The Kansas City Royals were already the worst team in baseball, but on Tuesday they had their worst moment of the season. When a Chicago White Sox batter hit a fly ball, two Royals outfielders settled beneath it. Both began jogging to the dugout, each assuming the other would catch it. The ball dropped for a double. The Royals lost.
They aren’t even the year’s worst losers. The Royals’ recent 19-game losing streak, baseball’s finest in 17 years, was bettered last Saturday by the English football club Sunderland, who have now lost 20 consecutive Premiership matches, counting the last time they graced the division in 2003.
Losing is sport’s great neglected topic. All attention goes to the winners, but it’s losers who represent the human condition. The sport’s annual cycle is hope (“this could be our season!”), disappointment (“I can’t find my form”), renewal (“there’s always next year”), and finally exit prompted by physical decay. The parallels with life are uncanny. Today, when sport means “big-market” teams thrashing “small-market” teams, there are more losers than ever.
They merit serious study.
This is not to forget the long-dead losers. Who could forget the 1899 Cleveland Spiders baseball team, whose owner shipped all their best players to his other club? Losing 40 of their last 41 games, the Spiders drew only 6,088 spectators all season, whereas Kansas City got 9,535 last Tuesday night alone.
Nobody has forgotten the 1962 New York Mets, who may have been a Marx Brothers tribute team. The Mets’ outfielder Richie Ashburn, tired of always crashing into his Venezuelan shortstop when chasing the same ball, finally learned to shout “I got it!” in Spanish. When the next popup came, he yelled “Yo lo tengo!”. The shortstop duly stopped, and Ashburn was instead knocked over by Anglophone leftfielder Frank Thomas. A friend of mine, a Sunderland fan, admits: “At a certain point you become so bad that it becomes comic. Almost.”
Then there is Luxembourg’s national football team. When their manager, Paul Philipp, was finally released in 2001 after 17 years of losing more matches than any other international football manager ever, I asked him if it hadn’t been depressing. “I wouldn’t have missed a second of it!” Philipp replied. “At times we only narrowly lost to the big nations.” And there had been the 1-1 draw with Belgium in the 1980s, the 0-0 against Scotland and, well, so on.
The truth is that losing builds character. “Winners never quit,” says the cliché, but it’s easy not to quit when you’re winning. Only when you’re losing does getting out of bed require courage and persistence, especially if you are a professional athlete. These people are born winners. They were stars at school. They have mansions and groupies. Then suddenly they feel worthless. Losing, in short, teaches them about life for normal people. When I put this to my friend the Sunderland fan, he muttered: “The difference is that in football you lose in very stark fashion: you get no points. Losing in life is a little more nuanced.”
That is why losing in sport – no ambiguities – is the best practice.
I realised this while studying economics. It was bewildering. One day I was trying to figure it out with a friend – a woman who could do everything – when she broke down crying. She had never failed before. I felt morally superior, because sport had taught me losing. Driving with teammates to a soccer game around that time, a new song came over the radio: “I’m a loser baby (so why don’t you kill me?)”. Within 30 seconds the whole car was singing along. “Loser” became an anthem. As Beck, the singer, later noted: “The vacuous 80s pop song has a sense of winning and being on top.” In fact, it’s worse: the mass media are a conspiracy to promote the ideology of winning.
Losers should embrace losing. I think it was Darlington soccer fans who chanted, “You thought you had scored, you were right, you were right,” and in the 1980s, while the Columbia University football team was losing 44 straight, the band would play the “Mickey Mouse Club” theme when the players ran out.
When losers win, they know how to appreciate it. They aren’t instantly off on lantern-jawed quests for the next trophy. Instead they release in the moment. Nick Hornby, in his fan’s memoir Fever Pitch, describes supporting Cambridge United the day they won their first match in six months. “In the last five minutes, with Cambridge thumping the ball as far into the allotments as possible, you would have thought that they were about to win the European Cup. At the final whistle the players (most of whom had never played in a winning team) embraced; and for the first time since October the club DJ was able to play, ‘I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts.’”
However, if you find that losing just isn’t for you, you can change. Adequacy is always lurking around the corner, like a mugger. John Syer, a sports psychologist formerly with Tottenham Hotspur football club, told me that in a losing streak players forget what winning is like. But they can learn to visualise winning. “There are few athletes who have not had an experience of winning,” says Syer. “The obvious thing is to go back to a past occasion and remember what it was like. Most athletes do visualisation very well because they are in tune with their own bodies.”
Some losers become winners. The tennis player Vince Spadea lost 21 straight matches in 1999-2000, but rebounded to hit 18th in the world this February. John Murray, Spadea’s sports psychologist, told me an athlete can acquire confidence even if reality – lost matches – tells him he sucks. The trick is to ignore that reality. Murray explains: “You have to believe you are the author of your thoughts and feelings. You have control over the mental world you want to create.
You are not controlled by the past.”
He sighs: “Animals will catch the ball jumping out of the pool, because they don’t have mental baggage. We human beings have mental baggage.”
This week Spadea came up with a “guarantee”: aged 31, battling injury, ranked 59th and sinking, he pledges to make the top 10 for the first time ever. It’s the sort of magnificent disregard of reality that ruins a good loser.