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A few weeks ago, I was trapped at home on a Friday night. My wife and daughter were away. My son was asleep. The Celtics had just blown a winnable game in Atlanta. I was flipping channels and thinking about things like, "I wish we had gone for Jamal Crawford over Rasheed Wallace" and "I wish Rasheed Wallace didn't have bigger breasts than Rashida Jones." And as I was thinking about breasts, I stumbled across Jennifer Love Hewitt -- someone who, as far as I can tell, has made an entire career off her chest.
She was starring in "Ghost Whisperer," one of those network shows that remains on the air forever even though nobody has ever seen it. In this episode, a campus radio station was being haunted by a DJ. Jennifer was driving at night when the DJ ghost attacked her car. Her head rammed against the windshield, the doors locked, water started pouring in, a Coldplay song started blaring and she could hear another woman screaming. Somehow she jimmied the door open and escaped, but now she was standing on the street and didn't have blood on her forehead. Turns out it wasn't an accident, just a "vision" that made her realize the DJ died by crashing into a river. As she explained to Camryn Manheim, "The ghost wanted me to know that he suffered and that he was not alone." She didn't elaborate on whether "suffered" meant the drowning part or the Coldplay song.
|Has your team suffered a Level 1 loss? Consult the Ghost Whisperer to ease your pain.|
As it turned out, the DJ crashed while on the phone with his girlfriend, who hid the story for years before confessing to Jennifer outside a courthouse. Then, the ghost DJ showed up and talked to his old flame through Jennifer, who started crying because, you know, she can feel pain and stuff. This allowed the ghost to finally escape purgatory and go to heaven. The show ended with Jennifer in a tight nightgown, satisfying the final third of CBS's contractual requirements: They need a ghost, they need Jennifer to cry and they need each show to end with her in a tight nightgown.
I was thinking about her three Mondays later, after the NFC Championship Game, when I was sifting through e-mails from devastated Vikings fans, and I realized that, for some readers, I apparently have turned into the "Sports Whisperer." They channel me as an outlet for their pain.
Why me? Because I have a column and an e-mail address. Because, as a Red Sox fan, I suffered through a lifetime of losing lowlighted by two of the worst defeats in sports history. Because I once wrote the "Levels of Losing" as a way to quantify sports pain. Because things worked out for me; the Red Sox eventually won titles in 2004 and 2007. If any stranger could understand your anguish after a heartwrenching loss, it's me. You don't even have to trap me in a car and blare Coldplay. Just send me an e-mail.
And that's what people do. They send me e-mails like this:
I'm watching the Vikings-Saints game. So are the guys in the apartment next to me, only my TV is running 10 seconds slower than theirs. I just heard Favre's pick before it happened. And now they're going to OT, where the Saints are sure as hell gonna win the toss. The girl I love won't talk to me. Please give me a reason not to kill myself.
-- Nick, Minneapolis
As a lifelong Vikings fan, son of a lifelong Vikings fan, and grandson of a Vikings fan the day the team came into existence, I knew without a shadow of a doubt that tonight's game would end the way it did. Eight months ago I had my tonsils removed. Two percent of people have issues with the incision bleeding when they have a tonsillectomy. Again, as a Vikings fan I knew without a doubt that it would happen to me. It did. They tried to cauterize the wound with me awake, gagging and burning the back of my throat. I lost so much blood I needed an infusion of two pints. I would gladly relive that day every day for the rest of the year over tonight's game. Stomach punch?? Please, this was a groin kick followed by an uppercut to the chin followed by another kick to the nuts. Welcome to Minnesota.
-- Peter D., St. Paul
The Vikings loss is giving me bad flashbacks to breaking up with my prom date in high school. I knew it would probably happen, yet I still feel like I want to throw up and have a strange urge to listen to Richard Marx.
-- Rachael T., St. Paul
|One thing about Vikings fans: They never see it coming.|
When any reader compares himself or herself to a tragic Lifetime movie character, there's a good chance we just endured a whopping Stomach Punch loss. Or even worse. Collectively, hundreds of those anguished Vikings e-mails made me wonder: Did I make a mistake with the top level of the Levels of Losing? Am I not channeling other people's pain well enough?
