Well, that was fun. The Brewers’ remarkable season came to an end this past weekend, with their magic running out just one game shy of the World Series. PECOTA’s preseason projection graded the Brewers as the fifth-best team in the National League and third-best team in the NL Central; some incredible performances from Christian Yelich, Lorenzo Cain, and a relatively makeshift pitching staff that finished fifth in baseball in ERA, however, powered the club to the best record in the National League. This culminated with Milwaukee hosting a Game Seven for the right to go to its first World Series since 1982.
It’s an ending that seemed inconceivable on Opening Day. Fans were optimistic, sure, but the pitching staff was young and unproven, and the offense was full of question marks. It seems like years ago that Ryan Braun started the first game of the season at first base. In the six-plus months since, Yelich became the likely MVP, Josh Hader became a dominant relief ace, and Braun rediscovered his old form.
Sports are weird. The connections they inspire are somewhat arbitrary, as fans attach themselves to athletes who play for a team that happens to be in the same city they live in. One of the main storylines on the national broadcast was the Brewers’ connection to Southern California and how Yelich and Braun grew up as Dodgers fans. The fact that they were trying to beat their childhood team, and disappoint the thousands of fans in the stadium with whom they had a lot in common, is slightly odd. It is, of course, a coincidence of fandom and how people interact with their local institutions.
Keeping these connections in context is important. Friendly rivalries are fun and good, and Brewers fans will always have a healthy dislike for the Cubs and Cardinals, and the members of those fanbases as well. But fans of the Brewers have more in common with fans of the Cubs than they do with the actual players on the Brewers, who, generally, will not maintain a connection with the city of Milwaukee once their time with the club ends. Fans, though, will continue to root for the next generations of Brewers. Cubs fans will act the same way.
Sports teams are valuable civic institutions that provide a unifying point for otherwise-disparate communities. As Nicholas Zettel wrote earlier this season, “Milwaukee is a deeply segregated city.” People in different parts of the city do not have the same lives, but shared sports memories bind people together. The Brewers are a communal experience that anyone in the city can be a part of, and that is important. Civic pride is a valuable resource that sports teams can help build.
What we should not lose sight of, however, are the limits of what sports can provide. Sports are an escape for some people—an opportunity to immerse oneself in an important but ultimately consequence-free athletic competition. For other people, though, sports are anything but an escape; instead, they are a manifestation or reminder of how they are viewed. A city suffering from significant income inequality may spend hundreds of millions of unplanned dollars on a baseball stadium rather than allocating it to organizations designed to help people improve their lives. One of baseball’s oldest and most revered stadiums may be built on top of houses that were vacated only when city authorities forcibly dragged people from their homes.
This site has not shied away from addressing these concerns. On its very first day, Jack Moore explained how Miller Park continues to cost taxpayers millions of dollars. Earlier this season, Nicholas Zettel wrote the aforementioned analysis of Milwaukee’s housing segregation. Last offseason, I discussed the impact of professional athletes’ public statements. There are also many other examples of us covering off-field issues, and I point this out not to be self-congratulatory but instead to reinforce the importance of proper context.
Sports are supposed to be entertainment. We invest ourselves in people who wear our city’s name on their shirt, and in some circumstances, our happiness depends on how they perform on the field. That is good and normal, as we should build connections with those things that matter to us. For example, Brewers fans should care about how the Brewers do, and hating the Cubs is perfectly normal given the animus between the two teams and cities; these connections help us enjoy the game even more. Rivalries help bring additional meaning to certain games throughout the year, which certainly enhances the season’s entertainment value and piques fan interest at otherwise dull parts of the year.
This season was fun. It should not be less fun just because the Brewers did not win the World Series, nor if this is ultimately the closest this iteration of the franchise comes to a championship. There are a lot of great memories from this year, and there is likely to be another one when Yelich wins the MVP award. After July 12, the Brewers did not have sole possession of first place in the NL Central until after Game 163. They were 2.5 games behind the Cubs with a week to go, and they overcame that deficit to win the division. They won a winner-take-all game against the Cubs that determined home-field advantage throughout the National League playoffs. Those games all happened, as did all the other moments throughout the summer that you enjoyed watching, whether it was Jesus Aguilar’s unlikely All Star Game selection, Freddy Peralta’s wonderful debut on Mother’s Day, the wild fifteenth inning walk-off against the Pirates that featured Jordan Lyles drawing a walk, or any other game that you may have positive memories with. Those games are all a part of the experience of being a fan.
Sports are a focal point for communities, and they link generations. They are a place for kids to learn, grow, and develop into adults, and those same people then pass that experience on to their children or friends. People may watch games with their family, friends, neighbors, or by themselves. Everyone’s relationship with their team is different, but each individual story contributes to the team’s importance to its community. Those communities, though, go beyond sports. The choices people make about their teams’ relationship with the community impacts more than just on-field performance; and while we remember this most vividly when issues such as public funding are making headlines, it is always true.
Sports inform our relationships with our cities and neighbors, and they create bonds between people who may not otherwise have any or reinforce them between people who are already close. They provide people with an emotional outlet that comes with no lasting consequences. But they are also just a portion of the way we experience the world. As long as we remember their role in our lives, they are a great escape and place to invest ourselves. They are fun, and we should remember that.