Football is my first love, at least in terms of sports. Music is and always will be my first love, as it’s the thing I’m best at, but my relationship with it is complicated for a number of reasons. With football, however, the relationship is uncomplicated. I love everything about the game. I live and die with the Kansas City Chiefs, but my love extends far deeper. I’ll gladly watch CFL, Arena League (even AFL2), any division of college ball, or high school. I’ll even park the car to watch a pickup game (I’ll join in too if asked, but that’s bad for everyone). There isn’t an aspect of the game of football that I don’t love.
I love baseball too, but not to the same degree. My love for football began at age 8 and never slowed down or even lost momentum. Baseball, on the other hand, I loved as a child, but I fell out of love. The hormone driven 16-year old version of me didn’t have patience for the pace of a baseball game. I could watch one in person because there’s so much more to the experience, but not on television. Quite honestly, I even missed the World Series through most of my formative years.
The truth is that, as a child, I loved baseball a little. What drove my passion for baseball, however, was Bo Jackson. I was an impressionable kid when Bo Jackson was a guy making impressions, and he played baseball for the team in my favorite city (prior to age nine I had been to Wichita, Kansas City, and Topeka, so the choice was pretty easy). Bo was a football player too, which made the love affair that much deeper. Even now as an adult who understands the full implication of the statement I’m about to make, I won’t deny that in the late ’80s I was a Chiefs fan who rooted for the Los Angeles Raiders.
But as Bo’s career faded, so did my love for baseball.
The player who reignited my love for baseball was, oddly enough, Matt Clement. One July day in 2003 I went home from work, feeling ill. At the time I had the kind of basic cable package which includes only the first 15 channels, which was enough to give me every network feed as well as the Weather Channel, which is almost a necessity for anyone living in Kansas. Rounding out that package of channels were some of cable television’s gems: HSN, CSPAN, and WGN. When I arrived home at 3PM that afternoon, I had little desire to watch Rikki Lake, Jeopardy, or Buffy The Vampire Slayer, but I lacked the physical capacity to do something more productive than watch television. The remaining option was to watch WGN, which during the summer airs two types of programming during the afternoon: Cosby Show reruns and Chicago Cubs games. Either one was preferable to the alternatives.
On that particular afternoon, Matt Clement pitched a transcendent game. As a football fan I’m intrinsically a fan of superior displays of athleticism, so over the course of the remaining hour of that game I fell in love with Matt Clement. I didn’t understand at the time that, in terms of superior displays of athleticism, Matt Clement was not a player with whom to fall in love. But I watched the Cubs again for the remainder of the season, right into that charmed (and ultimately cursed) offseason. I started to fall in love with other players: Kerry Wood, Mark Prior, Joe Borowski, Damion Miller, Kenny Lofton, and Moses Alou. I even enjoyed watching Randall Simon. I had become a Chicago Cubs fan.
Then something unusual happened…. For the first time in probably a decade, I watched the World Series. I became a fan of guys who weren’t on my team. I rather bedrudgingly became a Josh Beckett fan, and even a Dontrelle Willis fan. As a newborn Cubs fan my obligation was to cheer for the Yankees to beat the Marlins, but I found myself unable. I was far more attracted to the superior display of athleticism than I was to the prospect of seeing the conquerors of my team themselves conquered. I wasn’t just a Cubs fan. I was now a baseball fan.
In 2009, my loyalty as a Cubs fan is being tested. For the first time in my relatively young fandom, I am being forced to root for a team without Kerry Wood. Much like a 49ers fan in 2001, forced to root for a team without Jerry Rice, knowing that a short distance away Rice was helping another team win games, I feel like the management of my chosen team has made an epic mistake. And it’s painful to watch.
As a Chiefs fan, however, I can battle through it. It’s nothing I haven’t lived through before. I watched my football team, fresh off the tragic loss of Derrick Thomas, allow Donnie Edwards to go to a division rival. I watched them choose Elvis Grbac over Rich Gannon. I watched them deal Jared Allen while making Larry Johnson the highest paid player on the team. I even watched Steve Bono. My faith has been tested like Job, and not once have I faltered.
