How to Survive a Historically Bad Season

What can you do when your team comes to define futility?

My name is Brandon Riddle and I’m a Diamondbacks fan.

It’s not that I have a choice in the matter. I can’t not be a Diamondbacks fan for the same reason I can’t help having a bad back or can’t stand pickles. It’s embedded in my DNA.

Any fan of any team feels the same way. We stick with them through the highest mountain tops and the lowest dungeons, through the raising of pennants and grooming of Cy Young winners, to cellar dwelling finishes and franchise crippling contracts. Our interest may wax and wain depending on life, but that connection to the team is forever. Not even historically futile seasons — the likes of which haven’t been seen in Major League Baseball for over a century — can sever that connection. It certainly doesn’t help or get any new fans to jump on the bandwagon, but us diehards foolishly remain.

Luckily, baseball is bigger than any one team or any particularly poor stretch of play, and while there’s always love for the home team there’s also love for the game at large.

One of my favorite teams took the field over a hundred-twenty years ago: the Cleveland Spiders. The team played for thirteen seasons and were a solid if unspectacular team most of the time, and through the years the Spiders became the gold standard for baseball names.

  • Peek-A-Boo Veach
  • Highball Wilson
  • Cowboy Jones
  • Ice Box Chamberlain
  • Cupid Childs
  • Pretzels Getzien
  • Chippy McGarr
  • Rasty Wright
  • Sport McAllister
  • The actual Cy Young

But no one remembers the Cleveland Spiders franchise for their successes or quirky names – and there were plenty of both. No. The Spiders get remembered for being so unfathomably bad in their final seasons that over one-hundred years later they’re still held up as the gold standard for utter futility. If ever a modern team is having a rotten month or half a season or some player is marred in an endless slump, there’s a Spider’s record lurking out there reminding them it could be vastly worse.

That team finished the 1899 season having lost 101 games – on the road alone – mixing in 24 losses in a row on their way to finishing 84 games back of Brooklyn with an apocalyptic .130 winning percentage.  Attendance was so lousy, averaging 124 fans in the stands (say it again, 124 fans), that the team rescheduled nearly all the games to be played on the road. Their final game that season the team put a cigar-store clerk on the mound who promptly got lit up for 19 runs. It would prove to be their final game in existence.

They were impossibly bad.

So you can imagine my utter horror when the hapless Cleveland Spiders crawled out of history and started being compared to my Arizona Diamondbacks. Every franchise has had bad stretches or years of irrelevance (baseball is a very old sport after all) and every franchise will inevitably run into that sort of bad luck again. During those cold, dark times, fans will still watch games. Fans will still feel the sting of losses – albeit with numbed recognition. They only hope that their team won’t be compared to those Spiders when the time comes.

What can you do when your team finds itself in one of those bottomless free falls which sucks the joy from your soul like a black hole devouring a helpless world? Find joy wherever you can. And find a survival guide.

 

Bad Baseball is Better than No Baseball

 

Hall of Famer Roger Hornsby once said, “People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.” There’s still the sweet sound of gloves popping and the nostalgic crack of the bat to enjoy. Even if the popping of the glove resulted from your clean-up hitter missing a meatball, or the cracking of the bat matches the sound of your pitcher’s neck snapping back to watch a ball sail over the fence. Baseball is still undeniably a good thing, and life is better with baseball as the soundtrack to your summer. It just so happens that in a bad season that soundtrack is the theme from The Exorcist on loop.

 

Misery Love Company

 

A fandom only exists with groups of people, and when your team finds its only victory in not being no-hit then you must find and hold these other fans tightly and not entirely metaphorically. These are your people. Suckers much like yourself that have been swindled into loving a sport that shows no mercy and never slows down. You’ll recognize when each of you enter denial in the stages of grief and be there for each other when anger subsides and acceptance finally takes its bitter embrace.

There’s solace in knowing you’re not alone, and while your team is viciously drummed over and over again like a baseball card stuck in bike spokes, you’ll marvel together at that neat play your shortstop made in the sixth. Then cry. A lot. But cry together.

 

Root for Miracles

 

After you’ve accepted the season won’t end in champagne and glory or even October heartbreak, rooting for miracles is the true torture. 162 games is a terribly long season. Anything can happen. As unlikely as it is for any one team to lose twenty games in a row multiple times in a season, it’s just as unlikely for a team to win twenty, or forty, or sixty games in a row, right? Completely improbable, of course, but not theoretically impossible. And what’s not impossible, by my mental gymnastics math, is therefore probable and can happen in some reality. What if this is the reality from endless possibilities that sees a turn around so historic that songs will be sung of its fortune?

Root for those miracles. Believe somewhere in your broken soul that winning every game left on the schedule can happen.

It won’t. But… it might.

 

Embrace the Suck

 

Hey, you know what? Injuries have plagued your team. Those one-run ballgames just aren’t turning out your way. Fifty-fifty calls find a way to go against your team every time. It’s time to embrace the lost season. Find those rookies that have no business being in The Show just yet and revel in optimism when they show signs of development. Any kind of signs — getting a bloop or only giving up a few runs. When a horrendous streak approaches historic marks, root for its coming like a tight pennant race. If your team is going to go down in flames, root for a mushroom cloud.

Middling seasons of a few games below .500 aren’t nearly as memorable as losing one hundred and eleven games. Trust me. And who knows, you may even get a perfect game or the first seven inning no-hitter sprinkled in by the baseball gods to give you hope.

 

A New Day Will Dawn

 

Take a note from Samwise Gamgee. The season may be full of darkness and danger, and frankly sometimes you don’t want to know the end, because how can the end be happy? How could the team go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this season. Even darkness must pass. A new season will come, and when the wins come they will come in droves. These poor seasons are the seasons that stay with you, that meant something even if you were too numb to understand why.

But I think I do understand. Fans in these seasons have lots of chances of turning away. Only we don’t. Because we’re holding onto something. Baseball is good for this world, and it’s worth rooting for.

 

Feature Image by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)

Brandon Riddle

Brandon is a former Little League All-Star whose child-like mind still believes Steve Finley is the greatest centerfielder of all time. Catch him on twitter talking into the void about outer space, adult beverages, and baseball.

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