For some reason, I am a fan of sports teams that almost always disappoint. And yet, I keep rooting for them, hoping that this will be their (and my) year. What did I do to deserve this fate? And why did I pass it down to my son? When pressed, I usually argue that your fan loyalties are like your family–you are stuck with them, for better or worse.
Sometimes, though, I wonder if this curse has been passed down patrilineally in my family. To the best of my knowledge, my grandfather Harry Becker was a Brooklyn Dodgers fan (I’ve never heard that he rooted for any other teams in any other sport). Harry emigrated to Brooklyn in 1909 from England when he was about 6 (there’s no record of whether he had a favorite football team back in London,although based on the neighborhood he lived in, West Ham would be a good guess). The Dodgers (or the Superbas/Robins, as they were called during various points early on in Harry’s fandom) were a notoriously bad team for much of their history. From 1910-1940 (when my father was 3), the Brooklyn franchise lost the World Series twice, in 1916 and 1920, but for most of the rest of that period were usually mired in what was called the “second division”–the bottom half of the 8 team National League. In fact, as Wikipedia notes, “the teams of the late 1920s were often fondly referred to as the ‘Daffiness Boys’ for their distracted, error-ridden style of play.” And, of course, after that, they came be be called the “Bums.” Sort of an early version of “LOLMets.”
But starting in 1941, the Dodgers became a good team (thanks first to GM Larry MacPhail, who was succeeded by the legendary Branch Rickey)–moving almost permanently into the “first division,” and winning the NL pennant in 1941, 1947, 1949, 1952, and 1953. This was during the period that my father, also an ardent Dodgers fan, was following the team closely. So, how does this fit into the disappointment theme? In each of these years, the Dodgers not only lost the Series, they lost to their hated rival, the New York Yankees. And let’s not forget 1951, when the Dodgers collapsed and ceded the pennant to their other blood rivals, the New York Giants, after the Shot Heard ‘Round the World. This was the era of “Wait ’til Next Year.”
So, the Dodgers finally won the Series in 1955, and two years later, they disappointed an entire borough (including one Ken Becker) by moving to Los Angeles. That the team won 3 more Series in the decade after abandoning their roots was no solace. Instead, my father, like many spurned Brooklynites, turned to the expansion Mets.
The Mets’ futility in their early years is legendary–that their World Series victory in 1969 was called by many a “miracle” is evidence enough. But their one year of success did not lead to a Mets dynasty. Somehow, in 1973 they took an 82-79 record into the playoffs and lost the World Series to a strong A’s team. And then, it was mediocrity or worse, until Frank Cashen and Davey Johnson gathered together a group of talented (mostly) lunatics, who came close in 1984 and 1985 before putting together an amazing year, ripping through baseball to win the Series in 1986. That was my now-wife’s first year following baseball, so she assumed that the Mets would always be good. She was disappointed, as was I, when they stumbled the next year due to injuries and drug issues, when they lost to the Dodgers in the playoffs in 1988, and then began a long decline into irrelevance, including 1992’s “Worst Team Money Could Buy.” Oh, yeah–the two young players who we expected to anchor the team for a decade or more and end up in the Hall of Fame, Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry? Both succumbed to drug problems and injuries, never reached the heights we expected, were both gone by 1994, and both ended their careers with the hated Yankees. And Gooden pitched a no-hitter for the Yankees in 1996, 16 years (coincidentally, his uniform number with the Mets) before the first Met ever pitched one.
We had a brief resurgence under Bobby Valentine, making the Series in 2000, but losing, of course, to the hated Yankees. There was another uptick a few years later, but that was filled with disappointment. In 2006, the Mets made the NLCS against the Cards, and despite an amazing catch by Endy Chavez, lost in the 9th on a homer by Yadier Molina, after which the Mets loaded the bases, only to see Carlos Beltran strike out to end the game, thus overshadowing an otherwise excellent Mets career. I was on hand to personally witness and feel that disappointment, with my father, brother, and son. That was followed by two years in a row where the team collapsed late in the season, getting eliminated from the playoffs on the last day of the season. I was, of course, at both of those games, with my father, brother, and son, and left the stadium devastated.
Since then? A Mets pitcher, Johan Santana, finally threw a no-hitter in 2012, after decades of near-misses, and he never pitched in the majors after that season. There was one World Series loss in 2015 and a Wild Card loss the next year, before the team again settled into sub-mediocrity. A new season dawns, with some hope. But would you bet against disappointment?
Next up, the Knicks. I don’t think that the Knicks had a major place in my father’s childhood. Pro basketball wasn’t a big deal in those days–the team was founded in 1946 and initially played in the BAA before it merged a few years later with the NBL to form the NBA. And while the Knicks were pretty good in those early years, by the mid-50s, they were usually a pretty unimpressive outfit, and overshadowed in New York by college hoops. The team’s resurgence, though, came just as I was becoming old enough to pay attention and to play the game–among my earliest sports memories is listening to a Knicks/Bullets playoff game on the radio as we drove to my Grandparents for Passover in April, 1969.
The Knicks didn’t win the championship that season, but the next one, the 1969-70 season, featured one of my favorite teams of all-time in any sport, featuring Willis Reed, Dave DeBusschere, Walt “Clyde” Frazier, Dick Barnett, and Princeton star Bill Bradley. Coached by Red Holtzman, they won the NBA Championship. And set, in my mind, a standard for sportsmanship and unselfishness that few teams since have met. After falling short the next year, the team added Earl “The Pearl” Monroe (my father’s favorite, maybe after Bradley) and Jerry Lucas, and won again in 1972-73. So, as I was heading into my teens, I was excited for the budding dynasty.
