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The Joy of Losing
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Other fans of Major League Baseball's once invincible 14-straight-division-titles' Atlanta Braves undoubtedly are terribly distressed over the team's plummet to the nether reaches of their division this season. But me, I'm happy. The Braves reversal of fortune has filled me with the warm and fuzzy feelings of nostalgia - nostalgia for the good old days of Brave incompetence.

Oh, they were gloriously awful, those Braves. More games lost - 845 - and fewer won - 712 - than any other National League team during the 1980s. Last in their division four years running. Last in 1990, too, with the worst record in all of baseball. But division winners every year from 1991 to 2005. Even won a World Series in '95.

Boy, did I feel noble, high-minded and self-esteemed during the years of futility. It's easy to hop onto winners' bandwagons, easy to identify with front-runners. But to stand by perennial losers like the Braves, that took true character.

I in fact learned one of life's most important lessons. I used to wonder, when I was growing up, how people could support such teams as the Philadelphia Phillies, which finished dead last in the National League in eight of the 16 seasons between 1935 and 1950, next to last four times, before finally winning a pennant. Or the Philadelphia Athletics, last in the American League in ten of those years. The St. Louis Browns and Washington Senators were almost as bad. So were the Braves when the team was located in Boston.

I finally learned, as fans in those cities must have learned, that winning isn't really everything. For if it was, there would have been no point whatsoever in watching the Atlanta Braves at play.

There's this, too: It was easier for those folks in Philadelphia, St, Louis, Washington and Boston. They were backing their hometown teams, after all, while I was backing a team that played far away from my hometown of San Francisco.

But I bet you're wondering why a San Franciscan would be a dogged Braves loyalist. Television. I got hooked twenty years ago, not long after cable TV began bringing us the games. As you undoubtedly know, writers lead very hard lives and are frequently in need of diversion. Thus watching Braves games became essential daily therapy for me.

Standing by the Braves wasn't easy. Sportswriters seem to like nothing better than to pick on a team when it's down, and the Braves were just about as down as a team could be.

"The Braves," a typical sports page barb had it, "couldn't beat Lowell High School in a best-of-seven series."

When former President Jimmy Carter, visiting from his home state of Georgia, showed up in Oakland to watch an A's game, a local columnist observed that "after watching Atlanta, he was dying to see a big league game."

Pretty sick stuff. But there was worse, a small sampling of which I offer as further evidence of what Braves loyalists had to endure:

*"Pity the Atlanta Braves, the team whose sole purpose is to make everybody else feel better. The sad sacks of the National League."

*"Bumbling ... miserable ... woeful ... a perennially pathetic team."

*"It is always nice to have a team like the Braves around because no one else has to worry about finishing last."

Even Braves players, even team owner Ted Turner, got into it. "We were the laughingstock of baseball," pitcher John Smoltz admitted. "I went into comedy clubs and the jokes were all about us."

Turner declared he'd come to "look upon baseball as a kind of little extra burden that I have. Some people have to live with diabetes. I have to live with a lousy baseball team."

But I stuck with that lousy team, didn't I, and felt good about it, and good about myself. And now I've been able to do it again. What could be better than that? Certainly not winning. That's too easy. It takes a real fan to back a loser.

Copyright (c) 2006 Dick Meister