Originally, I named Level 1 "That Game," a Guillotine/Stomach Punch combination that happened only one time: Game 6 of the '86 World Series. After all, no effed-up franchise ever came closer to winning a title without actually winning it, and no franchise ever blew that same chance in such agonizing fashion. It was like Scott Norwood's field goal spread over 13 excruciating pitches, four batters and a pitching change. And it could never be approached. Or so I thought.
See, Game 6 might have been the most powerful Level 1 example, but it wasn't the only example. The Bartman Game, Byner Fumble, Pedro/Grady Game, Gary Anderson Game, No Goal Game, Darrin Nelson Game and Jose Mesa Game all were Guillotine/Stomach Punch combos for effed-up franchises. (That's another good indicator, by the way -- being able to identify the loss with a short but recognizable phrase.) Limiting Level 1 to the Red Sox was purely an only-child, everything-revolves-around-me decision. I mean, Steve Bartman had to leave the country. That wasn't a Level 1 defeat?
I made a mistake. Really, the equation should look like this: (Guillotine + Stomach Punch) x (already tortured history) x (significance of the game itself) x (catchy moniker) = Level 1.
But you need to have all of those things. The Norwood Game seems like a Level 1 loss in retrospect, but Bills fans weren't fully tortured yet. Only AFTER the agony of that defeat did they become Level 1 eligible. Same for Browns fans after The Drive paved the way for the Byner Fumble a year later. The key is "fully tortured." You can't be a little tortured or pretty much tortured. You have to be fully tortured. Haunted, even. Six variables allow this to take hold:
1. You need at least a 35-year drought without a title.
That is two solid generations of fans and covers anyone in the 35-to-50 age range who has spent his or her entire life tortured by the same franchise ... only now they've brought their children under that same haunted spell. Just look at the difference in desperation between Mets fans (last title: 1986) and Knicks fans (last title: 1973). Starting with Dwight Gooden's positive coke test in 1987, Mets fans have suffered as much as any fan base in sports over the past 23 years: the Scioscia homer, the fall of Doc and Darryl, the Bobby Bo era, the Kenny Rogers Game, the 2000 Subway Series, Yadier Molina's homer and the Collapse of 2007. Brutal. But 1986 wasn't THAT long ago. No Knicks fan younger than 40 can remember winning a title, and any Knicks fan older than 40 can barely remember because it happened so long ago. Even worse, they feel guilty for putting a Knick Stink on their kids. That's the difference.
2. That 35-year rule doesn't apply to relocations.
We just entered our sixth straight decade without the Royals/Kings franchise making an NBA Finals. But the Kings moved to Sacramento in 1984, making them ineligible for Level 1 because anyone who cares about them could start caring only 26 years ago. (And it's too bad, because the 2002 Western Conference finals unquestionably greased the skids for Level 1 status.) In 2019? They become eligible. No, Dick Bavetta didn't make this ruling.
3. During that 35-plus years without a title, it's not enough to lose. You need to have your guts wrenched a few times.
A great example: Heading into 2005, the White Sox hadn't won a World Series since 1917 and the Cubs hadn't won since 1908, but only Cubs fans were considered "tortured." And with reason. Maybe White Sox fans hadn't won anything, but they didn't have a ton of scars, either. Cubs fans were scarred like tribal warriors. Big difference.
4. Only teams in cold-weather cities are eligible for Level 1 unless the situation is so cruel/unusual/unforgiving that it's practically unprecedented.
Cold weather and losing go together as easily as John Travolta and horrendous haircuts. You're already bitter about getting crushed, and then you wake up and it's 9 degrees outside, the skies are gray and you have to scrape ice off your windshield as your ears slowly freeze. It's almost like a background for your mood, no different than listening to Elliott Smith albums after a bad breakup.
Warm weather mellows you out, removes that life-or-death dynamic and puts sports in somewhat proper perspective. Suns fans are a good example. On paper? Level 1 eligible. Forty-one seasons, no titles. Lost the Kareem/Neil Walk coin flip. Lost the famous triple-overtime game in 1976. Lost three agonizing games in the 1993 NBA Finals, as well as Mario Elie's "Kiss of Death" 3-pointer that ended their season in '94. Their Nash era stretch from 2004 to '07 was basically one long liver punch. And yet, how could Suns fans be truly tortured? They live in Arizona! They have things to do!