Likewise, as a Cubs fan my dedication has also been tried. I learned to cheer for a team that featured Jeromy Burnitz as its sole power-hitting outfielder. I learned to cheer for superutility players who weren’t particularly super (if you haven’t seen it already, do yourself a favor and google “Dusty’s Dice”). I watched a young player who had quickly become one of my favorites get benched by an incoming GM, simply because said player wasn’t his guy (I’m speaking, of course, of Matt Murton), which is probably the attitude in sports that I detest the most. I still cheered for Cliff Floyd, however, and after that I begrudgingly learned to cheer for Jim Edmonds.
The first line of most wedding vows is some variant of the phrase “for better or for worse”. Cubs fans live that vow, ’til death do they part. The death part is very serious too. Just ask Steve Goodman, who penned the song “A Dying Cubs Fan’s Last Request”. That’s the earnest truth about Cubs fandom–multiple generations of Cubs fans and players have died since their last championship. For all of Chiefs fans’ bellyaching about how long it’s been since we won a championship, keep in mind that our championship quarterback is still doing radio rather than pushing daisies.
One of my old favorite restaurants (now closed) had a trite but accurate saying on their breakfast menu: the chicken is involved, but the hog is committed. That, to me, illustrates the difference between Chiefs fans and Cubs fans. As I was watching and cheering for that 2006 Cubs team–a team that had been stripped of most of its talented players and lacked any semblance of proper coaching–the rest of the Cubs nation was with me. Wrigley didn’t have an abundance of empty seats, and WGN’s ratings were as high as they ever were. As fans we were miserable, but we were still watching.
Conversely, as I was watching and cheering for the 2008 Chiefs–a team that had been stripped of most of its talented players and lacked any semblance of proper coaching–a noticeable faction of the Chiefs nation was very decidedly not with me. The Chiefs avoided blackout after blackout on the simple technicality that the GM and the CBS affiliate were buying the unclaimed tickets to Arrowhead in an effort to save face and preserve at least a little bit of profit. Chiefs fans are involved, but Cubs fans are committed.
The simple fact is this: we Chiefs fans, as a whole, should be embarrassed by the number of empty seats at Arrowhead last year.
Some fans will probably claim that the lack of attendance hastened the firing of Carl Peterson. It didn’t. The only person who hastened the firing of Carl Peterson was Carl Peterson. I didn’t witness firsthand the debacle that was the early 1980s Chiefs simply because I was too young, but I have it on good authority that 2007/2008 was not the first time the team was abandoned by its constituency. In other words, Clark Hunt has seen this before, and, like his father, he won’t let it dictate how he does business. He will hire the people he believes are most likely to bring another championship to Kansas City, and public opinion won’t sway his decision-making.
No, the only individuals to whom the collective fanbase sent a message by their inattentiveness was the players. We sent them the message that unless they win a certain number of games, we won’t support them. That’s a hell of a message to send to young players. Owners don’t give up on fans just because the fans have given up on them, but players do. There’s a reason why hometown discounts are given by free agents in Pittsburgh, but not in Phoenix, and it has to do with more than just Ws and Ls. It’s about the culture of a city and a fanbase, and as much as we would like to have that here, we don’t.
For better or for worse–that’s the vow Chiefs fans need to take. The attitude in sports I detest second-most is fair weather fandom, and of that we’re guilty as hell. It’s time to stop. Not because we’re in danger of a blackout, and not even because we’re in danger of potentially losing our team to Los Angeles. No, it’s time to stop because we’re better than that. In 2009, my biggest wish isn’t for the Chiefs to do well. My biggest wish is for Chiefs fans to bring back the 12th man, regardless of the record. In the Schottenheimer and Vermeil eras we had the reputation of being some of the best fans in the NFL, and we didn’t even have to piss on people wearing the wrong colors to achieve that status. Let’s reclaim that glory, come hell, hail, high water, or Todd Haley.