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Spotlight on: True Believers by Joe Queenan

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True Believers by Joe Queenan Joe Queenan, True Believers: The Tragic Inner Life of Sports Fans

[Editor's note: this review was originally written in 2003, prior to the Red Sox winning the World Series of 2004. I have left it as was in an effort to retain the snapshot of history.]

Subtitled "The Tragic Inner Life of Sports Fans," True Believers is Joe Queenan's look at what makes a man (as women generally don't fall for it) spend his life following a losing team.

It's perfectly clear why people root for the Yankees and the Lakers: the return on investment is relatively high, and the vicarious sense of achievement...can at least partially compensate for a rotten job, a horrible marriage, a receding hairline, a tiny brain. These fans know exactly what they get out of the arrangement.

But what about the pitiful souls who root passionately for accursed poltroons like the Red Sox, the Cubs, the White Sox, and the Phillies? Why would anyone organize his emotional life around mountebanks like the Cleveland Cavaliers, the San Diego Padres, and the Phoenix Suns, none of whom have won a single championship in their entire history?

I have a particular stake in this question because I live in Massachusetts, home of what seems to me to be the most devoted fans in the history of the sport. Although the Boston Red Sox have not won a World Series since 1918, the locals will still not give up on them. They continue to come very close, only to lose in the end, usually to the New York Yankees, whose name can only be said in public surrounded by derision. "Yankees Suck" is a motto that is everpresent, whether in the form of graffiti, stickers, or a heavily-trafficked Web site (www.yankees-suck.com).

(To momentarily follow a tangent, I want to mention Super Bowl XXXVI, which was won by another local team, the New England Patriots. I don't follow sports, in general, other than what I hear--which opens me up to massive amounts of derision--but apparently the "Pats" had not been having such a good time recently, either. The day after their success, though, you would have thought that the whole team had been elected God. Over a million people cut work and school to go "worship" at the celebration ceremony. This is a perfect example of the kind of devotion an entire community displays over their home team.)

Queenan examines this phenomenon from the inside, having been a Philadelphia Phillies since birth, despite their continual losing streak, simply because he was born there. He wears this as a badge of honor, looking down on those with wavering allegiances who choose their favorite teams based on who is winning ("front-runners"). He devotes an entire chapter to them, explaining that the only way to be a real fan is to follow your team through the bad patches. Only then can you truly appreciate their victories...if they ever happen.

True Believers is full of funny asides like this, along with a surprising number of Shakespeare allusions and movie references, but, ultimately, left this reader without a solid answer. Queenan simply seems to revel in the fact that his son is already exhibiting this behavior of rooting for Philadelphia (despite his father's half-hearted offerings of the teams of the boy's New York birthplace--who at least have a chance of seeing a pennant). It must be a bonding thing, because he also states that the day his son said that if you are offered Michael Jordan tickets, you take them--no matter the consequences to the offerer--was the day he became a man.

Queenan doesn't appear to know why this happens, so I am left to conclude that simply, to quote Walter Cronkite, "that's the way it is."

Say it ain't so, Joe.

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