Politics & Policy

Triumph of the Titans

The underdogs shore up their reputations.

In general, it’s been getting difficult to get much excited about golf, seeing that Tiger Woods has become so dominant. The spectacle of the Ryder Cup, however, manages the improbable feat of turning golf into a team sport that excites soccer-style chauvinism among the spectators. Like a lot of bad things — e.g.., Survivor, Katie Couric, and Jerry Springer — the responsibility for this lies with television, but you have to wonder at the golfers who take part in the corruption of their art. There is no more sublimely lonely and individual sport than golf where one competes, in truth, against the course and, ultimately, oneself. The Ryder turns it into a kind country-club version of Roller Derby. But never mind, because, by late September, football — both professional and college — will be moving into the meat of the real season, and the baseball pennant races, if there are any, will be coming down to the wire. The fan can afford to ignore the “golf-for-hoodlums.”

Yet that is for the future. There is still this rather barren weekend to get through, good for the fan who may still be feeling slightly wrung out from the last, which went on until Monday, as the Yankees pushed the boot down on the neck of the Red Sox and held it there until the last pitiful whimper. When they came to Boston, the Yankees were ahead of their old rivals by a game and a half. They left up six and a half and carrying the heart of the Sox.

The two teams play one more four-game series this season, and there is no reason the Yankees shouldn’t sweep that one, too. In the five games at Fenway, they beat the Red Sox every way it could be done. Won the big scoring games and the close ones. Dominated from the opening at-bat in one and came back from behind in another. They won with pitching and they won with their bats. And to seal the humiliation of their rivals, the Yankee player who had, perhaps, the best series was Johnny Damon, whom they had stolen from the Red Sox during the off-season. It wasn’t the Ruth deal all over again, but the taste of bile was familiar enough.

In the other major event of the last weekend, Tiger Woods dominated the field at the PGA championship to win the 12th major of his career, his 2nd of the season. He is now so far ahead of the competition that…well, he has no competition. He is obliged to play a solitary game against ever more exacting standards, so that when he bogeyed the next-to-last hole of the tournament, with the thing in the bag, he chewed himself out mercilessly. He isn’t playing against par or Phil Mickelson anymore, but against an unattainable standard of perfection. If Plato had been a golfer (and who knows), he would have understood.

Woods and the Yankees present a kind of dilemma to those American sports fans who like to pull for the underdog. How else can one explain the passion of Red Sox fans except by pointing to the fact that, until two years ago, they couldn’t beat the Yankees? And, since then, the Sox have lost some of the ineluctable charm that comes with being a reliable loser. There is more anger and frustration, less tolerance and sympathy, in Boston these days than in other years when the Yankees kicked sand in the Sox’ face.

This said, one wonders about this pulling for the underdog business. Why put your emotional fortunes with a loser unless it is to validate, somehow, your own woes. If you aren’t from Boston or New York and under some kind of obligation to support the home team, then why not go with the winner? Americans, as George Scott playing George Patton memorably put it, “love a winner and will not tolerate a loser.”

But a lot of American sports fans seem to prefer the runner-up to the winner. Arnold Palmer was more popular with golf fans than his rival, and the superior player, Jack Nicklaus. And one senses that Phil Mickelson, the loveable loser, is more adored by golf fans than Tiger Woods. In college football, there are a lot of Notre Dame fans. But there are a lot more people whose second favorite team is whoever is playing Notre Dame that weekend. (And, by the way, their convictions about the unfairness of life will likely be tested this season. Notre Dame appears to be back; poised, even, for a run at the national championship.)

Pulling for the underdog may be one of those phenomena that can be accounted for by economics. It is an emotional hedge. No matter how the game turns out, you aren’t disappointed. Or, it may be that the fan has had sour experiences with big, dominating winners in real life and transfers his frustrations onto, say, the Yankees. When he pulls for them to get beat, he is really rooting against Microsoft. Whatever…

This season, there is a chance to elevate this whole thing to a higher orbit. The Red Sox, after all, are a pretty good team and the organization has a lot of money. Its boy genius, Theo Epstein, didn’t have to lose Damon to the Yanks. He had the dough to pay him but he thought he could get by with Coco Crisp in center field. The Red Sox aren’t a true underdog any longer. They got outsmarted; not outspent.

To get to the World Series this season, the Yankees will have to go through Detroit. The Tigers have been a woeful baseball team for so long that it is hard to accept them as contenders, much less as the team with the best record in baseball. They may even be the best team in baseball.

We’ll know in October. This weekend, we can rest up.

 Geoffrey Norman writes for NRO and other publications.

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