It's the same reason San Diego, Miami or Atlanta fans can't be tortured. The elements will always make them feel better. The weather is a natural elixir. And maybe being a Saints fan (as I wrote last week) hasn't been a barrel of laughs, but there's a spiritual optimism around that team -- something tied to the festiveness of Bourbon Street, Mardi Gras and the city in general -- that was beaten out of Jets/Bills/Vikes/Browns/Eagles fans a long time ago. I can't have the phrase "spiritual optimism" associated with my Level 1 teams.
Back to the Vikes for a second. Imagine being a die-hard living in Minnesota or South Dakota after Sunday's loss. It's three degrees outside, you have one year left with Joe Mauer, your basketball GM choked with Ricky Rubio, you have a .500 hockey team, and your football team is coming back nine months from now with the same bumbling coach and a 41-year-old QB ... and that's before we get to the fact that God might legitimately hate your team, or that it's going to be 20 degrees or colder for the next two months, or that everyone around you is just as depressed as you are. How do you get out of bed? How do you function that Monday? So much for spiritual optimism.
5. You need to be just pessimistic enough to keep your guard up for a sucker punch but just optimistic enough to keep lowering your guard at the worst possible time.
Two days before Vikes-Saints, I wrote the following: "Jets/Bills/Vikes/Browns fans expect to get punched, contort their faces into a giant wince, wait for a punch that never comes, say to themselves, 'Cool, I'm not gonna get punched, it's gonna be OK!' ... and then they get clocked." That sequence usually leads to a Level 1 loss. What's amazing is how many fans know this and lower their guard anyway. On Wednesday's podcast, I asked my buddy Geoff (die-hard Vikes fan) whether he actually thought Minnesota was going to win on the final drive of regulation. This is someone who started rooting for the Vikes at age 6, the year of the Hail Mary play, and spent the next 35 years getting kicked in the teeth. What was his answer?
First down, New Orleans 33, less than a minute to play ... Geoff thought they had it. He dropped his guard. The rest was history. He spent the rest of the night kicking himself for dropping his guard. That's an essential emotional sequence for Level 1: self-loathing.
6. Outsiders need to instinctively empathize during a Level 1 takedown.
Going in, they already know, "Wow, that team's fan base has been brutalized in a variety of ways; this is becoming unfair." So when that brutalization kicks into motion again, even casual fans with no real interest instinctively start rooting for that team to NOT get brutalized. It cannot be up for debate. There are no degrees. It's like how we should figure out prospective Hall of Famers -- either you know or you don't.
A good example: On Sunday, I parlayed the Colts/Saints money lines and needed a Saints victory to cover the bet. After the 12-man penalty and Favre's pick, I started rooting against my own wager just because, as a Red Sox fan with two Level 1 scars, you never want to see anyone else suffer a Level 1 loss. Empathy trumped my other interests in the game.
Possible factors that could negatively affect this empathetic assessment: success of other teams in the same city (for instance, nobody is feeling bad for Boston Bruins fans after the other three Boston teams won a combined six titles this past decade); lack of media attention; unwavering optimism within the fan base; and steady losing devoid of playoff nightmares (like the Lions or Saints). This clause unfortunately rules out fans of the following teams: the Arizona Cardinals, Atlanta Falcons, Atlanta Hawks, Boston Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks, Cincinnati Bengals, Denver Nuggets, Detroit Lions, Houston Astros, Kansas City Chiefs, L.A. Clippers, L.A. Kings, Miami Dolphins, Milwaukee Brewers, Milwaukee Bucks, Phoenix Suns, Sacramento Kings, San Diego Chargers, San Diego Padres, St. Louis Blues, Texas Rangers, Vancouver Canucks and Washington Capitals ... even if it's not totally fair.
So who's left? By my count, only 15 teams are currently eligible for a Level 1 defeat at any time. Just for fun, I thought we could rank them.
Last Title: Never.
Last Truly Devastating Defeat: None.
Rock Bottom: Losing the Sonics in 2008 sent the city into a spiritual sports funk.
