THIRD MAN IN: Expecting the unexpected…and not getting it

Behind the Bench/Sports by

Every few years, the stars will align to deliver the hard-core sports fan with an entire summer’s worth of quality entertainment. Of course, there are always specific dates in June, July, and August that are worth marking down, but only in the rarest of years can you justify to your parents, friends, or significant other the necessity of staying glued to a television or computer screen for 60 days straight.

I had high expectations for the summer of 2010. With the World Cup, Wimbledon, and the most important offseason in the history of the NBA on tap, this summer promised an unprecedented torrent of constant, riveting sports news. I built this summer up to be something special, like catching a glimpse of a rare comet and momentarily rediscovering the feelings of wonder, happiness, and optimism I had as a child. By the end of July, though, I had come to accept two things: that comets are really just dirty clumps of rock and ice, and that predictability is one of the worst things a sports fan can experience.

It started with the World Cup. It isn’t really up for debate that the World Cup is the greatest sporting event in the world. The significance of each match and the constant frenetic energy that hangs in the air throughout the course of the tournament is unparalleled in the sports world. However, I couldn’t help feeling that this year’s Cup lacked the magic of years past. Sure, there were some pretty plays and great individual performances, but when the most memorable parts of a tournament are the botched calls, the dives, and the general lack of goals, something isn’t quite right. The World Cup final didn’t necessarily lack in quality-I jumped up and down as much as any other Spanish bandwagoner when Andres Iniesta scored in added time-but watching Spain hoist the trophy didn’t stir up the level of excitement I thought it would, primarily because I never expected them to lose.

Subtract the ridiculous three-day match between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut from the equation, and Wimbledon 2010 was more anticlimactic than ever. Federer looked off his game from the start, and it was clear early on in his match against Thomas Berdych that a 17th Grand Slam title was not in the works. Once Berdych arrived in the final, the tournament was effectively over: give me someone who honestly thought Nadal would lose, and I will call him a liar. Once again, the expected outcome corresponded depressingly with the final result.

If a single moment could have salvaged a summer of predictability, though, it would have been one man’s desire to prove to the world that loyalty, pride, and individual legacy can still trump the allure of money, fame, and power in the over-commercialized, media-saturated sports industry of today. Alas, this was not to be. As I “witnessed” Lebron James wipe the blood off his knife and spit in the face of every basketball fan outside the city of Miami, I realized that I’ve become too dependant on the unexpected in sports. I wanted something inspirational and unbelievable-what I received was crass, loud, and artificial.

Perhaps more than anything else, the success of the underdog and the thrill of the upset are what make professional sports so enjoyable. If an unexpected result on the scoreboard is too much to ask for, though, sports fans will gladly settle for anything genuine and heartfelt that contrasts with the all-too-common perception of pro sports as an arrogant, selfish, and profiteering. This summer didn’t deliver on either count, but I’m trying hard to be optimistic, and I’ve already cordoned off the summer of 2012 in my calendar in preparation for the London Olympics. In the meantime, I’ll be taking my viewing talents to the World Series of Blackjack, where apparently the unexpected happens all the time.