By Denis M. Crawford |
There is an artistry in ineptitude, too, you know. – Branch Rickey
Is the lovable loser in baseball dead? With six teams on pace to break 100 losses this year, we should be in a golden era of pathos on the diamond. After all, Americans are amused by a good loser: a team trying their best but somehow finding an imaginative way to fail. The advent of a new team building strategy, however, has led to the mounting losses of these woebegone wonders being met by cynicism. Ironically, the recent actions of the avatars of lovable losers are to blame.
The 2016 Chicago Cubs put to rest the most notorious run of futility in sports history. Their World Series title ended a 108-year drought between championships, but it was the result of an organizational ethos once anathema to sportsmen: The Tanking Process. For as long as there has been reverse-order drafting in baseball, teams have understood the long-term benefits of piling up 90-100 loss seasons. The Cubs’ three straight seasons of 90+ losses (2011-2013) begat a bevy of draft picks that became the core of their title team.
Getting the ticket-buying public to accept losing as a solid strategy is a different matter. Until the NBAs Philadelphia 76ers began to use the term “Process” as a tacit admission of tanking in 2012/2013, teams did not admit to losing on purpose because it is not a great rallying cry. The Cubs began their “process” at the same time as Philadelphia and discovered even their loyal fanbase did not condone losing on purpose. The preternaturally popular Cubs saw a loss in ticket sales when President Theo Epstein admitted the numbing amount of losses were the result of the team’s “long-term building plan.” Attendance at Wrigley Field decreased by twelve percent over the span of their tanking. Fan anger heard from the “Friendly Confines” of Wrigley Field at the beginning of the decade transformed into cries of “We Are the Champions,” by the middle of it and that is the rub for those who follow in their footsteps.
The success of the Cubs may just mean the death of lovable losers. They had to make the most of the high draft choices to justify the losses. That they did so made the losing palatable after the fact. Sports is a business of copycats. The blueprint followed by the Cubs was emulated at about the exact same time by the Houston Astros. Like the Cubs, the Astros followed up epic losing seasons with a World Series title in 2017. The efficacy of this strategy means the losing by tacitly admitted tanking teams in Miami, Cincinnati and the South Side of Chicago can no longer be viewed as an organic circumstance. Instead of bad luck, honest incompetence or cosmic interference, this losing will now be viewed as calculated. The losing must now lead to winning or else. This calculus takes all the humor out of losing. It also removes all that is lovable out of the losers.
Denis M. Crawford is a PhD candidate in American Studies at Penn State University-Harrisburg. Crawford specializes in sports history and sports business and is the author of “McKay’s Men” and “Hugh Culverhouse and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.” He is also an editor of The Coffin Corner, the official publication of the Professional Football Researchers Association.