The Agony of Defeat for a Detroit Sports Fan

Growing up as a sports fanatic — something I believe I caught from my father — in a sports-crazy town involves a special amount of ups and an unavoidable number of downs.

Most of the positives and negatives are obvious — they come with the pleasure and pain of caring aggressively about the fortunes of the teams you follow. And the vicissitudes of sports being what they are (and I don’t even know what vicissitudes means), it’s obvious that the downers far outnumber the sweet memories as the years progress.

It’s all in the math. If you passionately follow and care about the fates of, say, the Tigers, Lions and Red Wings, you are bound to encounter much more disappointment than reward in your years of support. (I don’t count the Pistons in my personal run of fandom; I never did warm up to them. First, they were latecomers to the sports scene, interlopers; coming to town in 1957 or ‘58 as I recall. As a kid, I was put off by a sport where it seemed you had to have had glandular irregularities and be nearly seven-feet tall to play. Also, the Pistons’ first star was a guy named George Yardley, who was tall and pale and completely bald, and he scared me.)

Anyway, the Tigers, Lions, and Red Wings toil in leagues that feature roughly 90 other pro teams spread across three major sports, so the chances of yearly success are very slim. We are bound to be disappointed a major part of the time we spend as fans. And in Detroit, it has seemed over the years, our disappointment seems to have been more keen — and certainly out of mathematical proportion — to pain suffered in other cities.

Really. Hasn’t ours been the worst?

Consider, for example, the gut-wrenching disappointment of the end of the Tiger seasons of 1967, 1972, and 1987. The no-show in the ‘06 World Series. As sublime as 1968 and 1984 were — and I think those triumphs mark Detroit as first and foremost a baseball town — I get the impression that pain is particularly part and parcel of the makeup of your average Tigers fan. Our anguish was born in the DNA of the Tigers successive losses in the 1907-08-09 World Series; it came to full bloom in the humiliation of the 1934 Series defeat by the Gashouse Cardinals. Growing up in the 1950s and early ’60s, when the Bengals couldn’t beat a four-man softball team, soured an entire generation of baby boomers on local happy endings involving the national pastime. 1968 and ‘84 left us stunned, confused, wandering aimlessly, bumping into trees.

There has been a kind of reverse path of pain for Red Wings fans of my age and era. Unlike the Tigers, the 1950’s Red Wings led us to believe that the franchise would forever be the New York Yankees of the ice. They won seven — as in 7 — straight regular season championships and eight out of nine from 1948-49 to 1956-57. They won four of six Stanley Cups from 1950 to 1955. With superstars and first-team All-Stars like Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay, Red Kelly, and goalie Glenn Hall in their primes — four first team All Stars out of six positions — it seemed the fun would — should — last forever.

Then general manager Jack Adams, a self-described hockey genius who would do anything to win, did everything he could to lose, and dismantled the Red Wings from top to bottom, keeping only Howe, and subjected us to 42 … count ’em, 42 … seasons without a Stanley Cup until the ecstasy of 1997.
That was almost more than any mortal, even a Canadian, should be asked to bear. There should have been an investigation; it seems that Adams took a dive, purposefully cutting our team off at the knees. The four Cups in the last 14 years have been terrific, yes, but the three-times-longer buildup to them was pure agony. Such loooooooooooong agony. And amid the raised expectations since 1997, every playoff loss since has been an arrow straight through our winged wheel hearts.

Finally, last and least, there are the Lions. I should stop now, yes? They are what pain and disappointment are all about. The latest evidence of this has come in a kind of Stockholm Syndrome situation where local hostages (sometimes called fans) have begun to admire their terrorist masters (Lions management) and actually get nearly teary-eyed with appreciation when the latest group of frauds almost accidentally win a mere six games. That is sad beyond sad. Pain atop pain. Particularly for those of us who grew up — here we go again — with dashed childhood dreams, after watching Bobby Layne and Doak Walker and Joe Schmidt win four … aw, forget it. Enough.

They are the Lions. And this is Detroit. It’s useless to say more.

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