Of course, that didn’t happen. There have been exactly zero championships in the ensuing 46 years, and two losses in the finals, back in the 1990s. Of course, my wife started watching Knicks games with me during that era when they were good, if not champs. Since then, it has mostly gone from bad to worse–since 2000, the Knicks have missed the playoffs 13 times. In four of their five playoff appearances in that period, they lost in the first round, losing in the second round the other time. And as I write this, they are the worst team in the NBA, tanking for a high draft pick. (To be fair, when I do watch them, which is rarely these days, they play hard, but just lack the talent necessary to compete most nights).
Football. My father was a Giants fan, but not a particularly rabid one by the time I was of age to pay attention. In fact, I remember the Jets winning the Super Bowl in 1968, but it wasn’t all that big a deal in the Becker household. The Giants at that time were usually mediocre at best, and bad at worst, and spent time playing at crumbling Yankee Stadium, the Yale Bowl and Shea Stadium. Worse, prior to 1973, all NFL games were blacked out in the home city of origin and on any TV stations located within 75 miles of the team’s home city, regardless of whether they were sold out. After that, the game would only be shown if it was sold out by 72 hours before game time. So, for much of my childhood, I couldn’t watch the Giants on TV even if I wanted to. Instead, I cheered for the good teams that we saw every week–the Steelers and Dolphins. Not the Cowboys. Never.
It wasn’t until college, when my best friend was a Giants fan whose family had season tickets and sometimes invited me to games that my loyalties to the franchise firmed up. And that roughly coincided with the Parcells era, and the Super Bowl championship in 1987. That was also the first year that my wife paid attention to football. They won again in 1991, but after Parcells left, there has been a long stretch of mediocrity, for the most part, admittedly punctuated by two Super Bowl wins and one loss. The Giants really haven’t had a sustained period of success for years, and since the last Super Bowl win, they’ve gone 47-65.
I got turned on to soccer in high school, while I spent two years warming the bench for my high school’s freshman and JV teams. My father never warmed to the game, but he did occasionally make it home in time to see my team play–and thank god, because the only time the coach put me in was when Dad came to watch. I started following the Cosmos, who during that era were a glamorous team, with stars like Pelé, Chinaglia and Beckenbauer. And just as it seemed that soccer was making inroads into the American market, the Cosmos and the NASL collapsed, rendering the United States a veritable wasteland of revolving minor league and indoor circuits for decades. But hosting the World Cup in 1994 sparked the launch of Major League Soccer, and my family became immediate supporters of the MetroStars, when they took the field in 1996.
The team’s first home game ended in a loss when the MetroStars’ Nicola Caricola, a successful Italian defender from storied Juvenus, scored an own goal, birthing the “Curse of Caricola.” Since then, despite some good teams, and great players, including Thierry Henry (more on him later), the franchise, renamed Red Bulls in 2006, has yet to win a championship. In 2008, through some strange playoff rules, they entered MLS Cup as the Western champs, and lost to the Columbus Crew. And three times since 2013, the team has won the Supporters Shield, representing the best record in the league, but have fallen short in the playoffs, none more disappointingly than last season, when they ended up setting a record for most points in a season, only to lose in the conference finals to Atlanta United, a team in its second year of existence, and whose fans therefore probably expect winning championships to be easy. They should talk to my wife.
Despite the birth of MLS, it was still pretty hard to find soccer programming in the United States (at least, in English), until Fox Soccer Channel began to broadcast. Our cable company began broadcasting it in, I think, 2003, and we could watch English Premier League games easily. Knowing the tale of woe recounted in excessive detail above, my son and I were determined to pick a team to support that would not disappoint us. At the time, the most successful teams were Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal. We eliminated United, because at the time they were in a marketing relationship with the hated Yankees, and Chelsea was using Abramovich’s oil money to buy every good player, which seemed unfair. We never really considered Liverpool (not sure why), and landed on Arsenal–a strong team, who played interesting, exciting soccer, led by Thierry Henry. That year, the Gunners were known as “The Invincibles,” topping the table with a record of 26 wins and 12 draws–and of course, no losses.
It looked like we picked a good team. But did we? Over the next dozen years, although Arsenal regularly finished in the top 4, guaranteeing a spot in the prestigious UEFA Champions League, they won zero league championships and zero Champions League trophies (losing in the 2006 Final when Arsenal keeper Jens Lehmann was sent off early, and Barcelona scored two late goals against the 10-man Gunners). The few FA Cup trophies have been nice, but are really just consolation prizes. And in the past two seasons, Arsenal have finished outside the top four and found themselves in the less prestigious Europa Cup, leading to the departure of legendary coach Arsene Wenger, who appeared to have lost his way. This season, with a new coach, the team is challenging for fourth place, and trying to win the Europa League–anything to get back to the Champions League, which might attract better players, and provides more money to pay them.
Hockey? Never a big deal in my family. But if I was a fan, it would be of the Rangers. And that wouldn’t really be any different.
Is it fair to blame Harry Becker for a lifetime of rooting for underachieving teams? Probably not. More likely, it is a combination of stubbornly refusing to change loyalties, supporting teams with ownership that for much of my lifetime have been unwilling or able to devote the resources (both financial and intellectual) to a single-minded effort to succeed over a long period, and bad luck. And that’s on me, I guess.