If you haven't picked this up from my articles on this site, things I've said on the Bless You Boys podcast, or numerous posts on Twitter, let me make it clear: I can't stand football. I learned from an early age to love baseball and summer, and the arrival of football signals two of my least favorite things in the world: the end of baseball season and the onset of cold weather. Add to that the fact that any sport which consists entirely of running back and forth across a rectangular area (I'm looking at you, too, basketball and hockey) is a federally-approved cure for insomnia, and it's not hard to understand why I've just never gotten into football.
So when I sat down with a friend of mine for a few drinks recently -- we'll call him "Robert" (even though his real name is "Bob") -- and he started talking about the disappointment of the Detroit Lions' season, suffice it to say that I immediately ordered nine more drinks. It was going to be a long night.
Or was it? I made a decision to step outside my "comfort zone" (an area I typically define as "solidly wedged into my couch") and try to pick Bob's brain a bit. I was specifically looking for comparisons between baseball and football that could help me understand more about this far inferior sport. In the process, I came to understand something I hadn't previously grasped: there's a reason why some Tigers fans are severely aggressive and knee-jerk in their reactions to the team during the course of a regular season, and that reason is "they're football fans first."
I understand that most of what follows here is going to be based on stereotypes and generalization, but in my defense, I would only say, "I don't really care -- next time you write the article." Here are the top three things I learned from Robert about the football mindset.
1. Short seasons lead to short-leash thinking
I don't know why I didn't notice this before. Perhaps it's because I start hearing about football in August, and keep on hearing about it until well into January, but I always assumed that football teams played at least 100 games per season. I couldn't have been more wrong if I had been Miley Cyrus trying to twerk the Pope. The NFL season is only 16 games long. Did you hear that?! Sixteen games! That means that every football game is worth a whopping ten baseball games.
What are the implications here? Well, when a football team loses five games in a row, that's the equivalent to the Tigers losing an incredible 50 games in a row. It only makes sense, then, that the average football fan who tries to follow the Tigers is naturally going to freak out when the team goes on a four-game losing streak. No wonder some of these people start screaming bloody murder and demanding major roster and/or leadership changes when the Tigers hit a slump. Which leads to the next point ...
2. Football coaches have far more impact than baseball managers
According to my friend, football coaches pretty much have a major hand in every single play that takes place on the field. They have a lot more impact on whether the team wins or loses, because they're calling a lot of the shots on a play-by-play basis. I suppose the equivalent might be if Brad Ausmus was the one determining pitch sequences for Justin Verlander. If Verlander hangs a curveball, well, according to football logic, it's the manager's fault!
This might just explain why some Tigers fans, who I suspect are football fans first and baseball fans second, immediately play the "FIRE THE MANAGER" card when the Tigers lose more than a few games in a row. I found it very enlightening that, when the Lions experienced a collapse this year after looking like they'd probably make it to the playoffs, the almost immediate response was that they fired the coach and hired someone new. Compare that to what happened after the Tigers flamed out in their third straight postseason: the manager voluntarily retired (long before the postseason, in fact), while his boss was ready to offer him another season of work.
Baseball managers can play a role in the outcome of games, but not nearly as much as some fans seem to think. Sparky Anderson famously said that his most "genius" move was simply getting out of the way of some great players and letting them do their job. Similarly, Jim Leyland said of his team, "They didn't need me when I got here. And they won't need me when I'm gone. If they can play, they can play. Fortunately, they can play."
This is apparently not the case in football, as evidenced by the standard fan reaction to automatically suggest, in the face of team failure, that it's time to fire the coach.
3. Baseball has more built-in personal motivators
One final difference: I sometimes hear Tigers fans -- who I suspect are "football first" fans -- suggest that this or that slumping player could use a good butt-chewing in order to get back on track. When Justin Verlander was struggling in 2013, I heard more than one radio host insist that he needed someone to get in his face, as if a good verbal lashing would put him back on track because he wasn't motivated enough.
In discussing this phenomenon with Robert, it came to light that baseball actually has far more personal incentives than football does. Baseball players are not only motivated by the goal of winning a World Series, they have personal awards they can chase: an MVP, a Cy Young, a Gold Glove, a Silver Slugger, a Rookie of the Year, and even an All-Star Game to shoot for mid-season. An insider source (whose name rhymes with Burt Bensching) informs me that football does have some of these same kinds of personal awards, but they aren't necessarily "as heralded" as baseball awards are.
A professional baseball player seems to have more reason to perform to the best of his ability, and probably isn't as much in need of having his manager take him behind the woodshed during a slump. And again, the baseball season is ten times as long as a football season, so a slumping player in baseball has a lot more time to work things out on his own without costing the team a shot at the playoffs.
So what now? Now that I understand why some baseball fans probably react the way they do during the course of a regular season, what can be done about it? I suppose I could try to explain that the Tigers losing five games in a row is the equivalent of the Lions having a bad first two quarters in a game -- it's far from over, and a lot can happen. I could explain that baseball managers have far less impact on a game than the individual players, and even a top-notch manager can't do a lot with a untalented team (and conversely, the world's worst manger can't really do much to stop an All Star team from getting to the postseason).
But in the end, there's really only one answer: it's time to ban football in America and extend the baseball season into December.