Last night, the Oakland A's lost a heart-breaking 8-7 wild card game to the Kansas City Royals. As some of you know, I'm an A's fan. I did not grow up an A's fan, but rather, worked for them from 2003-2007 and became a fan at that point. I grew up in Las Vegas and sort of bounced between teams before that. Once I started working for them, the team became my sort of official team.
Last night's defeat marked the third straight season the A's have lost an elimination playoff game. The previous two years they went down in agonizing defeat to the Detroit Tigers. I'd say that each has gotten worse than the year before, and last night took the cake. As Billy Beane once said, the playoffs are a crap shoot. Nobody is guaranteed anything, and yet, heading into the second half of this season, the A's went all in, loading up on pitching in hopes of snapping what had been an ugly playoff history the last 14 years.
They came up short, and it stings a lot. Of course, as 49ers fans, we are all too aware of how brutal the playoffs can be. The San Francisco 49ers have gone to the playoffs the last three years, and somehow found three unique ways to lose in utterly heart-breaking fashion. I don't need to go through each one, but has any team ever gone through a 3-season stretch with three endings that are so brutal? The early '00s Eagles and early '90s Bills lost a lot of big games, but they did not have the string of heart-breakers like the 49ers.
Over the last three years, I've seen the A's lose three straight elimination games, and the 49ers manage to one-up them each time with three straight heart-breaking defeats even deeper in the playoffs. I love sports, but man, sometimes I hate sports.
That being said, as much as it hurts a day later, I would take this feeling over irrelevancy any day. The A's and 49ers have both gone through their periods of either irrelevancy, or at least just plain mediocrity. The 49ers went through that 2004-2010 stretch of miserable football. During my time as a fan, the A's have not had quite as many such instances, but they have had their times of irrelevance.
I think the losses hurt for a few reasons. The first is that we track these teams so closely, and we basically become emotionally invested in the outcome. We probably should not because it is just a game, but somehow sports has that attachment to us. The second is that a team comes so close to the mountaintop, and losing at this point means starting all the way back over the next season. For the last three years, being a sports fan has been like being Sisyphus. We have pushed that boulder so far up the hill, only to have to start right back over again.
I think a third reason it hurts so much is the reason people do not talk about nearly as much as the first two. The line between greatness and mediocrity over the lifespan of a franchise is actually kind of thin. Teams can have sustained runs of excellence, but it often feels like you're running against the clock, trying to avoid a downturn. When our teams come up short, we know that it is a wasted opportunity, and you only get so many opportunities. There are numerous quotations from veteran athletes who got to a championship game their rookie year, and never made it back. They figured they would be back every year, and it just never came to be. There is always the possibility of slipping back into mediocrity, and that is so much worse than the agony of defeat.
And so, as an A's fan, I'll go back to the bottom of the hill next spring and start pushing that boulder back up the hill. In the meantime, let's just hope I can get this 49ers boulder a little further up.