The bitter kiss of a near-miss

Tonight, the football regular season ended for my biggest rooting interest, non-Dodger division: Stanford. Like the last time I pulled thus hard for a legitimate national title contender, the 2009 Dodgers, it began as a superb experience that ultimately turned frustrating, with a dose of thanks-for-the-memories perspective required to make sure I didn’t lose the forest for the Trees.

The first half of the season was incredible. Stanford would make mistakes here and there that would leave you briefly questioning its adequacy, and then you’d look up and the Cardinal would be up by 40. You’d remember that you don’t need to be perfect every play to be, essentially, perfect.

Then some injuries came, and some weaknesses were exposed, and Stanford spent the past month looking beatable, losing one critical game out of 12 when it could afford to lose none. Andrew Luck, the pole position 2011 Heisman Trophy candidate when the race began, suffered from having mediocre wide receivers but also was good for at least one really headscratchingly disastrous throw a game. Brent Musberger, who called several Cardinal games this season, would quickly minimize the interceptions to resume raising the roof of praise on Luck to Derek Jeter- like levels that — taking nothing away from Luck’s present and future greatness — made me a little uncomfortable.

Stanford won’t win the national title, and Luck might not win the Heisman. In the case of the former, it would have been fun and preferable to the BCS to see the Cardinal in a playoff, especially with some healed players, but the team would have been an underdog by the time it reached a semifinal (unlike a year ago, when Stanford was truly playing as well as any team in the nation at season’s end). I don’t feel cheated. As for Luck, he’s great and still a worthy contender, but if he doesn’t win the Heisman, I think I’d still feel worse that Toby Gerhart didn’t win two years ago. Neither statistically nor subjectively does Luck strike me as an automatic.

Expectations are mean, and I’m better to be rid of them. Much more than the Dodgers, success has been rare for Stanford football in my lifetime (and at this level unprecedented), and the journey of this team from 1-11 five years ago, through the big victories over USC, to the nearly dominant team of today had been an exquisite joyride. 

But right now, the disappointment with Stanford’s close call this season still lingers, to the extent that it’s easier for me to think right now about those ’09 Dodgers and their season turned on an ill-fated Jonathan Broxton pitch than the ’11 Cardinal. And though I don’t think Stanford will return immediately to its losing ways, the Dodgers should smell a title before the Cardinal does again.

Without a doubt, I feel good about having had near-miss teams to root for, but it’s no substitute for feeling great. 

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