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The morning of the Nationals’ decisive Game 5, I was talking to a buddy. He said, “I’m going to the game tonight.” I replied, “I’m sorry.” And I meant it.
The Nats’ loss hadn’t happened yet, but it might as well have. I had no doubt of the eventual outcome, in a way that felt like it transcended my natural pessimism and turned into prescience, like a clairvoyant Eeyore.
After the loss, in all its stupid ridiculousness—bad decisions, bad calls, bad luck, and bad play—the Washington Post compiled the quantitative facts about D.C.’s persistent lousy performance in meaningful games in the four major sports (NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL), and it is grim.
Our teams in those sports have played a combined 69 straight seasons without getting to a conference final. They’re 4-15 in their last 19 single-elimination playoff games. And on and on and on the numbers go. It feels like this streak of futility has been going on forever, but the DC Sports Drought website assures me that it’s just been 7,060+ days.
Which begs the question: Why do we watch?
I don’t mean this in the abstract sense. I mean, concretely, what is the possible benefit of putting ourselves through this over and over again when it always ends in disappointment?
I asked a version of this question during the last Caps playoff loss, when the tension of playoff hockey was making a bad month in my life even worse. My answer then was that there is no benefit.
The thought came up again last week during that ill-fated Game 5 that eliminated the Nats, when I found myself flipping more and more frequently to the Carolina vs. Philadelphia NFL game. I had no emotional stake in the football game, which is a neutral way of saying that it wasn’t causing me genuine emotional distress. And that was much more appealing.
So as the Caps and Wizards get underway for another year, and as the Nats get ready to make the offseason moves that are supposed to sucker us back in, I’m seriously trying to think of the possible reasons to come back for another round of disappointment and gallows humor.
This is what I’ve come up with so far:
Because it’s about the journey, not the destination. I’ve seen this one floating around on social media, the idea that because a Nats or Caps season is 95% fun before the inevitable letdown, you can just enjoy those parts and minimize the importance of the end. This is fine in theory, but if you’re hoping your destination is South Beach and the train forces you off in Jacksonville, I don’t think nice scenery en route is gonna make up for it.
Because it’s fun! It is not fun.
Because I need a distraction from the ongoing national debacle and/or other areas of real life. Surely you can find another distraction that doesn’t end in this empty feeling? Perhaps take up cooking, or needlepoint, or screaming at a wall for long stretches of time.
Because it gives me something to talk about with co-workers/strangers/spouses of my spouse’s friends. This is true, and at its core the most compelling argument for continuing to watch. It builds community, both in the small-scale way of giving you something to talk about with minimal risk of offense, and in the large-scale way, where shared suffering forges us all into a tight-knit group, like a team of middle-managers on the ropescourse offsite of life.
Because I can’t not. This is probably also a truth. If you already like watching sports and you’ve already come this far with the D.C. misery, it is very, very difficult to quit.
Because even the Cubs won a World Series. It took 108 years, but they did finally get there. Which says that you shouldn’t really give up hope. Eventually one of these teams is going to break through. It may be in six months, or six years, or six decades. If you watch, if you stick with these teams through every misstep and bad break and stupid decision, you might finally get to celebrate with them, just like those long-suffering Cubs fans did. In the worst case scenario, you’ll be a grim anecdote—someone who died without ever seeing their team win a championship, just like so many Cubs fans did. But even that, in its own small way, is a reason to watch.