DON'T KILL THE MELLINGER

On rooting and writing for the home teams

Updated: 2013-12-20T18:29:28Z

The other day, Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe became a bit of a cult hero among a lot of us who write about sports for a living. Headlines don’t always capture the essence of a piece, but this one was pretty good: Your sports columnist is here to write, not root.

Really, that could run at the top of everything a lot of us write. I encourage you to read the entire column — here’s one more link! — but the gist of it is in this paragraph:

"I don’t care if they win. I don’t care if they lose. I love sports. I love football. I love the story. The story can be great, win or lose. But I am not emotional about the outcome. Overall, of course, it’s better to work in a region with good teams, and Boston has more than any other city. Most of the time it’s a great story if they win. It’s even good for the city. Money flows. Strangers talk with each other. Sometimes it’s a good story even if they lose."

So with that in mind, the following email comes in from Zack Treece, a student at Mizzou who gave me permission to use his name and words here:

Sam,

I was wondering if you shared the same opinion as the Boston Globe columnist on being a fan of the teams you cover. I know you're trained not to care one way or the other, but growing up in/around Kansas City you must have been a fan of our teams at some time, no? It may be just as easy to write about the 2-14 Chiefs as it was the 9-0 Chiefs, but I would argue that unless you're an eternal pessimist it's much more enjoyable to field questions from fans and cover a team that's winning because in general, happy stories are enjoyable. 

Your thoughts?

This is a fundamental issue that any of us lucky enough to do this for a living run into. Whenever I’m invited to speak to various groups, some form of this question is always asked^, and I never feel like I articulate my answer as well as I’d like.

^ Other common questions include: Do you really hate Kent Babb?^^

^^ The answer, of course: Yes.

So I’ll try again here, with the assistance of a delete key, and the advantage of typing onto a computer screen instead of speaking into a microphone.

Of course I grew up a fan. My family lived in a small town about two hours outside of Kansas City. If we had a free weekend in the summer, there was a good chance we’d make the drive and stay at the Embassy Suites on Metcalf (where 10-year-old Sam would just DESTROY the breakfast buffet) and go to the Plaza, a Royals game, eat at Annie’s Santa Fe, maybe Worlds of Fun, the whole bit.

At various times in my driveway or backyard, my friends and I pretended to be George Brett, Christian Okoye, Danny Manning, Sam Lacy, Steve Henson, Steve DeBerg, Steve Balboni and Steve Stipanovich.

When people talk about how the Chiefs used to be awful, how nobody went to the games in the 1980s, I remember that. When people talk about Ewing Kauffman waving out of the owner’s box in the seventh inning stretch, I can picture it. Some of my most vivid memories as a kid are Pat Sheridan’s inside-the-park home run during one of the games we went to, Lin Elliott’s last miss, Billy Tubbs saying ridiculous things on the P.A. system, and arguing with a friend about whether Bill Snyder could make a difference at K-State^.

^ Eleven-year-old Sam got that very wrong.

I also remember, at varying times, rooting hard for the Cubs (my grandma’s favorite team, plus WGN), Flyers (me and my friends tried to become NHL fans once), the Raiders (at least when Bo Jackson had the ball) and the Warriors (Run T.M.C., y’all).

But that was all a long time ago.

I guess in my mind, a milemarker of sorts came quickly after I got the column job. I’d had it for less than a month. March of 2010. We were in Oklahoma City for the NCAA Tournament. KU and K-State were both there. That was the KU team with Xavier Henry. Sherron Collins’ senior year. And that was K-State’s best team in a generation^, the one with Denis Clemente and Jacob Pullen that won 29 games and lost to Butler in the regional final.

^ Later, K-State fans hated me for pointing out that Frank Martin had peaked with that season.

Anyway, you might remember what happened to KU that year, too. They played Northern Iowa in the second round, and that was The Ali Farokhmanesh Game. If you don’t recall, click that link. Farokhmanesh, this little guard and the son of a former Iranian volleyball player, not only took a shot that NO coach would want taken (there were like 32 seconds on the shot clock) but hit it, sealing the game. My only critique is that he didn’t do the Sam Cassell dance after.

But the milemarker came when Farokhmanesh’s shot went in. My first reaction wasn’t, "Oh, crap, the school I went to lost!" It was, "Holy crap, what a freaking shot and this will be a great story!"

The same thing happens with other sports, whether it’s the Royals circling the drain last May, Missouri’s AWESOME basketball team in 2011-12, the Chiefs of 2012 or, for that matter, the Chiefs of 2013.

You root for stories, not teams. You root for people, not franchises. Also, especially when games are bumping against deadlines, you root for the outcome to be decided in regulation.

I don’t love sports any less. I just love them differently.

The question here specifically asked about my background growing up in the area. I have no way of knowing this for sure, since it’s the only life I’ve lived, but I can’t imagine that doesn’t change my outlook in some ways. It has to be different for me here.

I don’t think it’s in the way you might assume, though.

In my mind, at least, the difference is that I feel the history and context of these moments better than I would if I had this same job in, say, St. Louis or Denver or Seattle or Tampa. I understand why the best Royals team in 20 years could either lift a city to ecstasy or intensify a generation of disappointment. I understand why the disconnect between the Chiefs and their fans last year was so hard to take. I understand why Andrew Baggett’s miss against South Carolina brought up so many bad memories (especially in that North end zone), and why Bill Snyder means so much to Manhattan, and why KU fans are so intense about their basketball team, and why Sporting’s rise from the Wizards’ ashes is such a remarkable journey.

Covering the 9-0 Chiefs is certainly a different experience than covering the 2-14 Chiefs. The people you talk to are more open, happier, less paranoid. I would guess that the stories are more read, in general, though I don’t know that for sure.

But one thing that may not make any sense: those 2-14 Chiefs, at least at times, were great to cover. The emotions surrounding the struggles and the letdowns were as strong as anything I’ve seen in my relatively short time doing this. I wrote a lot about the disconnect between fans and franchise, and in a very small and temporary way, I hope the perspectives we had in the paper helped fill that void.

But I wasn’t personally depressed when the Chiefs were blown out by the Bucs, or Matt Cassel fumbled at the goal line against Baltimore, or the team quit in Denver. I slept fine.

Jovan Belcher’s monstrous act of shooting his girlfriend nine times and then killing himself in front of coaches who loved him, leaving an infant daughter orphaned … that depressed me. That changed my mood.

The rest of it was just football.

All of which is a long way of saying I am, basically, on Team Shaughnessy here. I love sports, and spend a lot of my free time either talking about, reading about or watching sports. I care deeply about the teams in this area.

It’s just that while a fan might have their mood affected by whether their team won or lost, my mood is affected by how well I think I did in writing about it.

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