Jerry Seinfeld famously joked that the frequency with which athletes change teams these days means fans are reduced to cheering not for people, but for laundry.
In principle he’s right–your team is your team, even when they sign Milton Bradley to an ill-advised $30M contract. Likewise, Carlos Zambrano didn’t have a lot of fans ’round these parts, but that didn’t make anyone less of a Cubs fan, or less interested in seeing him succeed for the good of the team. The same would go for the near-universally reviled Ryan Braun–if he was traded to the Cubs tomorrow, we might not like him, but we’d want him to play well for the sake of the Cubs’ success. In that regard at least, we are cheering for laundry.
But not always–sometimes fan loyalty transcends the uniform. We got a good reminder of that on Wednesday when the Indianapolis Colts parted ways with Peyton Manning. If you listened to sports radio or watched ESPN you probably saw tearful testimonies of fans vowing to burn their Colts gear and never return to Lucas Oil Stadium until Peyton comes back to “kick the Colts’ butts.” Others were too busy to grieve as they pre-ordered their (future Hall of Famer) Andrew Luck jerseys. The divorce between the franchise and the franchise quarterback marks a tipping point for many Colts fans–should they stay or should they go?
I feel a lot of sympathy for Colts fans caught in the middle of this sports divorce. The business of sports isn’t often sentimental, and watching one of your favorite teams push one of your favorite players out of town can feel like a cruel betrayal.
I’ve felt it myself in the past when the Cubs parted ways with some of my favorite guys. I felt like I’d been punched in the gut when they let Mark Grace’s contract run out and he left for Arizona. And I wanted to punch Jim Hendry in the gut when he didn’t resign Kerry Wood in 2008–even if he did it so Wood could sign for more money than the Cubs could afford to give him. And I felt it again when, for the second time in two years, the Cubs denied Ryne Sandberg a coaching job.
I can tell myself that it’s just a business decision, and that I should be as dispassionate and unsentimental as professional sports have become. But that usually goes out the window the minute I see one of my guys in another team’s uniform.
My solution wasn’t–isn’t–to burn all my Cubs gear and vow some sort of proxy revenge on the team. I’m not sure what it would take to make me quit the Cubs–whatever it is, if it even exists, they haven’t done it yet.
But that didn’t keep me from being fan of Grace, Wood, Sandberg, and others after they left the Northside, either. I’ve never cheered for a non-Cubs baseball team the way I rooted for the Diamondbacks in the 2001 playoffs. If Grace couldn’t win a ring with the Cubs, I wanted to see him make the most of his chance with Arizona. And I shed a few happy tears when he singled off Rivera to kick-start the Diamondbacks’ ninth-inning rally, and hoisted the World Series trophy a few minutes later.
I was similarly pulling for Wood to get a ring in 2010. It didn’t matter that it meant cheering for the Evil Empire, or that A-Rod and Jeter would also add to their collection of postseason hardware–if Wood could win a World Series, I wanted to see him do it. And I was bummed for him when he didn’t. The same goes for Ryno–if he can’t coach or manage the Cubs yet, then I want him to succeed with any teams that do want him (so long as it’s not the Cardinals).
As Seinfled’s joke illustrates, that kind of deep attachment to a player is becoming rarer and rarer in sports. The rise of sabermetrics can lead us to viewing players dispassionately, more in terms of cold stats and rankings (don’t get too worked up guys–I know some of you still have hearts). Fantasy sports can further divide your loyalty–heaven help you when your ace is pitching to your best hitter, or your lockdown defense is facing off against your most productive receivers.
Free agency, roster turnover, salary caps, and all sorts of other factors have aligned to keep fans from closely identifying with any one player or players these days. Instead the fans who are crushed when their favorites leave look like simpletons for caring too much. The jaded, dispassionate sports world would tell us we have only ourselves to blame, and our disappointment is the price we’ve chosen to pay for getting too attached in the first place.
So while I feel a lot of sympathy for Colts fans this week, I don’t pity them. They’ve had more than a decade with one of best quarterbacks to ever play the game. He helped build a semi-dynasty, carrying the team to the playoffs with Braves-esque frequency. He helped win a Super Bowl, and took them to another one. And he revived a dead-end franchise and helped make Indianapolis one of the (surprisingly) great NFL cities. And the love affair doesn’t have to stop here–they can follow him throughout whatever career he has left.
Instead, I’ll pity the sports fans who never get attached enough to a player to have their hearts broken like that. They are the ones who are missing out.