While you are reading this, I am on the road heading out east for a long weekend, so I do not at this point know whether the Yankees fell to the Tigers or if Cal knocked off Oregon (I know that’s the one that Baltimoreans are really watching). However, that’s why I like writing this column, it’s timeless. Or maybe it’s just lazy. I haven’t quite decided and if you are this far down then maybe you don’t particularly care. And yet from the time I started typing this to the beginning of that sentence, a new story just went across the wire, TCU bucking the Big East for the Big 12, leaving the conference before playing a game and joining the conference it probably should have joined last year if it wasn’t (isn’t?) so dysfunctional and terribly run. It is hard to get a grapple on where you are in the sports landscape or even when following a particular team how good that team really is in the moment. Maryland is a contender for the ACC for about a week before falling to West Virginia, and Navy is a potential BCS buster in the first half against South Carolina and by the time they are flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct in overtime they are back to being a good, not great Navy team.
The Ravens did a complete 360 in the first four games of the season. Before the kickoff against Pittsburgh they are a contender but it is unsure if the offense will be able to move the ball aside from Ray Rice. Before the kickoff against Tennessee they are a Super Bowl frontrunner set to steamroll an inferior team. Then they are an underachieving team that doesn’t always come out to play- after the Jets game I feel about the same as I did a month ago. Look no further than the college football rankings, where teams fly up and down the top 25 restrained only by preconceived notions of past good and bad teams (Illinois is a better team than Michigan but because voters see “Michigan” and associate them with the teams of the past they are ahead). Clemson should be far higher than even they are, but the omnipresent sense of collapse follows the Tigers around season after season (mostly because it happens every year). To take even a day to consider how good the team is right now is an effort in futility since I guarantee it will change. Where is Buddhist philosophy for sports fans? One must be comfortable with change and uncertainty, for all things change. Except the Orioles not making the playoffs, of course.
And yet I am as guilty as anyone, constantly reading analyses and even sometimes the dreaded preview column to get an idea for how good the team is in the moment. And yet there are some things in sports that never change. To this day I feel that buzz in the air when I go to Camden Yards no matter how the Orioles are doing. I almost start shaking with anticipation seeing the Michigan team (mandatory Michigan reference) run out onto the field and touch the Go Blue banner. At the end of the day, we have no way of knowing if the team we are watching is the team we thought it was at the beginning of the day, though if we are lucky we can have a general idea of its likely trajectory through the rest of the season (ask the stats experts on the team for that one). That’s part of the reason why the realignment, adding wildcards, lockouts, etc do get under my skin somewhat. It doesn’t change the parts of being a modern sports fan- the preview columns are just about new opponents and the rankings just reflect different divisions, the quarterback is still the quarterback and the shortstop is still the shortstop. The game analysis doesn’t miss a beat.
But is it still the same feeling as a fan if the Ravens didn’t have their own marching band or if Camden Yards didn’t play “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” in the 7th inning? There are two levels of being a fan- the numbers game and the gameday experience. Time was when the latter was all fans had, and those are the fans who are rooted in tradition and want to preserve that amorphous feeling that seems to have been around forever (unfortunately not, but it has been for them). Modern fans are used to breaking down matchups; slotting in names, stats and descriptions that aren’t held down by tradition. This is the division that ushers in a more transparently profit-conscious sports enterprise than ever. Of course it has always been about the money (well at least since the 1930s where college sports is concerned), but it seems it has never been more brazen. While we may not have any idea how good Team X is today, at least we know that there are at least a few traditions that make the game so wonderful regardless of the outcome- until we get new, more marketable “traditions,” of course.