October 28, 2013

The Wrong Teams

Early evidence of me as a Jets fan.
Wednesday night in Detroit, Michigan marks the start of my 14th season as a Washington Wizards season ticket holder and I'm still waiting for my team to win something. That's right, the Washington NBA franchise has not hoisted a banner of any sort for winning something since 1979, when they won the Eastern Conference championship as the Washington Bullets en route to their second consecutive NBA Finals (they won in 1978 and lost in 1979). Now before you take pity on me for the plight of my beloved Wizards, let me just say I'm used to losing. I've had a ton of practice. In fact, I'd say if I had tried to be more strategic in picking teams in the four major U.S. sports that would not win much at all, I don't think I could have done it.

When my mom and dad moved themselves, me and my sister to the United States in 1979, I was forced to abandon my allegiance to football (soccer) and pick a new sport. This was not a quick emotional decision; it wasn't possible to get any coverage of domestic soccer in this country in the late 1970s, let alone a league all the way across the Atlantic Ocean. Fortunately for me as a sports crazed 11 year old kid, America offered four major leagues to choose from and follow. No longer was I limited to a late summer through early summer sports schedule like I was in England. Now I could follow sports all year round. Unbeknownst to me, I was about to embark on a horrible series of choices in this regard. 

The first American city I set foot in was Boston on the day I immigrated to this country. My family took off from London and landed seven or so hours later in Massachusetts with our eventual destination just east of Hartford, smack in the middle of Connecticut about equidistant between where we had landed and New York City. Over the next 34 years, those two cities would produce a rich sports winning tradition over all four major sports which is probably unmatched in the nation. But I was not destined to take part in any of that. In the months after I got off a plane at Logan Airport in mid-summer of 1979, I'd set in motion a series of events that would prepare me very well for the last 13 seasons of being a Wizards season ticket holder.

The first American sport I took to was probably baseball and the first games I ever watched were between the Baltimore Orioles and the California Angels in the 1979 American League Championship Series. This was back when only four teams made the playoffs in Major League Baseball. I'm not sure why I started rooting for the Orioles although if I had to take a guess, I'd say it was because of the orange in their uniforms (I've always been partial to orange for some reason). The Orioles defeated the Angels before losing to the Pittsburgh Pirates in the World Series but I stuck with the Orioles as my team.

All things considered, the Orioles were not a bad choice at that time for a first American sports team. They had been one of baseball's most successful teams over the past decade and a half and were stocked with future hall of famers like Jim Palmer, Eddie Murray and manager Earl Weaver. In 1983 the Orioles would win the World Series with that lineup and rookie Cal Ripken, Jr. who I can still remember leaping to catch the last out of the decisive game against the Philadelphia Phillies.

Next up was football. My initial choice of professional football teams was the New England Patriots. I mean, that's logical, right? We lived in New England. But somewhere between July 25, 1979 when we landed in this country, and the end of the 1979 NFL season, I had become a New York Jets fan. I believe my switch in allegiances was made solely on the basis of helmet design. And I think it occurred while ordering a dessert.

When we first lived in the United States, my dad used to take us to Dairy Queen a lot (my dad loves ice cream!) and in those days DQ used to serve sundaes in miniature football helmets. I believe my memory of this is fairly vivid. I remember looking at all the helmets available and picking the Jets sleek modern looking 1970s helmet over the Patriots' crappy looking Pat patriot helmet for my sundae one day and that was it. From then on until this day, I was a New York Jets fan. Ice cream. It's almost cruel what it left me.

The last American sport I picked up in the '70s was hockey. No basketball yet (ironically); hoops wouldn't enter my life until college, and then only in a casual way. For hockey teams, there was only one choice. In 1979, the World Hockey Association had forced a partial merger with the National Hockey League and one of their four teams to survive the merger was the Hartford Whalers, making the Whalers the only team in the four major sports to reside in Connecticut. The Boston Celtics played a game every now and again at the Hartford Civic Center but the Whalers were Connecticut's only real team. Sold! I'm proud to say I followed the Whalers from their inaugural 1979-1980 season until they split for North Carolina in 1997.

Champions at last in 1998! 20 years in and only one division title.
How smart were my initial choices of American sports teams? Not very. Despite the rosy start to my Orioles fan stint, the team soon faltered. After their championship run in 1983, the Orioles embarked on an unprecedented (for that franchise) run of futility, punctuated by an 0-21 start to the 1988 MLB season, the worst starting mark to open a season then and to this day.

The Jets were a poorer choice. They didn't win anything until 1998 when they finally won the AFC Eastern Division. Yes, it took 20 seasons before my football team won a division title in a division with only five teams. We had a good run as a non-division winner in 1982 when we made the AFC Championship game but couldn't get past a rain soaked Orange Bowl field against the Miami Dolphins.

The Whalers were a little more successful (sort of) than the Jets as a division champion but still only won a total of one division title and one playoff series in their 18 seasons in the NHL. While I can credibly argue that the Whale would have gone on to win the 1986 Stanley Cup if they had just been able to get by Montreal (they lost in overtime in game seven), they didn't. My love for the Whalers died the day they left Hartford and I won't root for the Carolina Hurricanes ever but the team in Hartford sure didn't have much success.

I stuck with the teams I picked as a pre-teen for a long time. I'm still a Jets fan, I picked up the Washington Capitals when I moved to the Washington D.C. area in 1999 (since I had no hockey team at that time) and I defected from the Orioles when the Montreal Expos moved to D.C. and became the Washington Nationals. No great winners in the Caps (despite many many division titles in the last decade) and the Nationals, although the Nats did finish with the best record in baseball in 2012 before bowing out in the first round of the playoffs.

