I was born in Atlanta in late 1983, where, for the past two decades, the local baseball team had been one of the most hopeless in the country. Then a funny thing happened when I was 7: the Braves went from worst to first, narrowly lost one of the most hard-fought World Series of all time, and stayed in first place for the next decade and a half. Thanks to TBS, a cable network that didn't have much programming other than Braves games, Bond marathons, and repeats of Bloodsport and Enter the Dragon, the Braves gathered fans in every corner of the country that didn't already have a team.
Then they stayed atop the NL East for more than a decade, overstayed their welcome, and became known for playoff futility and the Tomahawk Chop, a stupid racist gimmick plagiarized from FSU. Finally, they stopped winning, and I have to learn how to root for a team that isn't the best any more.
I didn't start to love the Braves just because they won, but they started to win right around the time I started to love them. They weren't Hollywood like the Dallas Cowboys, the other America's Team -- Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, and John Smoltz were great competitors and lovely guys, but they weren't supermodels. Instead, they were solid and professional, and a bit intentionally bland. Then came the end of their unprecedented streak of postseason appearances, and their point of national interest ended with it. The Braves went back into the rank and file, kicked to the middle of the pack in SportsCenter highlights, pundit predictions, and feature article puff pieces. I want my team's 15 minutes of fame back. How loudly can I root for the old overdogs to get back on top without sounding like a jerk?
I know there's a line somewhere, because by definition Yankees fans are across it. New York Yankees fans, if they're self-aware -- and may they have all my neuroses and then some -- understand the low sacrifice and low moral stakes involved in rooting for the richest team in the game, for rooting for Ivan Drago to beat Apollo Creed. No one wins a moral victory in high school by blowing out the other team. There's a purity in defeat, just as there's a bullseye attached to every championship ring. For almost 20 years, I loved my team through thick; now that my team's suffering, I finally can prove my loyalty by loving them through thin. But I don't want a moral victory. To hell with close competition and a well-fought match; I want all the other bums in the cellar, and I want my guys to lap the field.
The Boston Red Sox did that last October, and their fans are learning the collateral joys of being insufferable. By spending a few well-placed dollars wisely, the Red Sox recently traded futility for dynasty in a matter of 36 months. Now, replica Cheers bars and college campuses are filled with poser bandwagon fans, outnumbering true bleeders by as many as green-hatted drunks outnumber Irish Catholics on St. Patrick's Day. I admit I envy their success. I hate that they're better and more popular than we are, and I hate that I have no right to complain.
Two years without playoff baseball in Atlanta (and TBS's decision to stop showing Braves games) have had the opposite effect -- our fans are so famously fairweather that we rarely sold out playoff games by the end of our run. If you find someone who can name a Brave other than Smoltz, Glavine, or Chipper Jones, odds are they're the genuine article. (It's an even easier guess these days, because fans of the Falcons and Hawks are rarer than a six-leaf clover.)
Sports metaphors are among the most potent images in our culture, used to describe everything from politics to religion to war. Winning a game takes on a much deeper significance when it's clear that everyone from God to the American President is on someone's side, especially if they're rooting against you. When I cheer on the Braves, it means I want them to continue having more than their share of success, and if it means I have to give up the moral high ground, so be it. It's American to want to win, and it's American to bray obnoxiously in celebration. I know there's a line somewhere. I just hope I haven't crossed it yet.