Some great things did happen—just not for Cleveland. "Eleven days into 1987," Posnanski says, "John Elway led the Broncos 98 yards through the wind, the Browns' defense and the collective hope of a million Cleveland fans. The Browns did not win the Super Bowl, not then, not ever." And Posnanski learned the lesson that childhood cannot teach: "Sometimes those moments that you spend hoping and believing and waiting for something good to happen are the best moments of your life."
Hold that thought.
THOMAS LAKE, SI'S YOUNGEST senior writer, was nine in 1989 when he began following the Braves, then an awful team. He listened to their games on a radio in the dark of his Atlanta bedroom when he was supposed to be asleep. He lived through that radio, and he's sure that part of his character was formed through Ernie Johnson and Skip Caray's deadpan narratives of errors, strikeouts and hanging curves. Through the Braves' constant failure he learned a sort of longing, a desperate hope, a state of mind that would have been impossible if they'd won every night. Then, two years later, they did start winning. They were 91/2 games out of first at the All-Star break, but afterward they caught fire. John Smoltz woke up, Steve Avery emerged, Terry Pendleton hit five homers in July. Lake's heart pounded every night as Atlanta chased the Dodgers and, in the last week of the season, overtook them for good. The Lakes didn't have a television back then, so they borrowed one from Tom's grandfather to watch the Braves' comeback win in the NLCS over Barry Bonds and the Pirates. It was all a vicarious experience. When Greg Olson doubled home Ron Gant to score the only run in all of Game 6, it was as if Lake had done it himself. When Smoltz shut out Pittsburgh in Game 7, Lake could see himself on that mound.
Then it happened. You could put the blame on Bobby Cox, for his failure to pull Charlie Leibrandt in Game 6 of the 1991 World Series, before Leibrandt gave up that epic home run to Kirby Puckett; or you could put it on Lonnie Smith, who screeched to a halt on the base paths when second baseman Chuck Knoblauch pantomimed a throw to second even though the ball was already in the outfield. For Lake, though, the loss was a clear and simple case of injustice. In the third inning of Game 2, the Braves were rallying when his favorite player, Gant, hit a single to left. He thought about going for a double but then hustled back to first ahead of the throw. Twins first baseman Kent Hrbek wrestled him off the base and applied the tag, and umpire Drew Coble called Gant out. Lake's family screamed at the television. "The Braves lost the game 3--2 and the Series 4--3," Lake says. "And I've never stopped wondering what might have been if Kent Hrbek had been called to account for his trespass."
Hear the echo?
Nine years later, Lake took that same desperate hope to basketball tryouts at Division III Gordon College in Wenham, Mass. He'd spent the summer running up hills and doing ridiculous exercises with special training shoes that were guaranteed to increase his vertical. He was half an inch away from a clean dunk, and there were days when his jump shot felt automatic. But the school had a new coach, and he'd resolved to rebuild the team in one year, which meant bringing in 11 freshman recruits from across the country. And so, after tryouts, after an excruciating talk with the coach in his office, Lake found himself locked in a bathroom stall across the hall from the gym, sobbing as quietly as possible. "There's no feeling in life like the one you get after giving everything you have, doing all you can do, and still coming up short," says Lake. "So it was with the '91 Braves and with me at the tryouts, and if a certain empathy comes through in my writing on topics like this, well, there's a reason for it."
Hear it now?
EVEN WHEN THEY ARE VERY YOUNG, children think about courage and failure all the time, and sports help them with both. Sometimes the things that are hardest are the most intimate—a first-grader's secret fear of going on the sports overnight because he still wets his bed, a freshman just looking at himself in the gym mirror that first day of high school wrestling tryouts, or years later lying awake and breathing in for hours before rolling out of bed to get on a flight to Helmand province. The Greek historian Thucydides shrewdly wrote that when a nation makes too great a distinction between its scholars and its warriors it winds up having its thinking done by cowards and its fighting done by fools. What if a nation makes too great a distinction between its heroes and its fans? Are you more profoundly moved by that thrill of victory or agony of defeat if you have played the game for real? Fans cannot all be athletes. What if our children just want to wear the jersey and watch?
Should that worry us?
Athletes run in the dreams of children, and their parents want for them the bonding with teammates, the lesson of comebacks and especially the thrill of victory the way ABC's Wide World of Sports delivered it on Saturdays for 37 years. At the same time, it's astonishing how far parents' hopes can outrun their children's experience. Put another way, we tend to outkick our coverage as the level of competition rises.