If you root for an extremely good team in a given season—we're talking "best team in the league"—what's the most nervous position you can be in? In the NFL, despite the vagaries of a one-and-done format, the top seed has home field advantage until the Super Bowl. Professional hockey and basketball give the higher seed every chance to advance, while college football might be one of the most predictable sports around. (If you're an Alabama fan this year, you know you're either getting a national championship or a heartbreaking loss in the title game.) March Madness is a decent contender, since the single elimination scenario is treacherous from the second round onward no matter how good a team has looked. (Note: First round if you're Virginia).
For my money, though, the most anxiety you can experience while rooting for a truly great team comes in baseball, and it comes when you're staring down potential defeat in a five-game divisional round series. The reason it trumps March Madness is simple: Baseball demands so much investment. This season, Red Sox fans followed their extremely good team for 162 games. That's such a long season! It doubles the total games played in the NBA and NHL, and dwarfs everything else.
Unlike any other sport, a baseball team basically becomes your second family. (Or your first family, if you're not great at the whole "family" thing.) You develop unhealthy attachments, you run the gamut of emotions, and you love and hate them in a way that's only possible with a familial bond.
Then, after all that spiritual investment, the first round comes down to three wins. It's completely out of proportion! It's outrageous! By the math (trust me on this one, I don't feel like showing my work), it would be like making an NFL team play about two quarters for all the marbles. It's not quite a coin flip, but it's way too close for comfort.
That said, if your team—the dominant one—wins the first two games, it's all good. Teams have come back from an 0-2 deficit before, but it's rare, and it's usually the good team coming back against the lesser one. If you're the best team in baseball and you go up 2-0, life is good.
But if you lose those first two games, or split them at home? Ohhhhh boy. Now you've lost home field advantage, and you're in Clench Mode. Clench Mode is the worst fan experience in the world. It means you have very little to gain in the short term, and absolutely everything to lose. It means you will not enjoy life until it's over. It means you're a bad break away from watching six months of total commitment spinning down the drain in the cruelest, quickest way imaginable.
It's the kind of emotional trauma that will make you both agonize over and bitterly despise your team, because great teams who run into the reality of sudden death always look panicky and incompetent. They forget everything that made them good, the enemy goes into beast mode, and to quote Tyrion Lannister, the joy turns to ashes in your mouth. It doesn't matter if your team won 120 games during the regular season—the spectacular flameout over one disastrous week will linger in the collective memory way more than that time they swept the Blue Jays in August.
There's an added pain when the potential loss is happening against your bitter rival, and the only reason you're even playing them in a short series is because MLB's playoff rules are wack. The Red Sox and the Yankees met 19 times this season, and the Sox came away with a razor-thin 10-9 advantage. Everyone in Boston knows this can go the wrong way, and they know that if the Yankees win two straight, they won't even get a chance to decide things at home. And they know that if they lose, their rivals will be complete and utter pricks about it.
Enjoy Clench Mode this week, Red Sox fans. As a detestable fan of your rival, I will be leaning back, sipping a cocktail, and loving the hell out of House Money Mode. See you in the Bronx!
The Sweet Trick Play That Could Definitely Only Work Against Minnesota of the Week: Iowa Hawkeyes
Have you heard of "New Kirk"? It's a half-ironic, half-serious nickname for Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, who used to be known as a boring football fogey before he re-invented (and re-branded) himself as a devil-may-care maverick. What it means, essentially, is that he still plays a conservative snooze-y brand of Big Ten football, but once in a while he runs a crazy trick play. "New Kirk" made an appearance this past weekend against Minnesota, and the play the Hawkeyes ran was truly cool:
That's a great, fun play! Also, it could only work against the Minnesota Golden Gophers, a team so reliably mediocre that they practically scream "humiliate me with some weird formation!"
Not to take anything away from the play design, which is fun and inventive, but if New Kirk tried this against Alabama? Saban would glare from the sideline until the entire Iowa team peed themselves and punted the ball backward.
Speaking of Ol' Nick...
The Nick Saban Forced Rage After a Dominating Performance of the Week: Nick Saban
When he's not yelling at reporters for asking him ordinary questions, or begging the media to write something negative about his team, Nick Saban is desperately trying to invent new ways to be disappointed with his team as they mercilessly crush opponent after opponent. This week, the Crimson Tide stole all the dignity from Arkansas in their own backyard, winning 65-31, but what did Saban want to talk about after? The shoddy defense. Dig this quote:
"I don't think that you really beat the other team when you give up 31 points, like we did today."
Sure, but here's the thing: When your team scores 65 points, it turns out you do beat them.
To be fair to Saban, I kind of get it. It's not like he can get in front of the microphone and say, "I am the coach of an historically dominant college football team that could beat the New York Jets—badly—and we're going to go undefeated and win another national title. Arkansas sucks."
That would be bad. And I'm sure he feels that he needs to motivate his team and his coaches so that they don't get complacent and court disaster. Still, the "boy, we sure weren't good today!" act is wearing thin after these gory blitzkriegs disguised as football games. Smile, Nick.
The Greatest Kicker Name of the Year: Cam Dicker
Not since Penn State's Sam "Kickin'" Ficken have I heard a name so perfect for the position. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: Cam Dicker, aka "Dicker the Kicker."
And guess what? The Texas Longhorns freshman is now a hero after this long boot gave his team an unexpected road win in the Red River Shootout:
WHEN I SAY DICKER, YOU SAY KICKER!
Okay, you get the point. I am always wowed by clutch kicking. With the amount of pressure, and the fickle nature of having to kick a ball designed by M.C. Escher, it seems like failure should be the norm. For a freshman to nail this kick on the road, in front of a hostile crowd, seems insane to me. Even if I spent my entire life training for that moment, I would have only a 30% chance to even make contact with the ball. Hats off to you, Dicker the Kicker.