Miserable Sports City? That's Funny, I Don't Feel Miserable

According to Forbes, the 1991 Braves season was a miserable experience, or why the American method of analyzing success and failure in pro sports is all wrong.

If I could distill my sports ideology down into a single sentence, it would be this: when you have a small sample and a big sample, pay attention to the big one. I would like to think that this preference comes about as the result of being a rational thinker, but in reality, I'm a product of my environment just like anybody else. Growing up as a sports fan in Georgia, I had two major influences.

The first was that I matured as a sports fan in an area where college football is king. Because college football is the one American sport with a truly meaningful regular season - the only one that doesn't have a reset button before the postseason - I grew up with a sense that what happens in the regular season is a big deal. A campaign where one's favorite team has an excellent regular season and then loses its bowl game is not cause for alarm.

This experience prepared me for the second major influence of my maturation as a sports fan: the Braves' dynasty. When the Braves suddenly became good in 1991, the experience hit the Atlanta sports scene like a thunderclap. The local baseball collective had been so bad for an extended period time - they had failed to win more than 66 games for a six-year period - and had only made two playoff appearances in 25 years in Atlanta, both of which ended in being swept in the NLCS. Thus, the Braves winning 94 games in 1991, nipping the hated Dodgers for the NL West, and then beating the Pirates to advance to the World Series was a special experience. I'll be an Atlanta sports fan for the rest of my life and I doubt that I will ever experience a season as fun as that of the '91 Braves. (Then again, one feels sports a lot more at the age of 16 when one does not have a wife, kids, and a mortgage.)

The next 15 years would progress with the Braves never failing to win their division. Six times, the team won more than 100 games, the gold standard for regular season success in baseball. However, with the exception of 1991, the Braves mostly experienced ultimate disappointment in the playoffs. Initially, that disappointment came in dramatic form in the World Series. Eventually, the Braves settled into a pattern of losing to demonstrably inferior playoff opponents in the first round.

During that period, the Braves sustained repeated criticism for "choking." The national media mocked the Braves for "not coming through when it matters most." As a defense mechanism, I bristled at this entire concept. Why should a team be judged based on a five-game failure that comes after a 162-game success? In what world does that make sense? A team that had two-to-three strong starting pitchers (like, say, the 2003 Cubs or the 2004 Astros) could get away with glaring flaws throughout the rest of the roster, while a team that was well-constructed from top to bottom (as the Braves usually were) was not rewarded. And that's before you get to the massive luck element involved in winning a sequence of short series.

In retrospect, the Braves' run from 1991 to 2005 was the high-point of the Atlanta sports experience. Every summer, we could count on being entertained by a superior team that would vanquish its enemies over the long haul. It's only by the false measuring stick of treating a five-game series as an end-all, be-all and a six-month regular season as a glorified pre-season that the Braves can be viewed as a disappointment.

According to Tom Van Riper of Forbes, we should view the Braves' run of divisional titles as a heartbreaking nadir. In ranking America's most miserable sports cities, Van Riper uses the following methodology:

Our unique sports misery methodology isn't focused on long-term futility, as epitomized by such teams as the L.A. Clippers, Baltimore Orioles, and until recently, the New Orleans Saints. You know about all that. This is about misery as defined by heartbreak - teams good enough to win a lot of games and advance through the post-season, only to disappoint fans in the end by falling short of a championship. Which cities have endured that the most? No one tops Atlanta, a combined 1-5 in World Series and Super Bowl play, not to mention numerous post-season flops in earlier rounds.

In other words, the Braves' run from 1984 to 1990 was preferable to the following 15 years because the team never got our hopes up. I look back on 1991 as a special experience that will never be repeated; according to Van Riper, I should view it as a sports Hiroshima because the Braves came so close to winning the World Series, but lost to the cheating Twins.*

Forbes would never permit this terrible reasoning when evaluating companies. Financial reporting is (at least theoretically) based on reviewing the entirety of a company's record to make the best evaluations possible. That same rigor apparently does not apply to sports analysis, where we define disappointment based on a "small sample size important; big sample size unimportant" framework.

The point of sports is to provide us with entertainment. We all want an escape from the ennui of the working world and games provide us with exactly that. A team like the Braves during their heyday provided great entertainment, as they consistently won more than they lost. Day after day, we could rely on the Braves to make us happy by beating down the rest of the NL East. Losing a playoff series was a sad experience, but was it enough to overwhelm six months of happiness? No.

* - For all of the media's obsession with steroids, how is this story such an afterthought? If you cheat to beat Roger Maris's home run record, you'll be tarred and feathered. If you cheat to win the World Series, it's a cute footnote.

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