Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The joy and agony of expectations, from Armour Square to Ann Arbor

Fouad Egbaria
As I sat watching the White Sox take on the Cubs tonight, not long after Big Ten Media Days wrapped up not far away at the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place, I was reminded how expectations can distort.

A White Sox fan since I had the agency (and interest) to make the choice, my expectations for the squad were middling entering the season. I expected, pretty much, what the Sox are at now: hovering around .500 (with tonight's win against the Cubs, the Sox inched back to .500, at 50-50, a true paragon of mediocrity).

But the South Siders surprised in April, starting the season on the heels of the truly silly LaRoche saga with a 23-10 run.

Just like that, those previously modest expectations evaporated. The first Cubs-Sox World Series was sure to happen, the first since Teddy Roosevelt's administration -- before the first World War, before the formation of the National Park Service, before, well -- you get the picture.

Alas, April proved to be a mirage. The Sox plummeted, losing their once-sizable division lead in the blink of an eye.

I don't have time to tune into every game anymore, but I still tune in when I can, even now. And when I do -- or when I hop on the Red Line toward 95th to catch a game at U.S. Cellular Field -- I'm just looking to consume the sport in its rawest form. Watching just to watch, to see something fun: maybe a home run, some fireworks, a meaningless win. It's all in good fun.

And if those things don't happen, it's fine. Bereft of the weighty albatross of expectations, you can hold your head high, no matter the result.

Meanwhile, on the gridiron, behold a different view.

Michigan is being talked about -- not just Harbaugh and his endeavors, but Michigan as a whole. No, not "is this the season coach X gets fired" talk -- Michigan is being discussed as a possible playoff team. How crazy is that? Two years ago I watched Michigan eke out a miserable win against Northwestern in Evanston, wondering how this Michigan program could possibly be cut from the same cloth as the one I saw in 2000, when Drew Henson's Wolverines battled Northwestern (and ultimately lost) in an spectacle of offensive pyrotechnics, back when they were still novel things.

This is far different than 2007, when Michigan entered the season ranked in the top 5 after a brilliant 2006 season capped by losses to good Ohio State and USC teams. It made sense, then, to have expectations. The 2007 season was meant to be a logical continuation of 2006.

Does it make sense now, to have those expectations? Is it logical, tethered to reality, believable? Yes, the pieces are all there, but after Michigan lost to its three toughest regular-season foes last year (and in spectacularly poor fashion against Ohio State), I'm not sure the same level of preseason certainty can be had.

That's what I would think, if Michigan didn't have Jim Harbaugh, the motor behind it all, the ultimate X-factor. Given Harbaugh's clear penchant for baseball, and the baseball theme of this post, it should be noted that his career coaching WAR is impressive, worthy of consideration when pondering the future.

This summer, Harbaugh has worn seemingly every jersey under the sun, traveled more than Carmen San Diego, angered SEC coaches, traded Twitter barbs with said coaches and wore a Michigan ballcap during his Media Days appearance. The whole enterprise, the idea of it, has picked up steam, gathering hype and attention magnetically.

With all of that, of course, comes expectation. And at a certain point, hype gives way to imminent reality. The season will start and all of the offseason antics will become a distant memory, a pleasant diversion, a rallying cry, a beacon of pride leading the Michigan fan base away from an era in which there was not much pride to be had.

While I love the White Sox, I look forward to having expectations again. Sports are made by stakes, and stakes are raised up high or brought down to the Midwestern earth by the lever of expectation.

Many fans expect a Big Ten East division title, a Big Ten title, a playoff appearance -- even more than that, possibly. None of those things are totally unrealistic. There are question marks lingering, but not necessarily enough of them to invalidate the hype.

A callback to his younger days in Chicago, Harbaugh will throw out the first pitch tomorrow at Wrigley Field, adding to the now expansive inventory of "Harbaugh throws a baseball" photography. I can't say whether he'll throw a ball or a strike.

I will say this: I expect the latter. And if he doesn't, we'll laugh and move on.

But come September, October, November, that will change: the games are no longer just fun and games. Everything indicates, however, that Harbaugh, the rest of the coaching staff and the players are ready for what's to come.

But what about the fans? What happens if Michigan falls at Iowa or Michigan State? Or, once again, at OSU, keeping that Henson-led 2000 team as the last Michigan outfit to win in Columbus?

Those moments mark the point when the taut line of expectation whips back against those who expect.

But failure and success are each meaningless by themselves without the idea of the other. The taut line slackens when none of it matters at all.

As time marches on toward kickoff, the line tightens and tightens with each day. It extends forward, like a sharp line drive, girded by expectations and hope.

Will it fall, shattering upon impact by virtue of its hardened material? Maybe. But maybe it won't.

And if it doesn't, Michigan can tight-rope across that line, all the way to what once seemed an unattainable light in the distance.

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