Tuesday, May 15, 2007

You Don't Know What It's Like Unless You're One of Us

I know that I am constantly teetering on the edge of self-pity, but I feel like I have to just get it out there.

It's never going to happen for me. Ever.

The sooner I accept that, the better. High hopes equal disappointment. Period. I would rather wallow in mediocrity than get close to the top of the mountain and fall off. There's that old adage: better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all? Not true. It's easy to go through life with a cold, black heart, caring for nothing and nobody.

No. Loving and losing is the toughest thing. If you don't care, it doesn't hurt.

It is the toughest of times, and you can't possibly understand it.

Not unless you too are a Buffalo sports fan.

My Sabres, so wonderfully dominant throughout the regular season, ran into a brick wall. They won the President's Cup for best record in the league, and they had the best record in the NHL pretty much wire-to-wire.

They fought hard in two series against the Islanders and Rangers, which supposedly proved their mettle in high-pressure situations. They had high hopes going into a series with the #4 seed Ottawa Senators, which everyone expected to be a classic series. While games 2 and 3 have been exciting, they have not proved to add up to a classic series. So now, barring only the third 3-0 comeback in NHL history (and the first since the year before I was born), the Slugs will finally be laid to rest in a salty grave.

And here's the thing: it was completely unexpected.

This is how we all feel today I should have known better. More about our history in a moment, but first a brief requiem for this beautiful team. They were the most talented scorers in the league this year, and they were shut out in Game 3. For the first time. All season. I don't know if they are too tired, thinking too much, or what. But they are done. And it kills me to say that. This was the first time since I was in high school that I felt that one of "my teams" had a shot -- a real shot -- to win it all. They were so strong this year, and battled adversity all year. This year, they came into the playoffs healthy and with something to prove. And all they have to show for it is a big goose-egg.

I don't even really want them to win Game Four. Let it end already. No mas. If you have to break our hearts, do it in another country.

I said before that this was totally unexpected, but now that I think of it, it was totally expected. Since I was 11 years old I have been a Bills and Sabres fan, and they have all climbed toward the top of the mountain only to tumble down.

Buffalo sports fans are unique. I am from Rochester, not Buffalo, but we share the same Western New York/Rust Belt sensibility. Rochester is Buffalo's loyal little brother, which is why I can't for the life of me figure out why there are so many goddamn Giants, Dolphins and Rangers fans in the area. But that's neither here nor there.

We share a very unique set of circumstances that no other city or region can really even come close to duplicating, and while many people are "fans" of their teams, there is nothing quite like the connection -- and heartbreak -- of being a Buffalo fan. Is there a fan of any city's teams in the country that can match this set of criteria?

  1. Miserable Location. Now, I hate when people say "Oh you only care about that team so much because you have nothing else to do where you live." If that were the case, are Yankees and Red Sox and Broncos and Cowboys fans lesser fans? I would never make that claim. But the fact is that sports are one of our great sources of pride because we can enjoy them indoors, since they generally take place in the colder months. I live a (relatively) fulfilling life in Syracuse, which many people on the "coasts" would call a podunk town. I have many other interests outside of sports and things that keep me busy. But we don't have the ocean, we don't have skyscrapers, we don't have a lot of the things that big cities have. So we can't go windsurfing when our teams lose to get our minds off it, or to the Museum of Modern Art. We drink. A lot.

  2. Constant fear of relocation. This is actually the scariest part of being a Buffalo fan. The Detroit Tigers can have 10 straight losing seasons, but you know they aren't going anywhere. The Sabres have been one of the better hockey franchises of the last decade, and they went bankrupt and almost left town! (I am proud of WNYers for selling out every home game this year.) In 1998 the Bills' future was also in doubt, as they had to have a mass marketing campaign to sell enough tickets to keep the lease at the stadium. A couple bad seasons are okay for the New Jersey Devils; declining tickets sales in Buffalo could be the death-knell. No other city has such a guillotine hanging over it's head.

  3. Team-City Identification. There are few cities in the country where when you hear the city's name, you think of a sports team. Green Bay is one of them, Buffalo is another. And what people might not understand (outside of, say, Philadelphia) is that when the Bills are doing bad, the whole city's psyche suffers. Mondays after a Bills loss are depressing, and I don't even live there. For the last week, Sabres fans have been miserable (myself included). It's really brutal stuff. The team is not it's own sovereign entity; it's an extension of us. When the Bills lose, I lose. And it's not voluntary. I can't just stop caring about the team. If I could, I would have started rooting for the Patriots or Colts or something. They are in my blood, and that blood is poisoned!

  4. Ineptitude and Heartbreak. This is really the crux of it all. By my count there are three major cities in the United States without a major sports championship in the last 50 years: San Diego, Cleveland and Buffalo. San Diego gets no sympathy because they have 72 degree weather all the time and once housed Ron Burgundy. Cleveland is the only city that could come close to Buffalo in terms of sports heartbreak. Cleveland has Jordan-over-Ehlo, The Drive, the Fumble, the 1995 and 1997 World Series, the Browns leaving for Baltimore. But we still have Wide Right, Ronnie Harmon dropping a TD (against Cleveland!) in 1989, Brett Hull's No-Goal, The Music City Miracle, and of course, four consecutive Super Bowl losses. (Note: Philly doesn't qualify for this list because the Phillies won the World Series in 1980. Any city that has a championship in the Color TV Era can't be on this list.)