All of that long narrative of hopelessness brings me to the Wizards, who are sort of the subjects of this whole blog. Between living in Connecticut and moving south to northern Virginia, I latched on to basketball as a sport and fell in love with the game. When I lived in upstate New York, I became a Knicks fan, a fantastic choice of teams considering the franchise made the playoffs every year I was a fan between 1994 and 1999 and managed to reach the NBA Finals twice in that span. When I moved to Washington and was presented with a pro basketball team less than ten miles from my apartment, I switched teams and started buying season tickets. Making that decision was like a flashback to the late '70s and it set me on the course of mostly misery I have been on ever since.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post and in my preseason blog post last year, the Wizards have won nothing in my time as a season ticket holder or in fact for a long time before that. Sure, there have been four playoff appearances and one playoff series victory in the last 13 seasons, but in terms of winning something which is represented by a banner in the rafters, the Wizards have nothing. Nada. Zip. And all of that's par for the course for me.

So as if all the whining and complaining in the previous 14 paragraphs weren't enough, let's sum up my lamenting with some graphs to prove my point about how poor my professional sports team choices have been. Each of these graphs have been prepared assuming each team in their respective leagues stands an even chance of either making the playoffs or winning their division, conference/league or championship. I know there's no way this is true in any one year, but over time, it should start to even out a little, right? We'll start with a look at playoff appearances.

In assembling these graphs, I was surprised to see my teams didn't fare worse when it came to making the playoffs (that's optimism, right?). The Capitals and Knicks exceeded the league average during the time I supported those teams which is no surprise considering how good they were or have been in the stretches when I was or still am a fan. The Jets and Orioles also represented pretty well over the last 34 years, finishing at about 90% and 80% of the league average respectively. The real disappointment is in the rest of the teams, which of course includes the Wizards who finished with about half as many playoff appearances in the almost last decade and a half as they should have.

Let's move on to division championships.

While I was pleased with my playoff appearances graph, things start to fall apart when we start looking at actually winning championships of any sort. These are the victories that mean something. Making the playoffs as a non-division winning team is an important step and many teams in all four sports have won championships the same year they didn't win their own division. But if you don't win it all, winning your division counts (at least in my book where I'm craving wins).

Once again, the Capitals show strongly in this category, having dominated the NHL's now defunct Southeastern Division over the past ten years or so. But the rest of the bunch is not so impressive. The Knicks are a touch above the league average in the six years I was a fan but the rest don't look so good. All my other teams have struggled in this category but the worst of them all is the Wizards, who have no division wins with me as a fan.

When we get to the conference championships graph, my teams' performance starts to look really really thin. Now instead of just the Wizards with nothing to show, five of my seven teams are posting a goose egg. Only the Orioles and Knicks have any success in this category and maybe only because when I picked those two teams, they were winning at the time. The other five teams I have supported since I moved to this country are zero for 87 combined seasons.

Finally, there's the championship graph. Despite making the NBA Finals in 1994 and 1999, the Knicks came up empty both times, leaving only the Orioles with a single championship in professional sports since I moved to this country. I've been here 34 years plus and have only one championship to show for all the blood, sweat and tears I've poured into professional sports in that time. It's been 30 years since the Orioles won that lone championship in 1983 by the way. That's a lot of suffering so don't feel bad for me that the Wizards haven't won anything in my 13 years as a season ticket holder. I'm keeping the faith and will continue to do so until it pays off.

Now I know there may be fans out there who think they are long suffering. In the past ten years or so, I've heard the laments of Washington Redskins, Boston Red Sox, Dallas Cowboys, Miami Dolphins and even St. Louis Rams fans bemoaning their teams' lack of recent success. For all those people, I'll just ask you to re-read the above. But if re-reading all of the above still isn't enough to convince you that I have it worse than you and have picked absolutely the wrong combination of teams, consider these three additional facts:

1. For the first 12 years I lived in the United States, I resided either full-time or part-time in Connecticut. Despite my residence in New England, I have never been a fan of any Boston sports team. During the past 34 years, each of the Boston sports teams in the four major sports has won a championship. The Bruins have won a Stanley Cup, the Red Sox have won two world series, the Patriots have won three Super Bowls and the Celtics have won four NBA Championships. If only...

2. When I arrived in this country, there were seven New York teams in the four major sports: baseball's Yankees and Mets, football's Giants and Jets, basketball's Knicks and hockey's Rangers and Islanders. Of those seven teams, only two have not won a title in their respective sport since I set foot in America. The Yankees and Mets have won a combined seven world series, the Giants have won four super bowls and the Rangers and Islanders have combined for five Stanley Cups. The two teams who haven't won a championship, the Jets and Knicks, are the two teams I picked.

3. Not only have my teams only won one championship when I have been a fan since living in this country, most haven't even won either before or after I have been a fan. The one exception has been the Carolina Hurricanes, the one team I refuse to follow ever for taking my Whalers away. The Hurricanes hoisted the Stanley Cup in 2006.

What a downer!

The 2013-2014 NBA season tips off tomorrow (the Wiz have to wait a day) and once again, I have high hopes for the Wizards' chances of at least making the playoffs. It's the second year in a row that I am hoping for a playoff appearance before the season starts after a few years of really having very little faith whatsoever. I honestly believe that this team is on the right track. I know I'm not winning anything this year but I hope maybe a few years from now I might. I'll just keep hoping.

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