I’ve long been fond of comparing my relationship with baseball to religion, or to romance; in short, subjects that are supposed to carry the life-changing importance and inspire the fanatical devotion that sports carry for people like us. While most sports fans root for the name on the front of the jersey, rather than the back, we still develop attachments to our favorite players, feel like we know them well, and expect them to reciprocate the affection we so eagerly heap upon them.
So when relationships with athletes end, there is always a sense, of loss, but as with romantic relationships, that sense of loss varies. Sometimes, a happy relationship goes stale, and it’s just time to move on, like when the Eagles traded Donovan McNabb. Sometimes, it’s a relationship that brings you nothing but hurt, and when it ends, you feel freed, like when the Phillies got rid of Eric Bruntlett. And sometimes, someone you love is snatched away from you with no warning, and all you can feel is heartbreak.
This is what happened to me when the Flyers traded Mike Richards to Los Angeles last week. That kind of sudden separation is rare, both in real life and in the sporting world, and regardless of the return, or whether you think everyone might be better off in the long run, it still hurts. And when, on October 15, Richards returns to Philadelphia, we’ll have to figure out out, as fans, how to welcome him back.
Tomorrow afternoon, Blue Jays fans will figure out how to answer that question when Roy Halladay makes his first start in Toronto since joining the Phillies.
I never understood the hate that fans heap on players who leave their city for a better professional situation. Scott Rolen still gets booed here despite taking less money to leave a moribund franchise for a regular playoff contender. LeBron James–less money, better city to live in, team with a more competent basketball operations staff and a better chance to contend long-term. Okay, I understand it, but I don’t agree with it. Fans hate the Rolens and LeBrons of the world because of the idea that a player’s relationship with a city’s fans has the deep emotional attachment and is a two-way affair.
Occasionally, a city worships a player, and the player loves the city back just as much. Look at Cliff Lee in Philadelphia, or Mike Sweeney in Kansas City, or Chipper Jones in Atlanta. This is really the exception rather than the rule, and it ought to be. Professional athletes are out to 1) make money, because they’re professionals and 2) win, because they’re athletes, so we shouldn’t have this notion that Cleveland somehow “owned” LeBron, because he played there. Regardless of where LeBron was born, or played, he was a free agent, and he was well within his rights to ply his trade elsewhere, if he so chose.
The same goes for Jayson Werth–he left Philadelphia for more money. He’d already won a World Series, and, in his early 30s, was in a position to make a ton of money, perhaps for the last time in his career. The Nationals offered him that money, and the Phillies chose not to match. Werth, who, by sheer luck, wound up on the NL franchise perhaps best set up to win consistently over the next decade, is certainly better off for taking his $18 million, and the Phillies are certainly better off for not extending him a comparable offer.
Some say that LeBron is only so hated in Cleveland because of the tactless way he went about announcing his decision to leave. We’ll never know, of course, but I suspect that this isn’t true. As Yahoo! Sports columnist Jeff Passan once put it, if a girl dumps you and throws a drink in your face, it’s the getting dumped that hurts, not the drink in the face.
Sorry to bring up old news, but it’s a roundabout way of saying that we absolutely develop these unrealistic expectations of emotional attachment from our players, and it’s a real heartbreaker when the illusion is destroyed. When a player leaves, your team is either not good enough or not rich enough, or you have treated him badly, and all of those seem like a personal judgment against you and the team you love.
The only way to avoid that, it seems, is to do what Roy Halladay did–leave a team after a long period of service, take less money from an obvious contender, and compliment your old organization all the while. I caught a bit of the Blue Jays-Pirates radio broadcast last night (side note: anyone who drives a lot and has a smartphone ought to get the MLB At Bat app) and those crazy Canucks seemed more excited about seeing Roy Halladay again than Canada Day.
Ultimately, seeing the ex again ought not to be too great an occasion. If the two of you liked each other a lot, and the good times outnumbered the bad, and the breakup was amicable, by all means, grab a cup of coffee when she’s in town. I imagine that Jays fans will greet their former ace warmly, to let him know there are no hard feelings, then get down to hoping he gives up seven runs in the first inning. You’re certainly entitled to look back on the good times, but remember: there’s a reason that the two of you aren’t together anymore.