In honor of the Chicago Cubs...
5. March Madness
College basketball runs for four months before the real show begins in March. And no matter what you've accomplished in the regular season, you need six straight wins in March like everyone else to win the big prize. A good season earns you a high seed and a (supposedly) easier road...but that's about it. All the emotion and energy you put into your entire season can come crashing down in one shining moment.
This is especially painful for teams that have outstanding regular seasons, only to be bounced on the tournament's opening weekend. Making it to the Sweet 16 extends your season by another week and at least gives you some sense of accomplishment. But for many teams, the whole season can come to a sudden halt when Cinderella comes knocking in the first or second round.
While it remains true that no #16 seed has ever beaten a #1 seed in the opening round, in the last two decades, ten #1 seeds have gone down in the second round.
This includes the defending National Champion UNC Tar Heels in 1994, Paul Pierce's Kansas squad in 1998, both Stanford and Arizona in 2000, and both Kentucky and Stanford again in 2004. A great body of work sometimes doesn't make it out of the first weekend.
4. AFC/NFC Divisional Playoff Round
The two teams with the best record in each conference have gotten first round byes in the NFL Playoffs since 1990. But it also creates the opportunity to have achieved greatness over a 16 game regular seaosn, only to see it all end in one game against a quality opponent in your first playoff game...in front of your own fans. The ultimate one-and-done insult.
Seven times, the team with the best record in the AFC has gone down on their home field in their first playoff game in the divisional round:
- 1992 Steelers, routed 24-3 by the Bills
- 1995 Chiefs, beaten 10-7 by the Colts
- 1996 Broncos, upset in a classic 30-27 by the upstart Jaguars
- 1997 Chiefs, beaten by Denver who earned redemption by winning the Super Bowl
- 2000 Titans, beaten by their hated rivals Baltimore, who also won it all
- 2005 Colts, losers in the epic Bettis fumble/Vanderjagt miss game to Pittsburgh
- 2006 Chargers, who fell to the Patriots
And finally, last year, the Dallas Cowboys became the first NFC team to finish the regular season with the conference's best record and then lose in the divisional round, to the eventual champion New York Giants.
3. College Football
This is applicable every single Saturday.
In no other sport is every win so valuable and each loss so costly. Parity has increased so much in the last few years that LSU won the National Championship last season with two losses, but so often just one loss can ruin your season.
This is especially cruel when you consider the unrivaled passion that college football produces in a sport that plays only 12 regular season games per year. Fans can spend all summer waiting and dreaming big dreams, only to see it all come crashing down in the first meaningful game of the season (Tennessee, Virginia Tech, Clemson, West Virginia, Kansas and Ohio State fans are all feeling this one right now).
Simply put, no sport has a higher risk/reward factor for every single game, from the season opener to the championship.
2. ALDS & NLDS Baseball Playoffs
The saying goes that over a 162 game season, there are no cinderellas and you always get the four best teams in each league in the playoffs.
But once the playoffs start, anything goes.
This is especially true in the incredibly cruel short series that have opened the baseball playoffs since the wild card was added in 1995. You can build all kinds of hope from April-September, but three days in October can bring that all to an end, especially against a team with frontloaded pitching:
- In 1996, the Cleveland Indians looked primed to return to the World Series after winning 99 games. They were derailed by the 88-win Orioles, 3-1.
- In 2000, the wild card Mariners swept the best-record White Sox out in the first round. Meanwhile, in a highly competitive National League field, the wild card Mets took out the top-seeded Giants.
- In 2002, the wild card Angels beat the Yankees 3-1, shockingly ending NYY's four year run of playing in the World Series. Meanwhile, the 101-win Braves fell to the Giants in five games.
- In 2003, the Braves repeated their frustration by ending another 101-win season with a five game NLDS loss, this time to the 88-win Cubs.
- In 2006, the wild card Tigers beat the Yankees 3-1 (though all four playoff teams were separated by only four games in this season).
This is especially true in the moment, with the Cubs in an 0-2 hole against a team they were 13 games better than in the regular season, while the Angels play a must-win Game 2 at home against the Red Sox tonight - the AL/NLDS is the only place in any sport where the phrase "must-win Game 2" rings true.
A summer's worth of hope, gone in an instant. I bet it's an interesting experience to have been a Chicago Cubs fan last week, and still try to be one today.
1. Summer & Winter Olympics
If you think a summer's worth of hope lost in three nights in the baseball playoffs is cruel, try four years of preparation gone in one heartbeat in the Olympics.
In the sports we most closely associate with the Olympics themselves - track & field, swimming, gymnastics, speed skating & figure skating - young athletes devote their entire lives for one opportunity on four year intervals. The Olymics are the one and only time those sports receive any sort of attention; then an athlete can go from total obscurity to the cover of Sports Illustrated and you don't have to be Michael Phelps to do it.
You can make fun of me for watching women's figure skating if you want, but you cannot deny that there's no bigger trade-off in all of sports than watching four years of someone's entire life hang in the balance of whether or not she sticks one landing in one moment. It's an all or nothing, be remembered or be forgotten moment.
And what holds true for each of these is even stronger in the Olympics: it's incredibly cruel if you lose.
But it's even more joyous if you win.