Fantasy and reality

It’s easy to confuse fantasy with reality in sports. Three months ago even the thought that the Saints would be contenders for the finals – let alone a home final – was pure fantasy. Or that Justin Koschitzke would be a difference-maker. Now?

Sometimes the line is clear. Dream Team is pure fantasy – pick an all-star side constrained by a salary cap and take on 15 friends in a league. But it’s reality that you can’t win if you load up on too many stars or too many favorite players. So I have just three Saints – Goddard, McEvoy and Riewoldt – and indeed have a chance to win. But I never favor fantasy over my real teams.

Too often reality hoped for is just fantasy – in last year’s drawn Grand Final, I envision the last-minute kick taking a sideways hop toward Stephen Milne, who slots it in the final minute, and the Saints win the premiership. Then again, in 1966, the ball emerges from a scrum of desperation and takes a hop toward Barry Breen, who launches it toward the sticks and scores the winning behind. How often does history repeat?

We all have our defenses against unrealized hopes. My friend, Dave, is a lifelong Chicago Cubs supporter. The Cubs last won the baseball World Series in 1908; they last played in the Series in 1945. Dave always assumes the worst – a game-losing home run, a rally-killing strikeout, a baserunning blunder. So he’s always happily surprised when the Cubs win. Eight years ago, he let himself believe that the long drought was about to end – and then, with his team five outs from the Series, a fan reached over and took an out away from a Cubs fielder to prolong a rally, and the Marlins came back to win the playoff series and then the World Series. Served him right, he said.

Better to take the highs and lows as they come. Crushing lows make the highs that much sweeter. And unless you’re a bandwagon-jumping frontrunner (snort), there always are more lows than highs. But why follow sports if not to expect the unexpected, to hope for the improbable? The economy may not recover anytime soon, but the Saints could beat the Pies on Friday night. You never know.

The triumphs come in unexpected places. I played varsity soccer in high school. A short, slow wing on a dreadful team – my senior season we won one game and one fight. Never scored a goal – but had one on my boot in the opening minutes against the top-ranked team in the state my senior year. All I had to do was make contact. Instead, a swing and miss. I still can picture it.

Four years later I was playing forward for my university intramural soccer team in the A-League championship game. And this time, like the last, the crossing pass came right to my left foot. And this time into the net, the winning score in a 2-1 game. My only goal in 10 years of soccer. I still can picture that, too.

And I can picture a conga line of delirious supporters in red, white and black on the final Saturday in September. Fantasy? Until it becomes reality.

I came to footy in the mid-’80s, but I’ve been a baseball fan since my Dad first took me to games as a very little boy. I have been a Boston Red Sox fan most of my life. I would exult in triumphs and despair at defeats for a team that hadn’t won the World Series since 1918.

When the Red Sox lost the 2003 league championship series to the hated Yankees, it was my darkest winter as a fan. Forty years of continuing disappointment, close call after close call. And then came 2004, when Boston ended its “curse” with an improbable comeback against New York and then a World Series win. The night the Red Sox won it all, several of us celebrated long and late at a Louisville pub, unrestrained joy mixed in equal part with numbing disbelief.

A study some years ago claimed that cheering for a team brings inevitable disappointment. Losses linger and victories are fleeting. Because we celebrate in the moment and then return to our mundane lives. I don’t buy it. If the Red Sox (fill in your favorite team) could win a championship, anything is possible. The celebration, the joy went on for months. Just the thought of that season still brings a smile.

And at that point I vowed never to take sports so seriously again. The Holy Grail had been attained. And maybe I don’t. I can shake off disappointment more quickly now – but then I can’t shake off the shattered, haunted look of the downed Saints after the Grand Final loss of 2009. And I wonder if many Saints supporters – or even Saints themselves — had a summer like my winter of 2003-04. Or again last summer. I want them to find what I found that one glorious autumn, and be right there with them.

But those are the cards dealt. More exhilarating to run the race than to watch from the sideline. And some days you get across the line first. And not always in your dreams.

About Glenn Brownstein

I'm a red, white and blue supporter of the red, white and black who became a footy fan through ESPN telecasts in the 1980s and a buddy who founded the American version of the game. Yup, I chose the Saints, but I'd like to think they chose me, too.

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