By clinching their postseason spot before any other team, the Cubs earned a special privilege: first crack at The Bandwagon Conversation. Even as people were gathering in celebration around a vacant Wrigley Field, others were noting archly that many of them were Johnnies-come-lately who only started following the team when it was clear this year’s edition was a powerhouse. This is obviously not a new topic, though for obvious reasons it’s a particularly pressing topic for a team with the Cubs’ history. I have a book of Mike Royko’s best columns for the Chicago Sun, and there’s one from 1968 where he notes that, with the Cubs considered playoff contenders, “the city is crawling with Cubs fans.” “Were they around, were they loyal,” he asks, tongue somewhat in cheek, “when everything the Cubs did was disgusting?”
Fifty years on, we’re a bit more enlightened than that, and the same people who favor statistical analysis and instant replay and bat flips also tend to think that shaming bandwagon fans is stupid. And as a fair-weather fan (of the team with maybe the fairest-weather fans in baseball, the Giants), that’s a relief to me. But here I’d like to skirt the question of whether bandwagoning is good or not and get into the question of why we care. Why is this even a thing? What do the diehards resent in the bandwagonners in the first place?
For starters, bandwagoning can be legitimately annoying: done a certain way, it’s a form of affectation, of claiming deep feelings that are hard to credit as organic and sincere. For better or for worse, people make their sports fandom a part of their identity, and watching someone lay claim to that identity is bound to rankle, particularly if that identity includes a long history of frustration that the bandwagonner has no legitimate claim on. Ten years ago, lifelong Red Sox fans were understandably peeved to see heartbreak over Johnny Damon leaving for the Yankees coming from (say) Floridians who had happened to be college students in New England in 2004. Cubs fans who suffered through 101 losses in 2012 can be forgiven for thinking themselves more authentic than revelers today who haven’t paid close attention to the team since Dusty Baker was the manager.
So that’s fair enough. On the other hand, affecting an allegiance with a team is not exactly the same as affecting a poor upbringing or an English accent or any number of other traits over which one has no authentic control. Nor is it the same as affecting deep religious or political beliefs (though it’s closer), which although optional are still a matter of personal conviction, not entertainment. We are fans by choice, so complaints about having had to endure losing seasons ring hollow; closely following a 90-loss team is itself a kind of affectation, like going out in a t-shirt in 30-degree weather to make a big show about how it’s not all that cold. (That’s something Chicagoans at my college in New York did to ridicule this delicate Californian, by the way.) So I think this is also a reason we chafe at bandwaggoners: they reflect our own put-on back to us. If fandom can be assumed so readily, was it ever as deep and intrinsic as we made it out to be?
One of my favorite sports books is Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, which chronicles his life as an Arsenal fan. What I love about Fever Pitch is Hornby’s wonderful (and rare) self-awareness regarding all the absurd fan mentalities he carries with him, some of which have to do with how he views other fans. Hornby writes about a girlfriend who, thanks to their relationship, became an Arsenal fan like him, and how this development, which first seemed like a blessing, became much more dubious as she started to “claim moods for herself” that previously had been his exclusive domain:
Her elation after the 1987 Littlewoods Cup Final … that was her first season. What right did she have to swagger into the pub that Sunday evening with an Arsenal hat on? No right at all. For Pete and me, this was the first trophy since 1979, and how could she, who had only been going for the previous four months, know what that was like? “They don’t win things every season, you know,” I kept telling her, with all the pointless and bilious envy of a parent whose Mars Bar-munching child has never experienced the deprivations of wartime rationing.
This envy, I think, is the last and most important key to our resentment of bandwagon fans: it feels like they’re getting something for nothing. Those who stay committed fans even during long stretches of desolation get various sorts of satisfaction from it—camaraderie with fellow fans, the pleasure of studying a chosen diversion, the self-righteousness of being a diehard—but one of the reasons for it, I think, is what in a post elsewhere I called the Fan’s Gamble: we bet our peace of mind on our team’s fortunes, and we expect that the more we bet—the more we invest ourselves in the results—the greater our emotional payoff when the team finally wins. The trouble is that there is no way to be sure that this is how it works: based on outward appearance, it sure looks like the bandwagon fan is getting about the same amount of pleasure from the team’s triumph as we are, or if it’s less, it’s not enough less to make up for our years of anguish. This feels like a raw deal, which we take out on the bandwagonners, even though they had nothing to do with our refusal four years ago to turn off the game and find something else to do.
I could end this piece by preaching about how unenlightened it is to care about what other fans do, and how we should just be a united fanbase no matter how we choose to support the team. And yes, I do think that’s the healthier attitude; when you can choose not to be angry at something that doesn’t affect your life, that’s usually a choice worth making. On the other hand, if we made that choice every time, it would make no sense to be sports fans at all! Liking sports is an embrace of the irrational, and I don’t see why that should extend to the field of play and the dugouts and the broadcast booth but not into the stands. So for me—a total lightweight when it comes to toughing out losing seasons—the diehards have a certain cantankerous romance that make the sport more fun to follow for the rest of us. You shouldn’t get on people’s cases and make them feel bad, but if, while we’re all celebrating together, you want to feel a little bit superior to me, as far as I’m concerned you’ve earned it.
Lead photo courtesy David Banks—USA Today Sports.