Additional Thoughts: Had to be included after the repeated failures of the Griffey/Ichiro Mariners, Super Bowl XL and the Sonics hijacking. Only a title can snap the city out of it. The good news: They listen to the right kind of music to get through this. "Black hole sun ... won't you come ... and wash away the rainnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn."
|Michael Jordan and Clyde Drexler: two symbols of Blazers heartbreak.|
Last Title: 1977.
Last Truly Devastating Defeat: 2000 Western finals, Game 7, when they blew a 17-point lead to the Shaqobe Lakers as Mike Dunleavy squinted in disbelief and Rasheed threw up bricks. Somehow, those two are still in my life on an everyday basis. Is there a reset button I can hit?
Rock Bottom: The height of the Jail Blazers era.
Additional Thoughts: Even though they shouldn't be eligible until 2012, I'm including them because of the many Drexler Era meltdowns, the 2000 collapse, the Bowie and Oden decisions, and the team's "only child" status in Portland. People in Portland are irrational about the Blazers much like a single soccer mom would be irrational about her only son. What do you mean he isn't starting today, Coach? He's the best player on the team! YOU JUST DON'T LIKE HIM -- THAT'S WHAT THIS IS ABOUT! They would not handle a Level 1 loss well.
Last Title: 1960.
Last Truly Devastating Defeat: 2008 NFC title game (to Arizona).
Rock Bottom: Donovan McNabb throwing up during the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XXXIX.
Mitigating Factor: The Phillies' 2008 title knocked the Eagles down a few spots. At least the people of Philly know God isn't against their city now. Or, they're reasonably sure.
Additional Thoughts: It's unclear whether Eagles fans could have a Level 1 loss at this point since they keep their guard up at all times. (I watched it firsthand in Jacksonville during Super Bowl XXXIX: As soon as things went wrong in the second quarter, they checked out.) Eagles fans are like those premade dinner bowls from Uncle Ben's or Healthy Choice -- just cut the top, microwave for three minutes and you have a bowl of bitter. Switch McNabb for Favre this past Sunday, and Eagles fans absolutely would have been waiting for that interception to be thrown. To rope them into a Level 1 loss would take a Herculean choke.
Last Title: 1968.
Last Truly Devastating Defeat: 1986 AFC playoffs against Cleveland, when they blew a 10-point lead in the last four minutes, jump-started by Mark Gastineau's stupid late hit on Bernie Kosar (fast forward to the 2:24 mark).
Rock Bottom: None. Just a nasty habit of starting hot and falling apart.
Additional Thoughts: Like Eagles fans, Jets fans are smart enough to lock out before they get hurt. This past Sunday, it happened when Rex Ryan called for a 52-yard field goal that never had a chance. After that miss, I e-mailed a Jets friend of mine with the subject heading, "THAT WAS A MISTAKE." He e-mailed back, "That was the game." Jets fans are a lot of things, but they're always realistic.
Last Title: Never.
Last Truly Devastating Defeat: "The Shot" (1989). A true Stomach Punch. They had just taken the lead a few seconds earlier on one of the best inbounds plays ever executed (fast forward to the 3:22 mark). And then ... ooof.
Rock Bottom: Orlando's shocking upset of the Cavs in the 2009 Eastern finals. They never saw it coming. Next time, they will.
Additional Thoughts: For all we know, this season is their last chance with LeBron. It's going to be like a mutant version of the 1992 Pirates during Barry Bonds' last season -- desperation mixed with urgency -- but in this case, Cavs fans won't have the "We Are Family" title from 1979 to cushion the blow if things go wrong. Just writing about this makes me uneasy.
|Don't bring up Brett Hull's goal to Sabres fans.|
Last Title: Never.
Last Truly Devastating Defeat: 1999 Finals, Game 6 (the No Goal Game).
Rock Bottom: Ditto. I mean, they lost the only Stanley Cup finals in which the opposing team cheated to score the title-winning goal in triple overtime.
Additional Thoughts: They share a city with the star-crossed Bills. That's like having your house sprayed by a skunk once a year. You can't get that stink off your clothes.
Last Title: 1973.
Last Truly Devastating Defeat: Games 6 and 7 of the 1994 NBA Finals were more recent, but 1993's Charles Smith Game might have been the all-time NBA Stomach Punch loss. We've never seen anything approaching that final sequence in a basketball game, before or since. It's remarkable. If you showed that play on a loop in a crowded Manhattan bar, within 15 minutes, it would incite a riot.
