The grief that stifled the city last week after the Mets’ Historic Collapse™ would have confounded my college roommate, who didn’t like sports. “Let me get this straight,” he’d say. “You gather together to root for an arbitrarily assembled group of athletes, who have no relationship to you and no connection to your city, and you feel happy or sad based solely on their ability to excel at an invented exhibition?” He now lives in Paris, where he’s unsubjected to fan quotes in the papers like, “The New York Mets disappointed me in a way I had never been disappointed since I’ve been on this earth, man.” Or: “I got hit with a double whammy. My girlfriend broke up with me last night, and then this.”
When our team chokes—especially in such epic, flailing, spectacular fashion—we fans feel entitled to rail, moan, and whimper. We blame percentages (the statistician Nate Silver calculated the odds of the collapse at 499 to 1) and precedent (“No team has ever squandered a seven-game blah, blah, blah”—forgetting that no team ever did anything until some team finally did it). We might even “brood about hubris and mortality,” as one overcooked Times editorial put it. The thrill of victory in sports is obsessively celebrated: the unlikely comeback, the triumphant underdog, the miracle victory against all odds. Fewer people worship at the altar of the choke. Sports is compelling because it provides narratives in which the outcome is not preordained (anything can happen!), yet when the biggest twist ending occurs—when sports offers the operatic grandeur of tragedy, rather than the usual rah-rah uplift—we scream for our money back. To which I say, Choke on this.
Professional sports is simply a form of emotional gambling. We can festoon our allegiances in hoary abstractions—Loyalty! Pride! Tradition!—but in the end, being a fan is no more than stepping up to the roulette table and betting your emotional well-being on red. If you hit (Mets win!), you’re elated for days, months, or years, depending on the size of your investment. And if you lose, you’re cleaned out. Either way, you’ve made a wager on the outcome of an event over which you have no control. That’s why they call it gambling.
And yet each time it happens, we’re shocked anew. We’re angry and miserable, disappointed in a way we’ve never been disappointed on this earth, at least until next year. We blame the gods, the table, the odds, Tom Glavine—but never ourselves, for having placed the bet.