Stonn, proud and free, in the early days of last season.
The picture below is Stonn after the Steelers were eliminated from the playoffs. I kid you not. Stonn resides on top of the bookcase next to my desk, angled just precisely correctly for maximum mojo. So imagine my surprise as I came into my office a few days after the Steelers lost to the Broncos to find him face down in my paper recycling bin. His little hat was broken off, laying pathetically on the floor.
I have no idea whether this was attempted suicide on his part or whether he was pushed, in a fit of temporary insanity, by Cato, my feline game-watching buddy. Cato is pretty laid back about most things, but he does take the Steelers quite seriously.
Of course, Stonn could have fallen after consuming too much alcohol, but I have no idea how he would have gotten a hold of any, unless he and Cato were drinking together. Cato does, after all, have a good deal more mobility than Stonn, but he’s pretty short on opposable thumbs.
However this tragedy occurred, it is an illustration of the dangers of making our beloved Steelers too large a part of our lives.
It’s difficult to dispassionately view these things when the hurt is fresh, so the off-season seems like a perfect time to begin honing those skills. Because, sooner or later, the Steelers are going to lose a game, most likely beginning in the preseason. And if you haven’t prepared yourself for this eventuality, you may find yourself doing things you will later regret.
I went looking for advice on how to cope with these feelings of rage and despair. I found this, on Wikihow:
The most important thing to keep in mind when coping with a team loss is to remain calm.
Thanks, Wikihow. This never would have occurred to any of us. Admittedly it might save some people the expense of constantly replacing their TVs or patching their walls, but if you can do this you don’t need the advice in the first place.
Of course, some people apparently enjoy pain, or so it would seem. I have a sort of strange fascination with long-time Browns fans, because I can’t imagine how they can deal with the agony.
Although now that I think about it, I had an illustration in my own family. My youngest son has been a Pirates fan for a long time. I don’t know how long—presumably not before 1995, when we moved to Pittsburgh. He was eight years old at the time. But it’s been a long time. I didn’t realize he even cared until sometime in the early 2000s. Even given I was completely uninterested in sports, I was aware the Pirates had been losing for a long time, and there was little reason to believe anything was going to change.
But Edmund was a True Believer. If I would gently poke fun at the Pirates he would patiently explain to me why they were currently bad, but how this signing, this prospect who now in AAA, this coaching change, you name it, was going to turn things around in the next year or two.
It turns out he was right, although he was off by about ten years. I occasionally think about the fans who kept the faith for 20 years, waiting for the glory days to return, and how satisfying the Pirates’ current competence must be. But is competence enough? Because one thing about those die-hard fans, they are passionate.
My favorite story about Pirates manager Clint Hurdle is from the first or second year he was in Pittsburgh. Not a lot of people attended the games at the very spectacular park built for the Pirates a decade before. And this was a rainy weeknight, which meant the total attendance was possibly barely in the thousands, once you subtracted the empty seats of season ticket holders who didn’t bother to show.
While the team was warming up a long-time fan sat in the lower rows watching. When Hurdle emerged from the dugout said fan launched into a tirade. Let’s just say he was counting the ways the Pirates sucked. Hurdle, who initially was on his way somewhere else, reversed directions and walked over to where the man was seated. Several of the players watched to see what would happen, and when Hurdle said “Thank you, sir, for your passion for the Pirates” they began laughing, figuring Hurdle was being sarcastic.
Then he turned around and they saw his face. They quit laughing, because it was evident Hurdle was sincere. From everything I’ve read about Hurdle since that time, and from hearing him speak twice at Faith Night, there’s no doubt he was completely serious. Hurdle came to Pittsburgh knowing there was a culture of losing that he was going to have to turn around. First, of course, on the team. But he knew that once he did that it was going to take time to get the fans to trust them again. The amazing things is that there were any fans left.
In a marvelous New York Times Magazine article titled “The Thrill of Defeat for Sports Fans,” author Adam Sternbergh, fresh off the Boston Red Sox inexplicably missing the playoffs in 2011, wrote:
It will provide little solace to wounded fans of the Boston Red Sox, who recently endured the most catastrophic late-season choke in baseball history, to know that their misery has been mathematically quantified: 278 million to 1. Those are the odds of the Red Sox’ blowing a nine-game lead (which they did) and missing the baseball playoffs entirely (which they did) in the precise fashion in which they did it, as calculated by Nate Silver in The Times.
Sternbergh’s contention was that this was out of the norm and therefore particularly painful:
it’s an outcome that falls outside the emotional parameters of what the sports fan has signed up for. When you agree to cheer the athletic exploits of some group of well-compensated strangers who happen to wear the name of your municipality emblazoned on their chests, you assume there will be some heartache and, with luck, some exhilaration too. (Or, in the case of the Chicago Cubs, years and years of weirdly co-dependent emotional abuse.) That’s fine. The epic collapse, however, is an outlier. It’s that once-in-a-lifetime cataclysm you can’t possibly prepare for, because you could never predict it would happen. It’s the black-swan event of sports.
And, as with other recent, more consequential once-in-a-lifetime cataclysms, you find yourself not just feeling disappointed or even despairing; you also feel cosmically duped. You question the validity not just of your choices but also of the entire system. And you wonder why on earth you invested such a huge amount of emotional capital in an enterprise that could explode so spectacularly in your face. How could you have left yourself so vulnerable?
But I’m here to tell you that the crushed fans of the Sox and Braves, as well as victims of epic sports collapses everywhere, should embrace, not regret, their ordeal. The epic collapse is to be treasured, even more so than the improbable victory. It’s more rare, and therefore more precious. And it reaffirms the essence of why we root for a team in the first place.
And there you have it, my friends—this is how you deal with the inevitable disappointments of being a fan. You find a way to put a positive spin on it. After all, even the Patriots lose sometimes, presumably mainly when the League is scrutinizing them a little bit more closely than usual. (Okay, that was uncalled for.)
Isn’t this better than destroying your furnishings, your home, and/or your relationships? There’s always next season.
As for Stonn, maybe there is next season, maybe there isn’t. His ill-conceived attempt at self-immolation is perhaps fixable. The top of his hat is still in one piece, and I will glue it on carefully. A little touch-up with a black Sharpie and he will, I hope, be almost as good as new. However, if the Steelers start off poorly next season with him in the room, he will receive an honorable burial. Sometimes you have to wake up, smell the coffee (or in his case, the coffin,) and cut your losses.
As far as I know, Francis Bacon was not a sports fan, or at least a football fan, since the game was invented 200 or more years after his death. But still these words of his can provide Stonn, and us, with some comfort:
“There is no comparison between that which is lost by not succeeding and that lost by not trying.”