For the fan in enemy territory

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Whatever happened to loyalty?

The world of sports is in constant evolution. Whether that changing involves technology, rules and regulations or team personnel, sports are always changing with the times. In this age of "at your fingertips technology" and instant gratification, players feel the pull of wanting maximum payout for their skills, regardless of where their previous loyalties were laid once.

The truth is that while this is not a new concept, it is a concept that has grown in popularity across the board. There was a time when you could look at a team and point to a certain player that you know will be there for his entire career. That day is gone.

The age of favoring the team over yourself are long gone. No one can really point to when it all started. However, I like to believe that the thought was originally planted into owners heads that they could acquire any player for the right price when the Yankees obtained Babe Ruth from the Boston Red Sox who wanted money to finance a Broadway musical.

That first move back in 1914, almost 100 years ago now, showed owners that anyone can be bought and sold. This mentality has led to so many heartaches for the fans of these sports.

In basketball, LeBron James turns his back on Cleveland fans that watched him since he was in high school and runs to Miami for the money. In Hockey, Wayne Gretzky was traded to the L.A. Kings in his prime in a move that shocked the entire nation of Canada. Warren Moon leaves Houston in a daze when he ends up signing with the Minnesota Vikings after 10 years and six Pro-Bowls in the Lone Star state.

No other sport is this evolution more present than in baseball. This week alone has brought multiple examples of this. Today was announced that the 10 year veteran and franchise face that is Albert Pujols will be leaving St. Louis after leading them to two World Series titles in three appearances, three MVP awards and a rookie of the year award along the way.

He was an god in St Louis. His highly respected off the field persona was only bested by his accomplishments on the field. He played for a team that has a long heritage of holding onto their icons. Names like Bob Gibson, Stan Musial and Ozzie Smith are all well-known Cardinals. Before this week, there was little doubt that Pujols would be among that Mt Rushmore in Cardinals history.

He left for the good weather and the $250 million that the L.A. Angels of Anaheim offered. It wasn't so much that the Cardinals wouldn't pay him, but they were reportedly never given the chance to match the offer.

It was obvious that the retirement of manager Tony LaRussa played a much larger part than even he will admit. The comfort level was no longer there. The ironic part of this is that if any one player personified selflessness in the sport of baseball, it was Pujols. Until today.

On a more personal level, my team lost out on a homegrown fan favorite just days before St Louis did. When Jose Reyes decided to sign with the Miami Marlins, it was a gut punch to Mets fans everywhere. While, I had recently been growing detached to his exploits of selfishness this past season, many fans were taken completely aback by this move and immediately blamed ownership and the front office. They did so for good reason.

The Mets never had the money to match the extensive years and large payday the Marlins eventually offered. Fans were hoping for him to take a "hometown discount" without realizing that in this age of sports, there is no longer any such thing. Reyes went on to say that his feelings were hurt because the Mets never offered him a contract, but his agent had specified to Mets management that their best offer would not be good enough. Why then should they make an offer and look stupid when he turns it down?

The truth is that with the possible exception of Larry "Chipper" Jones and Derek Jeter, there may not be a player that spends their entire career with the same team anymore. As a Mets fan, I can only hope that David Wright will join the Derek Jeters and Chipper Jones' of the league, but that is far from a certainty.

This career with one team mentality might have outlived its usefulness and therefore has become out-of-style in the sports world. With agents and commercialism infiltrating sports, it is doubtful this golden age will ever make a comeback. The sad part of that reality is that it raises a terrible question that needs to be asked. Where's the loyalty in athletes?

Teams expect, nay demand loyalty from their fans. St Louis is by far one of the most loyal fan bases in the entire country, yet, their team was shown great disloyalty by the one man they trusted the most. While Pujols moving to L.A. will help baseball sales out west and the sport will thrive in places and to cultures that it needs to reach out to, the purity of the game is all but dead.

The fire that once was burning bright and rapid has been diminished and reduced to a glowing ember. This is the sad state of baseball, and sports on a more global level. With the admission of record-breaking contracts, comes the inevitable broken spirit of the fan that ultimately helps to pay that contract.

What then are we, as fans, supposed to do in the wake of this complete display of disloyalty that is the new fad within the spectrum of sports? I can only offer one answer for this. Embrace the name on the front of the jersey, not the one on the back. There is far less pain in seeing your team fall short than there is to see the player that has endeared himself to your heart leaving you far behind in his chase for a bigger payday in his limited earning window.

Attaching ourselves to a few of these players is foolish. Should we enjoy the facts we learn about them? Yes. Should we enjoy getting to know their personalities? Yes. However, there is a very fine line between being interested in them for the sake of getting to know a player on your team and getting to know a player for the sake of learning more about them individually.

That attachment will only lead to repeated public outcry when they eventually leave for greener pastures. Fans have to be more objective these days. They need to be less passionate and more level-headed when they examine a team and the condition that team is in. Otherwise, they only end up getting hurt or being angry because they don't understand the business side of sports these days.

As that business end of sports is always forcing changes within the sports themselves, so we as fans must be open to evolving our own mindset. Part of that is to no longer grow attached to the "face of a team" but rather grow attached to the team. It's a difficult step, but a fan that studies their team objectively becomes an educated fan and an informed source of growth for a fanbase.

In the end, as sports evolve, this evolution with the fanbase has to take shape as well. If it doesn't than the sport will cease to evolve. While that may not be the worst thing, it will never go back to the days when players stayed where they were and developed lifetime rivalries.

This age is for the player that develops length of their current contract rivalries. That may be worse than anything our teams can do us.