The Curse of Loyalty… And Its Blessing

I am a Chicago cubs fan, I admit it.  Actually, this season – at least so far – it doesn’t take great courage to admit that.  The Cubbies are playing great baseball this season.  On the other hand, it’s not even mid-July, and this is the Cubs we are talking about, so….  But even if you are not a sports fan, keep reading, because this post isn’t only about sports.  It’s about broken hearts, loyalty, what counts as a “win” and why.

The Cubs have been consistently breaking fans’ hearts since 1908, when they last won a World Series, giving them the longest run without a championship win of any team in American sports.  So why am I so eager to claim the Cubs as my own?  Well, there is a real beauty to it. 

To be a Cubs fan, is to be animated by two deeply held beliefs:

1. You really believe that anything can happen.

2. You know it never will.

It’s a bit like the words of my teacher, Yishayahu Leibowitz, who said that the only Messiah in whom he could believe, was the one who would never come.  That’s not, in either case, a celebration of cynicism or defeatism.  It’s a celebration of loyalty that runs deeper than rationality, and of the great relationships that can flourish in the context of such loyalty.

The act of believing in the Cubs ability to win, is a thing unto itself, and not related to them actually winning.  It’s about loyalty and relationship.  Okay, it’s also about playing in the “friendly confines” of Wrigley Field, it’s about cold beer on hot days, it’s about a park that is smack in the middle of a residential neighborhood and how being there feels almost as much like hanging out in neighbor’s back yard as it does like going to a major league ballpark. 

But that is all just a way of saying that fun, friendship and community create loyalty at least as powerfully as victory – that what counts as a “win” in the context of real relationship, cannot be measured simply by a box score.  That, however, may have a serious downside, at least if one would also like the Cubs to win a World Series.

According to Jerry Useem’s great piece in the July/August issue of The Atlantic, it may be that enduring fan loyalty to the cubs – expressed in everything including ticket sales, product purchasing, etc. – which remains steady regardless of the team’s win-loss percentages, actually undermines the team’s ability to win.  Working from Peter Drucker’s definition that” the purpose of business is to create and keep a customer”; one could argue that the Cubs’ ownership and management have no incentive to improve the team, so they don’t. 

It’s not that victory is unimportant to the fans, or even to the Cubs organization.  I don’t think it’s a s simple as that, or that the science points us in that direction. It simply reminds us that what counts as incentive in a relationship can be far more complex than whether or not we get what we think we want in the short term. 

To the extent that Useem’s analysis is correct — and you don’t need to be a business guru, a behavioral economist, or a sprits fan to appreciate that he sure seems to be – this is about much more than the Cubs lacking incentive to improve.  It is really about our profound ability to create and maintain connection even when it doesn’t make immediate good or practical sense. 

It’s about appreciating that people, when encouraged to, and helped to, can measure success in ways that don’t always buy into someone else’s version of wins and losses.  How many places in our lives and in the world do you wish that could be truer…

Loyalty can be a curse or a blessing.  It can be a curse when it offers a reason to hang around when it is no longer healthy, or to make excuses for what is truly inexcusable.  It can be a blessing when it reminds us that there is more to life and to relationship, than getting what we want, when we want it, even when those are good things and the timing is right.

Now don’t get me wrong — I love that the Cubs are doing great this season, I deeply appreciate management’s decision to aggressively build a more winning team, and I genuinely believe that this could be “the year”.  None of that captures why I love the Cubs though — why it’s so much fun to love them, or even what might be lost if they actually win.  I wouldn’t mind testing that last bit though.  You see, unlike my teacher, Professor Leibowitz, I think I could embrace a Messiah who actually showed up – at least for while!  Ask me in October.

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