But tonight I will bark
With the great Overdog
That romps through the dark.”
--Robert Frost, "Canis Major", 1928
Hard to believe that it was it really twelve years ago this week, when a perennial also ran, a team that perpetually broke the hearts of its fans for decades: our Boston Red Sox: they finally, finally, won it all. It was October 27th, 2004, a Wednesday, at exactly 11:39 pm Eastern Standard Time; a chilly autumn evening, featuring a lunar eclipse, with an oversized bright yellow full moon hanging over the skies of New England.
Millions of us remember exactly where were, what we were doing, who we were with, as we waited for redemption, after almost nine decades of futility. As Joe Castiglione called it on the radio: “Swing and a ground ball stabbed by Foulke! He has it, he underhands to first – and the Boston Red Sox are the World Champions! For the first time in 86 years, the Red Sox have won baseball's world championship! Can you believe it?!”
From underdog to top dog, with one swing of the bat. Believe it.
The Sox have gone on to win two more championships, in 2007 and ‘13, and those were great too, but I’ll confess. A nostalgic part of me misses those days and nights before ‘04, of cheering for our loveable losers. So many summers of hope followed by inevitable September swoons, when the underdog Sox couldn’t quite make it. A ball trickled through the legs. A hitter swung and missed. It always hurt to watch them lose yet there was a romantic dependability to their underdog struggles, their epic failures somehow binding us all together here in New England. They were masters at finding ways to lose but they were our underdogs.
Now the title of America’s underdog goes to the Chicago Cubs who this week begin their quest to finally overcome their October demons. Think 86 years is a long time? Try waiting 108 years for a championship. The last time the Cubs captured a World Series, Teddy Roosevelt was President, Henry Ford unveiled the Model T, and for the first time ever, women were elected as delegates to a national political convention, the Democrats’ gathering in Denver.
Cub’s fans: we get your pain. We’ve been there.
But…what if the Cubs actually win? Who will then be our next underdog? Because there is something about an underdog that so appeals to us as humans. Makes us want to root for the team or the person or a cause that is supposed to lose, but then somehow triumphs. Slays the giant. Overcomes impossible odds and the pull of history.
David versus Goliath. Harry Truman beating Thomas Dewey for the Presidency in 1948, the biggest political upset of the twentieth century. Two twenty something computer geeks working in a suburban garage in 1970’s southern California, who took on IBM, the biggest technology company in the world, and eventually won. A scrappy and cranky socialist Senator from Vermont who almost took down a political family dynasty.
Underdogs somehow manage to capture our hearts and break our hearts simultaneously, with stories that are beautiful and bittersweet. Underdogs are just more fun to cheer for, more exciting, as they dance on the edge between ignominy and victory
According to the Oxford English Dictionary “underdog” was first used in the unsavory world of dog fighting in the nineteenth century. At fight’s end, the losing dog inevitably ended up underneath the winning top dog. The origin of the word may be crude but our response to the mismatch is clear.
We love underdogs. They embody the myth and hope that if they can do the impossible, then maybe we can too. If they can come from behind and streak by the favorite, maybe every dog (and every human) just might have its day, some day. Anything can happen in the competition called life.
That’s what we want to believe. In a way, that’s what we need to believe. About ourselves. About the world. That good eventually triumphs over evil. That the downtrodden will rise up and overcome their oppressors. That in a just world, if we work hard and long enough, our day in the sun will come.
So this week I’ll be rooting for the Cubbies, as they play against the Cleveland Indians. And to my long suffering friends who are Cubs’ fans, who knows? Maybe, just maybe, this year, is the year, your year.
You gotta love the underdog. GO CUBS!