Monday, May 26, 2003

Rooting for the Underdog

I know, it's what sports fans like to do if their team isn't in the Big Game to root for. Root against the Yankees and the Braves when they are in the World Series, root against the Lakers in the NBA playoffs, and root against the Dallas Cowboys, even when they suck.

Hockey's my game, and the San Jose Sharks have been my team for years. They were built around a strict coach, and have had mostly gritty players who work hard and never take their talent for granted. I especially dig Mike Ricci, with long black hair sticking every which way out of his helmet, his toothless grimace, and his nose two-thirds the way across his right cheekbone. I like all of that. Unfortunately, this year, the Sharks fell apart thanks to the holdouts of two key players. They failed to make the playoffs, which in hockey terms means: you really stunk this year.

Even though the Sharks were on the links in April, I have been keeping an eye on the NHL Playoffs. I've enjoyed the run of the Disney-owned and -inspired Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, beginning with their knocking off the defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings- a team that did take its' talent for granted. Some of the other teams have tasted success like never before, such as Ottawa and Minnesota's new team.

I love to enjoy the successes of the competition, especially when games are close and hard-fought. Who scored the series-winning goal? Which third-line player emerged as a go-to guy? I really don't care who is on the losing side. In fact, many times when a series goes seven games, and into overtime in that last contest, I find it somehow unsatisfying one team must be eliminated. I know them's the facts, but I appreciate an honorable defeat.

That's why I can't stand sports fans that root against successful franchises. Especially in hockey, talent alone doesn't win championships. Talent alone can get you embarrassed in the playoffs. Just ask the Wings. Or the Stars or the Flyers. The owners of those teams emptied their wallets on talent, and yet, they're playing golf while the Devils and the Ducks, owned by tightwads who look for men of character for their squads, will play for Lord Stanley's Cup. It's true for all of the sports. Money can buy proven talent, but in doing so, it doesn't always purchase the greatest desire. People who should get this miss it routinely, driven more by their real jealousy of money than any spiel they offer about caring for the heart.

Now that jealousy of money is out of the equation, if fans watch the Cup finals at all, it will be to root against the Devils out of jealousy of their success. You see, the Devils are playing for the Cup for the third time in four seasons.

I'll be rooting for the Devils. I appreciate their mastering the great difficulty of managing consistent success. I'm betting, though, that the ratings for the games will be abysmal, without someone for the jealous fans to really hate. Nobody is rooting for the Ducks.

Parallel culture note: I've never understood this obsessive pro-underdog stance. Sure, the United States is a nation built on England's castoffs and won an unlikely independence. Alas, the U.S. hasn't been any kind of underdog since before the Spanish-American War. If you root for the underdog every time, you must invariably root against the United States.