“LET’S go watch the Cubs lose!” said the driver last Friday, as the crowded subway car made its way to Chicago’s Wrigley Field for the first of a three-game series between the great cross-town rivals, the Cubs and the White Sox. Half the car groaned; the other half cheered.
This kind of banter is the lingua franca of Chicago summers. Like all sports rivalries, it has a civic function; it gives people something to talk about, a channel for feelings that might otherwise go unexpressed, and a sort of shorthand for where they stand. The cultural dimensions of Sox and Cubs fandom are slightly opaque and probably exaggerated, but it seems to be that the Sox, with their Yankees-esque pinstripes and2005 World Series rings, are grittier. The Cubs have a more cuddly face and the longest losing streak in baseball, having not won the World Series for over a century. Cursed(according to lore) or simply doomed, they happen to be the most lovable losers left in baseball.
But watching the game on Friday, I was sceptical. The Cubs have a slightly smaller payroll than the Sox—a typical indicator of underdog status—but they’re still one of the most expensive teams in baseball. My favorite player on either team was Juan Pierre of the White Sox. “He’s pesky,” my brother said, explaining that although Mr Pierre is not one of the sport’s celebrities, he’s a reliable hitter, a fast runner, and quick to steal a base when the chance comes up. Mr Pierre turned out to be as pesky as billed; he was busy the whole game and hit a two-run triple in the seventh inning, bringing the Sox to a 6-4 victory. The next day the papers would herald the “unlikely hero.” By contrast the highly paid Cubs star Alfonso Soriano, loitered around left field looking at a fly ball that eventually landed fair.
It raises the question: does a team become a lovable loser simply because it loses? Is there something about losing that is inherently lovable? In a recent book called “Scorecasting”, Tobias Moskowitz and Jon Wertheim consider such “hidden influences” on how sports are played and won. In particular, they examine the effect of “loss aversion”—the tendency to care more about avoiding a loss than about making a similar-sized gain—on decision-making by players and officials. As The Economistexplained earlier this year, Tiger Woods, for example, is more likely to hole a putt to save a par than to make a birdie.
Is something similar going on with spectators? To pick a team that is known to lose is technically to anticipate a loss, but in a manageable, predictable way. There is no real loss to avoid; a win would merely be an unexpected bonus. Backing a more successful team raises the stakes by making wins just as viable as losses, so losing is more of a loss.
Teams like the Cubs give people a safe space in which to lose. Fans get the benefits of commiseration without incurring any real costs. The predictable losers also allow other teams to win. So really the Sox fans should be grateful for the Cubs. Such losers may not be so lovable on scrutiny, but their ineptitude has an extra civic function: they take one for the team. They’re a sacrifice fly.