Rock Bottom: The Isiah era.
Additional Thoughts: Slowly becoming the pre-2004 Red Sox of basketball. Right down to the 45 shameless writers who would release a quickie book if the Knicks ever turned things around and won a title. Wait, I think I just made fun of myself.
Last Title: 1967. Also their last finals appearance.
Last Truly Devastating Defeat: Game 6, 1993 conference finals (overtime in Los Angeles). The Leafs have a chance to clinch their first Cup appearance in 26 years and score three in the third period to force overtime, and then Wayne Gretzky gets away with a high stick to Doug Gilmour's face that isn't called ... and Gretzky scores the game winner one minute later. The Leafs go on to blow Game 7 at home. They haven't recovered.
Rock Bottom: Probably a 2008 YouTube video of a Leafs fan breaking up with the team. It's inordinately depressing.
Additional Thoughts: They're the Knicks of the NHL -- giant fan base, huge city, decades of unhappiness, a beaten-down fan base with little hope, and for whatever reason, it's always more fun when they're good.(Now here's where a sarcastic Knicks or Leafs fan would chime in, "Yeah, and you left out that they both stink and don't have a 2010 first-round pick." Um ... good point.)
Last Title: Never (unless you count 1954, when the team was in New York).
Last Truly Devastating Defeat: Game 6, 2002 World Series (sadly, no YouTube clip since MLB knocks any footage off YouTube in its never-ending quest to find ways to suck). Arguably a Level 1 loss. No moniker, though.
Rock Bottom: Game 6 again, though I forgot to mention the thundersticks.
Additional Thoughts: You'd think a 66-year title drought, the Bonds/BALCO fallout, a borderline Level 1 loss in 2002 and having its first World Series home game in 27 years postponed by a devastating earthquake during batting practice of the first-ever Bay Area World Series would get the message out that, "Hey, we need to start including these guys in all future Tortured Sports Cities discussions." Can you be underrated/tortured? Apparently so.
Last Title: 1948.
Last Truly Devastating Defeat: With apologies to the 1999 Indians (shut out by an injured Pedro Martinez coming out of the bullpen in a wild Game 5) and 2007 Indians (blew a 3-1 series lead to Boston), the answer is still Game 7 of the 1997 World Series. Every bit as devastating as the 1986 Red Sox collapse at Shea, but without the fanfare because of residual bitterness from the 1994 lockout. Only when steroids use became mandatory the following year (wait, it wasn't?) did we throw ourselves back into baseball again.
Rock Bottom: Two recent Cleveland aces (Cliff Lee and CC Sabathia) starting Game 1 of the 2009 World Series ... but not for Cleveland.
Additional Thoughts: Lost some "tortured" street cred because "Major League" and "Major League 2" have been on cable so often that 30.9 percent of Americans now mistakenly believe that Charlie Sheen was the 1994 World Series MVP.
|This is Earnest Byner during the 1987 AFC Chamionship Game. Before the fumble.|
Last Title: 1964 (also their last NFL Championship Game appearance).
Last Truly Devastating Defeat: The Earnest Byner Game (1987 AFC title game versus Denver). For my money, the most underrated Level 1 loss -- he's running toward the end zone, they're about to tie the game, then BOOM! It's like a sniper took him out. No other fan base has ever swung from total euphoria to total depression that quickly. And how 'bout poor Byner, who carried the Browns that game and was so tormented that he could barely walk back to the sideline? That game still haunts me, and I'm not even a Browns fan.
Rock Bottom: Cleveland losing the franchise in 1995, then getting a much crappier version back a few years later. That was like when the Ultimate Warrior came back as the Not-So-Ultimate and It's-Too-Bad-He-Cut-Down-On-The-Steroids Warrior.
Additional Thoughts: I can't believe the Browns are only No. 4. Three teams are more tortured than this?
Last title: 1965 (AFL).
Last Truly Devastating Defeat: The Music City Miracle (1999 playoffs). Also the worst gambling loss of the past 10 years for anyone who bet on Buffalo. The rare double whammy.
