Register Tuesday | December 10 | 2019

Fandom Free Agency

The Search For New Loyalties

So, I’m in the market for a new favourite team. Like most conventional fans, I’ve been root, root, rooting for the home team for as long as I’ve had one. Now I need to get a jump on baseball’s decision to relocate the Montreal Expos and sort out my loyalties.

I could go the easy route and join the New York Yankees, with the expectation of instant and perennial success. I could attach myself to all that history, gaining a retroactive connection to Ruth, DiMaggio, Mantle, Jackson. But that feels like cheating. However much joy I might muster should they win the World Series this October, I won’t have really earned it. Besides, the Yankees make far more convincing foes than friends, embodying as they do all the financial evils that conspired to kill my team.

Another self-evident choice is to follow the Expos to their new abode. But that feels a little like stalking a fleeing love. I might secretly wish them well, but I can’t bear for whatever happiness they find to be mashed in my face every day.

I am partial to teams that play in cities where I’ve had a good time while visiting. That eliminates the Pittsburgh Pirates, I’m afraid. Toronto, too.

Boston is a good candidate. Ten years ago, I fulfilled a lifelong dream by attending a game at Fenway Park—and a memorable one at that, with Roger Clemens in his prime shutting out the Angels. Fenway lives up to its billing as the place where baseball is meant to be played. Intimate and open, it is totally unlike the generic, scrubbed-out stadiums that flourished in the 1970s and ’80s.

Another point in Boston’s favour: I saw more of the Red Sox in the late 1960s and ’70s than I did of the Expos because the Sox games were broadcast on the New England TV stations. Carl Yastrzemski was my first baseball hero, followed by Jim Rice.

Baltimore is another strong contender. I’ve visited three times between 1997 and 1999, and I spent one fabulous evening at Camden Yards, watching Mike Mussina one-hit the Indians. Camden is the jewel of the new retro ballparks, blending seamlessly into its surroundings near the city’s Inner Harbor. If the Orioles were my favourites, I’d have a ready-made excuse to go back one day.

I spent four wonderful days in San Diego a few years back, although it wasn’t during the baseball season. There’s a certain natural attraction to the Padres, since they joined the National League along with the Expos. I always liked Nate Colbert, their first bona fide star, and Randy Jones, a great lefty whose career could have been truly remarkable had he played for a better team. I was also a big Dave Winfield fan, but only because as a college football star he was drafted by the Minnesota Vikings, my favourite NFL team.

Which should naturally lead me to consider the Twins. Except, somehow, the Vikings hold magic for me; the Twins just don’t.
Last week I was in Tampa and used the occasion to catch the Devil Rays play the Yankees at Tropicana Field. I liked the park, even though it looks like a cookie-cutter dome from the outside. Inside, it has an airy, outdoorsy feel. And it would be disingenuous of me to complain about the climate control when it was ninety-two degrees in the shade.

The Rays are a fairly obscure team, which appeals to me. Nobody could accuse me of jumping on a bandwagon because the Rays don’t have one. They lack TV coverage beyond western Florida. Their black and green uniforms don’t grace any hip hop videos. Unlike their expansion brothers in Arizona, they have yet to win a world championship. Indeed, in the franchise’s short history, they have yet to crack fifth place in the AL East.

Nonetheless, I appreciate how they’re building the old-fashioned way, the way expansion clubs used to do before modern-day fans demanded instant success, before free agency allowed teams to buy, as opposed to develop, their way into the playoffs. The Rays have produced a solid core of young talent—Rocco Baldelli, Carl Crawford, Aubrey Huff, Toby Hall—and complemented them with a few marquee, well past their prime names—Tino Martinez, Fred McGriff. However little these players may end up accomplishing in Tampa, they’ll cultivate a special relationship with the first generation of Rays fans, just as Rusty Staub, Mack Jones, Carl Morton and Coco Laboy became immortals in Montreal.

Lasting associations are built through lean years. Franchises develop relationships with their fans through shared suffering. Together, they earn the right to celebrate victories, having agonized in defeat. Cubs fans understand. So do Red Sox and Indians fans. And Giants and Dodgers fans from one coast clear to the other. As do Expos fans: thirty-six years of heartbreak should have brought a better conclusion than fandom free agency, shamelessly peddling ourselves to any team that might have us.

I haven’t yet decided to whom I’ll transfer my loyalties. I certainly deserve one season of triumph. Still, I can’t imagine being the spectator equivalent of Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez: brought into Florida midway through 2003, he was the catalyst for the Marlins’ World Series run, but come spring he had moved on to Detroit. I want to be like Barry Larkin, who has toiled his entire career in Cincinnati, making the franchise better year after year while tasting the ultimate reward only once, in 1990. I want to be a loyal, diehard fan, elated or crushed depending on the fortunes of my team. I hope this is the last time I’ll ever have to choose.