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Why We Root for the Home Team

The San Diego Chargers just followed up their best regular season in team history by bombing out in the NFL playoffs. Their loss to New England was a body blow to local fans. And it underlines the strange fact of sports in our lives. We invest so much ego and emotion in something we have virtually no power to influence a home teams performance.

I grew up playing and watching sports. Living in the rural Midwest, my spirits would soar and then plummet with each win or loss by the Iowa Hawkeyes. Kids from corn country suffer a certain inferiority complex, thanks to the snobbishness of the coasts. An Iowa win made me feel more significant, while a loss felt like fodder for ridicule.

With time, I learned how foolish I was to believe my favorite teams ups and downs cast some reflection on me. As I followed pro sports, I learned that the athletes and their coaches were mercenaries, moving from team to team in search of the biggest paycheck. Baseball Hall of Famer and former Padre, Tony Gwynn, was as exceptional for his loyalty to one team and one city as he was for his uncanny hitting ability.

The late great columnist Mike Royko, a Cubs fan, once suggested that we should cheer for the city, not for their avaricious sports teams. Ironically (for me), he mentioned this while writing about the 1984 World Series between the Detroit Tigers and the San Diego Padres. Royko said he favored the Tigers because Detroit was a town full of salt-of-the-earth, sausage-eating working folk while San Diego was a shallow suburban morass more like Disneyland than a real city. (People who know their baseball history understand that Cubs fans had other reasons for hating San Diego that year.)

But despite what Ive said, I actually find myself becoming more wrapped up in sports in recent years. I feel my emotions rising or sagging based on the fortunes of the Chargers and the Padres. Even though I now live on one of those snooty seacoasts, I manage to cast my home team as the underdog as a team somehow more worthy of victory than the other guys.

Objective studies show that a city has little to gain, financially, by hosting big league sports. But emotionally, sports are a treasure trove. We love the highs they bring us when they win, and in a way I think we also love the lows. Win or lose, our passion for the team makes us feel more human, and it makes our city feel more like a community.

Unfortunately, money does rear its ugly head. In San Diego County we now have to put aside our emotions and give sober consideration to whether the Chargers deserve some civic subsidy so they can build a new stadium. I remember living in Minnesota when the Twins were begging for a new baseball stadium and, of course, threatening to leave town if they didnt get one. A very clever bumper sticker at the time said: Go Twins! And take the Vikings with you!!

Funny? Yes. But that bumper sticker doesnt tell the whole truth about pro sports. Im the first to say that cities need to hold professional teams to the fire to recognize their greed and their willingness to play communities against each other to get the best deal. If teams make unreasonable demands, we have to be willing to cut them loose. But of all the lows the Chargers have brought us over the years, I think that seeing the team pack up and leave would be the lowest of them all.

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