Rock Bottom: Let's go with this one -- a while back, I wrote that Buffalo had lost three straight Super Bowls, and my editor corrected me that it was actually four. I know I'm getting old, and I've been having a ton of brain farts lately ever since my son decided it would be a good idea to start getting up at 5:15 every morning like he was a CEO. But still, the Bills lost so many Super Bowls in a row that someone who writes about sports for a living couldn't remember the exact number. We'll never see anything like that again. I'm convinced.
Additional Thoughts: They've had so many crushing defeats that Vincent Gallo made "Buffalo '66," about a Bills fan who loses so much money on a Buffalo Super Bowl that he can't repay his bookie so he takes the fall for a crime the bookie committed, spends five years in prison, then gets out and decides he has to kill the kicker who cost the team that Super Bowl. They had to change the name of the kicker from "Scott Norwood" to "Scott Wood" for legal reasons. This actually happened.
Last Title: Never.
Last Truly Devastating Defeat: This past Sunday.
Rock Bottom: Hard to top four Super Bowl losses in eight years. (Although we just topped it with the Bills, so I guess it's not THAT hard.) But since there were so many rock bottoms, let's go with the first one: Super Bowl IV, when the Vikes were favored by 12 and ended up losing by 16 to the Chiefs. Before the game, a Vikings mascot tried to take off in a hot air balloon, failed and nearly crashed into the stands. Don't believe me? Go to the 20-second mark of this clip. It's like a deleted scene from a Christopher Guest movie. Not a good omen for the Vikes and big games. Call it a retroactive rock bottom.
Additional Thoughts: As Geoff said on my podcast, "If there's any upside [from Sunday's loss], it's that no city will be willing to lure the Vikings away." I bumped them ahead of Buffalo only because of their unparalleled streak: Every 10 years or so, they rip the intestines out of their fans. Happened in 1975 (the Hail Mary), 1988 (Darren Nelson), 1998 (Gary Anderson) and 2009 (12 men). ... By the way, none of those were the four lost Super Bowls. Not even the Red Sox annihilated their fans at such a consistently efficient pace.
|The pain. The torture. The acceptance.|
Last Title: 1908.
Last Truly Devastating Defeat: Bartman.
Rock Bottom: Ditto.
Additional Thoughts: Cold weather, a 102-year title drought, a checkered history, a Level 1 loss that happened recently, self-loathing fans, a nagging sense that it can never turn around ... the Cubs really bring everything to the table. They get my "fan base that's wired the most tightly" vote for this reason: Remember Game 1 of the 2008 playoffs at Wrigley, when the Dodgers jumped out to an early lead and the crowd died immediately? No faith at all. It has been beaten out of the fans.
How do you get your collective mojo back? The 1994 New York Rangers, 2004 Red Sox and 2008 Phillies proved that anyone can get off the Level 1 List. Hey, it's not easy. You'll shed some blood and tears. You might need a miracle to turn momentum around, and you might even need to sell the soul of one of your kids. But it has been done. Hell, I was there for one of those karma swings: Oct. 17, 2004, Fenway Park, Dave Roberts sprinting for second right in front of me, my whole life about to change ... and I had no idea.
So when I get e-mails like this ...
I am a 17-year-old senior at Averill Park High School in upstate New York, the only Vikings fan amidst the swam of Pats and Giants fans. I inherited the Vikings from my dad, and my first sports memory is watching the Gary Anderson game. For the past decade, I have suffered with the Vikings, watching everyone else celebrate the Giants' and the Pats' Super Bowls, while my Vikes continued to lose in ever escalating horrible ways. But I kept coming back every year, as they found new ways to torture me, because sports are what I live for. Then came the NFC Championship, and once again, I was caused excruciating pain by the thing I love most. I'm finding it hard to commit myself again, as after each year I suffer more and more. Being a Red Sox fan, you have experienced this same pain, but ultimately, you got your redemption. All I ask for is something to remind me that the misery and despair are worth it all, and that being a sports fan isn't just masochism with commercials.
-- Patrick, Albany, N.Y.
... they mean something to me. Maybe I can't contact ghosts, and maybe I don't have spectacular breasts, but I can feel your pain, Patrick. No, being a sports fan isn't just masochism with commercials. Yes, the misery and despair will be worth it some day. Keep the faith.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for ESPN.com. For every Simmons column, as well as podcasts, videos and more, check out Sports Guy's World. His new book, "The Book of Basketball," is now available.