In the last 15 years, my beloved San Diego Padres have made the playoffs three times. In 2005 and 2006 they barely finished above .500 but managed to win an embarrassingly bad NL West division. Both years, they were promptly dismantled by the St. Louis Cardinals, who were actually good, in the first round of the playoffs. In 1998, however, they made it all the way to the World Series, our second appearance in franchise history. I was only seven when this happened, but I remember after we beat the Braves for the pennant, my dad loaded us up in the family minivan so we could drive around Ocean Beach beeping our horn and yelling, “We’re going to the World Series!” as loud as we could, over and over again. It’s my earliest sports-related memory. I barely knew what baseball was, but when my mom told me we were going to play the Yankees, I knew I should be afraid.
The 1998 Yankees went 114-48, which was then the record for most wins in the American League. As expected, they obliterated the Padres in four short games. I accepted this fate. The way the world works is the Padres lose to the Yankees in the playoffs. San Diego sports teams don’t exactly have a tradition of dominance, or even competitiveness; they’re charmingly, irrelevantly mediocre, except for the rare seasons of overachiement—and even those mostly end with them losing to their betters. I have never celebrated a world championship in my hometown. Weirdly, this is something I’m proud of. An endless struggle without ever earning the grand prize is part of my DNA; I’m practically allergic to success.
When I was 19, however, I was a little tired of being part of the wait-till-next-year crowd. I always thought it would be cool to go to one of those colleges that wins constantly and gets talked about nightly on ESPN. I was never a huge college football guy, but wouldn’t it be cool to root for a winner for once? Wouldn’t it be nice not to know, in my heart of hearts, that my team’s season would end in a loss? So I ended up at the University of Texas, which is a football program that happens to have a school attached to it—in 2011-2012, the athletics budget was $153.5 million; they paid their football coach $5 million in 2009. Sports weren’t the primary reason I wanted to go to University of Texas, but they helped. It ended up being the only school I applied to. A day after I landed in Austin I bought a Longhorn-emblazoned shirt off the $20 rack and wore it with pride. I was in the sanctum of winning now.
UT is one of those universities with students who turn their choice of school into an ideology. Everyone owns at least one item of Longhorn-related clothing, and the more dedicated students (which works out to about half of the undergrads) come to class dressed head-to-toe in burnt orange. There’s something charmingly cultish in constantly representing your school’s colors even when you’re buying lunch from the on-campus Wendy’s. This wasn’t just football—there’s no such thing as “just football” at UT. Professors actually cancel class on the Friday before the Oklahoma game.
The first game I went to was against the University of Wyoming. This was in 2010, when the Longhorns were not a very good team (they finished without a bowl appearance at 5-7), but they still absolutely trounced Wyoming 34-7. Sitting below me was a Midwestern couple in their 70s who had driven out from Cheyenne to see their team play. They watched with placid smiles as a resource-swollen, multi-million dollar football juggernaut destroyed their outmatched Cowboys.
This was what was expected to happen, and a team like Wyoming is probably used to having the odds stacked against them, but it still made me feel bad. I’d never rooted for an evil empire before, but here I was, literally inside the Death Star. Sitting in the largest stadium in the Big 12, which can hold nearly a fifth of all the people who live in the state of Wyoming, I felt like some bloated Roman emperor brooding on his perch cheering as some Christians get torn apart by lions. I leaned closer to try and eavesdrop on the Wyoming couple, perhaps because I wanted to hear their side of the story, but everything they said was drowned out by the “WYOMING SUCKS” chants behind me. The whole thing felt wrong.
I am technically a Longhorn; I have far more reason to invest in this football team than any other one in the world. But I just can’t do it. It’s not in my blood. I am philosophically at odds with the University of Texas football program, and I’m fully aware of how silly that is. It’s too easy to root for them. Where’s the satisfaction in beating teams who you know are worse than you?
Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with growing up rooting for favorites. It actually makes a lot of sense: When you’re witnessing the greatness of Derek Jeter or Magic Johnson or Emmitt Smith at an early age, you naturally want to see them succeed, unless you have a bitter adult on hand to tell you that the Yankees, Lakers, and Cowboys are evil and you need to root for the team that’s all the way at the bottom of the standings, because that’s just what your family does.
Part of me wishes I was in love with the Yankees through grade school, it would’ve saved a lot of heartbreak. Maybe witnessing victory after victory thanks to limitless resources from an early age would’ve allowed me to feel the vibes at Longhorn games. But Yankees fans missed out on being the perennial underdog, which is something I genuinely love. I love that San Diego’s three chances at a championship were dashed by some of the greatest teams of all time (the ’98 Yankees, the ’94 49ers, and the ’84 Tigers). I love that Dan Fouts and Don Coryell’s best playoff run was stymied when he couldn’t grip the ball against the Bengals on the coldest day in the history of North America. I love calling my Dad after another loss that should have been a win. I love the instant, mutual-understanding I feel when I make eye contact with another Chargers fan. We have a proud, multilayered history just like any franchise, it’s just that all of it involves losing, sometimes heartbreakingly, sometimes hilariously.
I was bored by the fourth quarter of the Wyoming game. The old couple had already left, and the section I was in was getting rowdier. I started talking to the guy next to me, who wasn’t decked out in UT colors. It turned out he was from out-of-state too, a graduate student in dermatology. We chatted about nothing in particular, and I asked him if he had any remorse watching a team like Texas utterly dismantle a team like Wyoming. “Not really,” he replied. He was a Yankees fan. Figures.
For more on the strange world of sports fandom, check out: