Underdog Didn’t Hit Homeruns

The underdog brightens the soul, brings people, communities, even countries together. It helps those who are struggling escape for a short time. They bring joy to the joyless, hope to the hopeless, meaning to the meaningless.

What is our fascination with the underdog? With Underdog? Do we really expect him to follow through on his promise of “Here I come to save the day!”? I mean, come on, he’s a dog, and he wears a cape, and he flies, and he’s talks with a whiny voice, and there’s that talking dog thing, chubby cheeks, droopy ears….it’s just so hard to take him seriously, and what’s with him getting the girl all the time? Is it those nerves of steel? Is it his ability to stay completely calm under pressure? What’s the deal with this guy, and come to think of it, did I really just refer to an animated ‘superhero’ as a ‘guy’? I think I need to make a call…

If I mention the likes of sports stars named LeBron, Peyton, or Giancarlo, you’d know who they were right away, and most of you can name their sport, team, stats, what kind of car they drive and whether or not they’ve appeared in an underwear commercial (I BEG Haines to stay out of Denver!). They’re easy to love or hate, but the reason we have so much extreme emotion for them is that they are the best in their prospective sport. Their very names are synonymous with greatness. So, why does the average person wait in line to cheer for the underdog? After all, they don’t win very much, if at all; isn’t that what we want, a winner? I do. You do. We all do. So why all this ‘hypocrisy’?? It’s common to get all amped up at the beginning of a sporting event in hopes of your team pounding the other into submission, only to find that by games end, we’re rooting for the resolve of the underrated and overmatched victim, stricken by their never-say-die efforts. How and why do our hearts change so quickly? To find out, I dove into the very definition of the word.

The Merriam-Webster definition of ‘underdog’ is as follows: 1) a person, team, etc., that is expected to lose a contest or battle. 2) a loser or predicted loser in a struggle or contest. 3) a victim of injustice or persecution.

By definition, the very word ‘underdog’ is directly associated with ‘loser’. A good antonym would be ‘favorite’, and we all have those, right? That being said, why is it that I’ve rooted for the Cubs since I first saw them on WGN? Have they ever won anything except the hearts of millions of fans across the globe? It’s hard to figure out why, but suffice to say, we’re drawn to the ‘loser’, and I want to know why. Well, I have a theory, so if you’ll bare with me, this is my attempt to explain it all.

Let’s start with the MLB playoffs. On the NL side, you have 2 teams in the Giants and Cardinals that have tasted victory so often they have to put seasoning on it to spice things up a bit. On the AL side, you have 2 teams in the Orioles and Royals that are starving for a championship so badly that parents are naming their children after stadiums and anything baseball. All four teams have earned their spots in what will be an amazing post season run, but the majority of the conversations lean toward feel-good baseball stories on the AL side, with mentions of ‘underdog’ and ‘Cinderella’. Is the average baseball fan tired of the same old, same old of big market teams? Probably, but I think it goes much deeper than that. A team like the Royals shouldn’t be here based on statistics. They don’t belong here based on payroll, on being the butt of late night talk show fodder, or the mid-season, post All-Star break records and bad play. But they are. KC is the epitome of the underdog. All over the US, they are becoming the ‘darlings’ of the post season, earning the respect of millions who once wrote them off without so much as a thought. They aren’t supposed to win. They are supposed to lose, because that’s what perennial losers do: they lose. But they won’t go away. They played shaky defense the first ¾ of the season, they almost never hit home runs, they hired 6 hitting coaches in 2.5 years (really?), and have had more managers than your local Waffle House. But here they are, proud and tall, and to date have gone undefeated in the post season, battling back 3 times from the brink of disaster in the Wild Card, then served their own version of a beatdown to the once powerful but lately powerless Anaheim Angels. Their methods have been unconventional, and most have not believed in them wholeheartedly. But you know what true underdogs do? They always believe in themselves, even when most do not. When ‘experts’ spit out their geek-to-nerd ratios and why a team like this can never last, they turn off the TV and computer, and they get to work, wrought with tunnel vision and bleeding hearts. And they win. And they force us to believe. And win or lose, I won’t love them because I played for them, I will love them because they never gave up, they never believed the masses, and they’ve done so with blood, sweat, tears, dirt, and most importantly, each other to climb a mountain that, for all intents and purposes, everyone else deemed insurmountable. Note to Merriam-Webster: you may want to add “See the 2014 KC Royals” to your official definition.

Most of us won’t hit 40 HR’s in the show, even though we live in a sports culture where, as Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine so eloquently stated in the 90’s Nike ad, “Chicks Dig the Longball!”. Most of us can’t, and won’t ever, dunk a basketball. I can throw a spiral with a football, but it doesn’t mean I can throw a touchdown pass to a man running a 4.3 down the sideline while a 325 lb. lineman fights off a block with the intend on sending me to Australia the hard way. And that’s ok. When a famous athlete stumbles and falls, does something foolish and hurts himself or his family or someone else, we tend to point the finger and sensationalize the story, shaking our heads in disbelief that someone would do something so foolish, because, after all, they have everything going for them, right? Or is it that, in a weird way, we tend to enjoy it when someone that we’ve elevated to pedestal heights falls hard, all for the sole purpose of deflecting our own junk so we can believe the lie that we are better than someone else? You may or may not do that. To be honest, I used to, until I realized that I’m not any better, even though I may have made a different choice. I believe we root for the underdog because deep down, in the recesses of our hearts, we want the good to come from the bad. We have this burning desire for the lesser to taste the greater. Over the years, the underdog has become a symbol for the oppressed, the less fortunate, the never-got-the-opportunity folks who just need a break. The underdog brightens the soul, brings people, communities, even countries together. It helps those who are struggling escape for a short time. They bring joy to the joyless, hope to the hopeless, meaning to the meaningless. It provides an opportunity to pin our flag on someone or something that will represent us in a way that everyone can taste the victory. The underdog can heal the pain and inflict joy upon the unexpected. The underdog is, above all else, good…and behind all the fluff, isn’t that what we all desire?

Life isn’t sports. In many parts of the world, life is a struggle. Innocent people die every day at the hands of the angry and greedy. Men and women fight constantly, risking their lives moment by moment, so we can live in a country where our children can speak freely, live freely, worship freely. There are underdogs everywhere. Sometimes they jump out at us from unexpected hiding places, other times you have to go searching. But they’re out there, and they’re ready for you to jump on their bandwagon. For a brief moment in time, they bring out the best in all of us. The trick is to hang onto the moments long enough that they invoke lasting change, change that stirs our hearts toward character and integrity, leadership and the same never-say-die attitude that brings about underdog status. It is my hope that, whether in sports or other, we all strive to be an underdog; I believe that if we do, we’ll come to appreciate the very gift of life we’ve been so graciously given.