Wednesday, October 25, 2006

HATEABLE UNDERDOGS
Reagarding the Sports Nut article on why the Cardinals are not receiving the affection that usually greets unsing teams making postseason runs, I first thought that it had to do with where they are on in the success cycle. The Cards aren't some sort of an upstart team surprising everybody. This is a team that has been successful for some time (but had not won a World Series) , was predicted to do well this year, underachieved a but but still managed to make the playoffs, then got hot in the postseason, and squeaked by the team that had dominated the league during the regular season.

This makes sense until I remember something else -- last year's Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers had been winning for several years, but not won a Super Bowl during this particular run. The Steelers underachieved during the regular season but snuck into the playoffs as the 6th seed in the AFC. The Steelers got hot and marched through the playoffs, including a close victory over the team that had dominated the conference during the regular season (the Colts).

The similarities don't end there. Both championships are being contested in Detroit. Both franchises have a long heritage of championships and tradition. Both have fan bases considered by many to be the best in the sport and include colorful traditions (Sea of Red, Terrible Towels). Both were facing teams that had even longer droughts from the championship series.

But the Steelers were embraced as lovable underdogs, and the Cardinals are greeted with a shrug and a sneer. So what's the difference?

Maybe one difference is the statistical emphasis in baseball. A team that wins three consecutive NFL playoff games on the road is perceived as having accomplished something significant and survived the ultimate test of its toughness. A team that wins two consecutive baseball playoff series in which they were the underdog is perceived as the beneficiary of random luck and favorable pitching match-ups.

The 2005 AFC was considered the stronger of the two conferences. The 2006 National League was the subject of much analysis about how bad it was.

The Cardinals defeat of the Mets was aided by the Mets losing two of their top starting pitchers; the Colts were going at pretty much full strength. Beating Peyton Manning gets you more love than beating Oliver Perez.

The Steelers had Jerome Bettis, a likable veteran who hailed from the Super Bowl City. The Cardinals don't have such a story, or even many terribly likable players. The closes the Cardinals have to the "aging veteran getting his last shot at the title" is probably Jim Edmonds, who let's just say doesn't inspire the same sort of attention. Albert Pujols has exposed himself as a jerk. Tony La Russa thinks he's smarter than you. Nobody's heard of Adam Wainwright. David Eckstein's a fun story, but he hasn't been hitting. Chris Carpenter is excellent, but doesn't have much to hang on to.

The Cardinals aren’t loved because they’re not lovable.
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