Friday, December 6, 2013

The names stay the same, just the faces change

In the offseason between the 1992 and 1993 MLB seasons, the New York Yankees acquired Wade Boggs from the Boston Red Sox. I know full well that only fans of one team or the other care at all about the rivalry between the two teams, but I’d argue that even the most jaded “I hate them both equally” observer would acknowledge that it is at least a storied rivalry, a colorful one, going all the way back to the trade of Babe Ruth from Boston to New York and the ensuing Curse of the Bambino. So, on the one hand, there wouldn’t be so much of a Red Sox/Yankees rivalry without the possibility of players defecting from one team to the other, and yet on the other hand, whenever it happens (though it almost always happens in a north-to-south direction) it feels a little bit unnerving.

Certainly that had been the case for me with Boggs. He had only ever played for the Red Sox at that point and was thoroughly and utterly identified with the team. He had been a member of the squad that made it to the World Series for the first time in sixty-eight years, only to lose to the Mets, a defeat that would live in infamy (and was cold comfort, but comfort nonetheless, to Yankees fans who were rooting for a less-than-mediocre lineup at the time). When Boggs traded his scarlet stockings for pinstripes I just had no idea how I was supposed to react. Could I bring myself to cheer for him when he came to bat or took the field as a Yankee? And if I could, was that allowed? You would think since I was almost 18 years old when this happened it wouldn’t perplex me so, but between my own dearth of playing organized sports as a kid and no one ever explaining it to me, I struggled.

Boggs ended up being pretty good for the Yankees for a few years, and ten years after he failed to get the Red Sox their first championship in seven decades, he helped get the Yanks their first in two. Obviously I got over my initial cognitive dissonance and realized what I believe most sports fans intrinsically assume: you root for a team (for whatever reasons: geographical loyalty, familial tradition, bandwagon jumping, &c.) and the players on that team, but players come and go and the team remains the object of the fandom rather than the individual.

This might not make actual, logical sense! Why shouldn’t I be a fan, for example, of Peyton Manning irrespective of whether it’s the Colts’ organization or the Broncos’ signing his paychecks? Or more to the point of the example I led off with, why would I suddenly start liking Tom Brady if (through some bizarre turn of events which I can’t even hypothetically construct) he became the starting QB for the Giants? Rooting for a specific team, in the era when teams as often as not have fire sales on their top players immediately after winning the championship, seems like an oddly mindless form of consumer brand loyalty. It’s the players who go out and make the plays and win the games, and the team is an abstraction, a color scheme for the uniforms, and maybe in the case of some baseball teams a particularly charming home stadium. And yet. The owners of the teams sell the concept of the team first, and the personalities on its roster second, because if the need should arise to wheel and deal on those human commodities, they need to be absolutely free to do so. That’s just the way it is.

And I know that, and I accept it, although this week I could really use another word for “accept” that does not encompass being completely at peace with something. On Tuesday the Yankees signed Jacoby Ellsbury away from the Red Sox as a free agent, and sometime last night or this morning Robinson Cano signed a deal with the Seattle Mariners (whattheWHAT?!), so basically my little AL East-centric world is in upheaval at just about the deadest part of the year between baseball seasons. I have to assume that by the time April rolls around I will be fully up to the dictionary definition of “acceptance”, but right now I’m feeling about twice as loopy as I was in ‘92.

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