In 1896, the American Philosopher William James (and can the fact that he shares a name with a contemporary baseball philosopher be only a coincidence?) wrote an essay called the "Will to Believe" where he argued that we can choose to believe in what he calls a "live hypothesis," one which "appeals as a real possibility to him to whom it is proposed." James was addressing the topic of religious faith as a voluntary act on the part of the believer. However, the argument aptly explains our mental state as sports fans. We set our clocks forward, and baseball starts. Another opening day is upon us and as I write this, every team in major league baseball is tied for first place.
When the season begins, we face a choice. We either believe our team has a chance to win it all this year, or we deny that the even the possibility of ultimate victory exists. One of the great things about sports is that the game has to be played, and as long as there is a game on the field, one's belief in the outcome remains every bit a matter of faith, and as such, it depends on what James called our volition. James argued that we decide, within limits, what we believe. The sports fan decides to believe the team has a chance. Maybe such a decision is easier if your team is the Braves or the Yankees. But every year the Cubs, the Brewers, and my team, the Phillies, also inspire faith. And fans of those teams should recognize the privilege it is to have faith in those teams. Moreover, the great stories of sports are always stories of upsets. David and Goliath tales (and again, the connection between religious faith and sports seems unavoidable) are so common as to be ordinary, but they are no less thrilling.
Athletes, I think, recognize this. An athlete who did not think he or she even had a chance to prevail would have no reason to step onto the field. They may be well aware that the odds are long, but they also must relish the opportunity to shock the world, or at least the home town. Competing is an exercise of faith, or at least hope. To compete is to demonstrate that victory is a real possibility. In the course of a competition, the last person to recognize that the game is over is the competitor. No one has stronger faith--when that faith is lost, the game is lost.
The fan and the athlete are engaged in related activities, so even the most jaded fan must somewhere have a glimmer of this faith. Rooting for a team is a choice, a choice that reveals a hope somewhere that this is our season. Our psychological attachments to teams that never seem to win, formed perhaps in childhood, have no basis in reason, and there is no reason that our hopes and expectations of our team should be based in reason either. Rooting for a team is a passion, but it is a passion that is, in the end, voluntary. Its voluntary nature extends to our calculation of our teams chances. We can choose to commit ourselves to a belief in our teams chances, or accept that yet again, the likelihood of success is remote.
In his essay, James posed the options as this: Either you believe, and face disappointment, or you withhold belief and avoid error. You can believe and suffer disappointment season after season, and sometimes after awhile, choosing to believe becomes more and more difficult. Perhaps, after awhile the hypothesis that our team has a chance dies, and we are no longer able to choose it. However, over the course of a baseball season, there can be no reward sweeter than to triumph after believing and never wavering. The skeptic cannot know such joy. So the fan decides to ignore those point to problems with the bullpen, the bench, and the manager and says "this will be our year." Why bother paying attention to the games if we don't think there really is a chance?
Perhaps this is simply part of the modern condition. An age based as much as our is in the skepticism of science reserved nothing other than contempt for anyone who exhibits blind faith. Moreover, there are few rewards for blind faith. We demand money back guarantees, insurance, home inspections, and prenuptial agreements. Only a foolish romantic conducts any significant aspect of his life without verification. But there really is nothing lost when your team disappoints, no matter how much you believed. Disappointment may be crushing, but the next day, life goes on, and you are no less worse for the wear. The costs are only psychic. If you win, though, you will have the joy of a rare gift. Sports, especially for fans of historically less successful teams, provide a privilege that in other contexts can only be enjoyed by the reckless.
No sport lends itself more to faith than baseball. The season starts in the spring, the time of year associated with renewal, falling in love, fresh starts, and possibility. The nature of the season with its 162 games also lends itself to faith. When a lesser team beats a better team in baseball, it is not even considered an upset. Lesser teams beats the better teams in baseball every day of the season. Upsets only occur over the course of a playoff series, and really, over the course of a season. The only thing necessary for faith is to extend what we know to be possible in one game over a season. Or, to put it another way, you never know.