This Sabres team will always be special to me. There was so much to love about them (although NBC couldn't get their head out of the Rangers' and Sidney Crosby's asses long enough to figure it out for their national broadcasts). They were everything we wish we had in ourselves: style, fleetness of foot, swagger, dominance. They carried us on their shoulders for much of the year and made it okay to be from Buffalo or Western New York for a little while. Those of us who live in those areas know it's just fine to be from Upstate New York, we just can't use sports as a point of pride anymore. I know it is unhealthy to put your self-worth into something stupid like that, especially something you can't control, but boy it sure felt great for a while.

Thanks for a great season. You guys almost had me there for a minute...


'Don' Cialini said...

While I might be subject to home town bias, I will never see Rochester as Buffalo's loyal little brother. No, I see Rochester as the disappointed father to Buffalo. If it wasn't for the constant support of the Bills from Rochestarians who make the treck down I-90 for Bills games they would have long ago been playing in L.A. or some other undeserving city. If it wasn't for a Rochestarian (Tom Golisano), the Bankrupt Sabres would be playing in some shitty Canadian city or some Southern City that has no business having an NHL team. Also, the loyal hockey fans from Crapchester help support the Sabres as well. Buffalo might be bigger, but that doesn't make them better here in the land of the shitty local economies.

Oh, and if Buffalo wants a winner, then they shouldhead out to Dunn Tire Park more often and watch the Bisons play. In the ever changing world of Triple AAA Minor League baseball, the Bisons are as close as you can get to being a perenial winner. Sure its not a Major, but they should be recognized just the same.

PPP said...

Some shitty Canadian town? Iqualit is a better town than Buffalo or Rochester.

Kluv said...

Bill --

I'm a lifelong Bills fan and a Sabres fan, so I share your pessimism and sadness...

...but I'm also a lifelong Red Sox fan. So, no matter what -- I've learned that there's always a chance. Even down 3-0.

It'll happen in our lifetime. And it'll be sweeter than you can possibly imagine.

billiesmalls said...

So this is what it sounds like when doves cry.

As a four-sport Philly fan under 30 who's suffered with the name "Bill," this is certainly a familiar sentiment.

One thing: I would petition for Philly's reinstatement on the misery list because we're a four-season failure town -- you don't get kicked in the nerts every year by an MLB or NBA team in Buffalo.

Bill said...

Come on, none of this juvenile USA vs Canada crap, boys. I love Canada and I'm proud that the Sabres have been playing the Canadian national anthem before games, even if it's an American opponent. I'm sure Iqualit is a lovely town: it almost spells "quality."

I know that 3-0 is possible, Kluv, but let's face it, it hurts so much less at this point to just concede. That isn't having no confidence, it's just being realistic.

Bill said...

BillieSmalls: I'm wondering if I should make the window 25 years instead of the Color TV Era. I'm just a shade over 30 and I barely remember the Phils winning the series. Your motion is being considered.

Mike said...

Even if you make the window 25 years, Philly still doesn't quality. The Sixers won it all in 1983.

Justin said...

Nice blog post. I couldn't agree more.

I noticed you live in 'cuse and have the SU logo in your top banner. I'm assuming that you're a fan of Orangemen hoops and you were happy to see them win it all for Melo's one year. Do you consider that a major championship for a local team you root for? I live in Buffalo and I've had this discussion many times with friends, with inconclusive results.

Buffalo has done well with minor franchises, like the Bisons, Bandits, Stampede (RHI!), and even the Blizzard back in the day. Yeah, it hurts seeing the Sabres and Bills lose, but it's not completely hopeless here.

Bill said...

Mike: Good call! That was the Fo-Fo-Fo Sixers team, right? I think Philly maybe could somewhat qualify due to having close-calls with the Flyers, Phillies in '93 and Eagles (including being the "Bills of the NFC Championship game). My apologies.

Justin: The SU win is a tricky one. I do consider it a major championship, and I was here in '03 when they won it. It was a transcendent type of win, but Syracuse is very lukewarm to all other sports (Chiefs, Salty Dogs, etc), whereas Buffalo and Rochester (esp. in minor league sports) is pretty rabid. I will never forget that SU win, though. I was lucky to be here for that but in a small way it made me sad for fans in Buffalo. Makes no sense, right?

'Don' Cialini said...

Iqualit is a better town than Buffalo or Rochester.

Spoken like a true mullet banger from America's Hat. Shouldn't you be out helping to repair the pontoon on your Navy's Flagship?

Bill said...

Oh fer chrissakes grow up.

Kevin said...

All the heartbreak is only going to make it that much sweeter when the Bills and/or Sabres win it all someday. Hopefully I will be alive. If I am, I will be in attendance whatever it takes.

Here's the thing, I was at the infamous "no goal" game and I've experienced all the feelings you've expressed above. But, I was also at game 7 of the 2004 ALCS when the Red Sox pulled off the imossible against what seemed to be a far superior opponent (Rivera). That's why I can't give up hope. I don't want to feel like the people who left game 2 early to beat the traffic only to have to run back to their seats while the real fans looked down at them with disappointment. That's what you're doing by giving up hope while there's still a small chance. You're depriving yourself of the right to feel like you were a part of something great if it does happen.

'Don' Cialini said...

Oh fer chrissakes grow up.

It's all in fun, or has your sense of humor gone the way of the Sabres Stanley Cup Chance?

Bill said...

There are like 5,000 "Buffalo Sucks/Canada Sucks" flame wars on message boards out there. It's just boring and stupid.

ECP said...

I hate to see your post when Buffalo actually loses the series. Did I miss the memo that you only have to win three games and the series is over? Apparently the 75 maple leafs didn't!

'Don' Cialini said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bill said...

ECP, you are so wise about life and so inspirational. It's that can-do, never say die attitude that makes me think that there just might be something to Genny Cream Ale after all.