It's 888 Miles to Chicago...

As the trades fly around the NBA, the trade rumors swell in the MLB and the NFL offseason gets started we need to ask a question.  How does all this player movement affect us, the fan?  In the age where players change uniforms constantly, the way we followed the sports has changed forever.

When my daughter was born almost 3 years ago, one of the very first things I wanted to get her was White Sox and Bears gear.  Yeah, she was born in Seattle, but those were my teams, and I wanted to show my loyalty by covering my daughter with the logos of those teams.  When the White Sox won the World Series that year, my daughter wore her White Sox outfit every game day.

When the Bears went to the Super Bowl last year, my daughter was adorned in her Bears outfit all the way through the playoffs.  My wife even bought her blue and orange hair bows to complete the look.  I’ll never forget how proud I was the first time she asked to wear her “Bears shirt” or her “Yay Sox Pajamas”.

But me?  When I got tickets to the Super Bowl last year, I realized I had not Bears gear to wear.  My wife asked me what jersey I wanted…asking what player on the team was my favorite…and without hesitation, I said “Walter Payton”.  Showing that has absorbed quite a bit of knowledge, she quickly said, “But he’s not on the team?  He’s dead isn’t he?  Don’t you want someone on the current team?”

My simple response was “No.”  My closets have never been full of clothes for my team; I prefer to be very selective with it.  So why would I want a jersey of a player that might not even be with the team next year?  Payton was an easy choice…he is not only my favorite player of all time, but any discussion of the Bears or what it means to be a Bear…he factors into that conversation.  No other team can claim Payton, and the jersey will never be “wrong”.

Players have always changed teams, sports after all is a business, but never before has it been so common place that not only players are changing teams, but stars.  Even Superstars…and faces of the Franchise…no player is safe these days.  Look around…Shaquille O’Neal is on his 4th team…Alex Rodriguez is on his 3rd…Randy Moss is on his 3rd…these are players that are considered the very best at their positions.  And yet they’ve bounced around the league that much?  A player like Brett Favre is a complete rarity.  Name a baseball player playing right now that will definitely play his entire career with one team?  What about basketball?  Tough to think of any, isn’t it?

This ever changing landscape is clearly evident with one of my favorite teams.  The 2005 Chicago White Sox are by far one of my favorite teams of all time.  They are right there with the 1985 Chicago Bears…and the 1996 Chicago Bulls…but that Sox team had something special for me.  I’ve always been a White Sox fan, and that team not only delivered the World Series that I’ve waited my whole life for, but it did it in such style that I can honestly say I love every member of that team.  The way they played, the way they won, the way they lost…that team had a personality that was infectious.

But look at the 2008 incarnation of the White Sox…it’s almost completely different.  Gone are so many heroes of that 2005 team…the lineup and roster bare little resemblance.  You’re telling me that over the span of 2 seasons….my favorite team of all time has been completely dismantled?  It’s a way of life in this day and age of sports, the players you root for change from moment to moment.

As fans we have some to accept this change…but how has this change affected how we cheer for our teams?

Our loyalty is tested everyday

With every transaction that takes place, there are so many questions to be answered….

How do I feel about the player that is leaving?

If the player is leaving on good terms, or was forced out or thrown away by management, the feelings you have towards the player are vastly different than if the player spurned the franchise.  A-Rod is still despised in Seattle for 2 very large reasons…he said it wasn’t about the money, when it was…and he had come up with the team and then went to a division rival.

Do I keep following the player?

When a player is on your team, following him is part of following your team.  If that player is one of “your guys”, and he leaves…do you continue keep tabs on him?  Is the loyalty you feel for the player greater than the team?  Can you really be a fan of a single player in a team sport?  Harold Baines was and is my favorite White Sox player of all time…when they traded him away; I still followed him even though he was no longer on my team.  I didn’t have all his stats memorized, as I had when he was on the Sox, but I kept an eye on him because he was still one of my boys.

What about the replacement?

This is one of the tricky things…sometimes a favorite leaves because a promising youngster is waiting in the wings…how does losing the hero affect your perception of the new guy?  When you replace a legend it is always hard…but when you replace a legend that was “taken” from his fans…well…you might never recover. 

The problem is that players are no longer the constant they once were.  You can’t come out to the game year in and year out and see the same group of guys out there…every year the roster changes…and today’s franchise player is tomorrow’s enemy.  What is a fan to do?

We follow the Transactions

There is one constant in sports, the transaction.  Every day, every team is changing something.  A new player is being brought up, while an old player is being cut for “cap reasons”.  A mega deal is happening, changing the future of the team…or a crowd favorite is being swapped for a potential laden youngster.  The transaction has become more than just a blip on the off season radar…it has become a reason to follow sports.

Think about it, how much time, effort and resources are spent speculating on where Zach Thomas is going to go? Or what the price tag on Johan Santana is? Or is Chad Johnson on the block? Or will Jason Kidd make a difference in Dallas?  And that doesn’t even factor in the draft.  We have become obsessed with the movement of players, instead of the play of players.

Players come and go, they seem to stay on a team just long enough to get our hopes up…and then they vanish.  But the transaction…well…there is always another transaction just around the corner.  Another chance to make the deal that catapults a team to the ultimate goal.  Another chance to replace the lost star with someone else’s star….

For this reason managers and GMs are under much more scrutiny and pressure.  Why?  Well, now that every fan is paying attention to every move they make or don’t make, they not only have an opinion about the management’s success…they also believe they can do the job.  Second guessing moves and trades has always been a big conversation topic…but with so many to look at these days, we all have our thoughts and plans for teams, and believe them to be the correct path for our team.  This is a huge shift in fan focus…away from the game being played on the field, to the game being played in the offices.

This focus shift is fed not only by the prevalence of player movement, but a simple belief.  Every one of us knows there is no way we could do what a professional athlete does.  We have played the game, and we see that there is a huge difference between our skills and the athletes on our favorite teams.  But a GM, what does he really do?  Check email?  Make phone calls?  Heck, I do that every day!  And it is in that belief that the focus shift started with player movement, impacts how we view the management of our teams.  What is there left to root for then?

Our passion and loyalty are lessened

Since the players change every year, what are we really rooting for?  A logo.  We root for a logo.  It’s not as cold or terrible as it sounds…it’s just a fact.  That logo still gives us a shared history and a shared passion, it’s just not as strong as when it was backed up by a group of guys we had gone into countless battles with.  That’s one of the reason why Packers fans are so gaga about Brett Favre, not only is he a great player, but he’s theirs…and he makes their team more than just a logo…Favre is the Packers.

Take a moment to think back…go back to your early days of being a fan of your team…when you were just cutting your fan teeth…now thing back to the first time one of “your guys” left your team.  Got that memory in your head?  Can you remember how betrayed you felt?  Either by the team or the player?  If you were young enough when it happened, tears might have been shed…now step through that memory and how did you feel about your team afterward?

For me, when Baines was traded away, I was devastated.  My favorite player, gone.  The White Sox were still my team, but Baines being taken away from me shook me to the core, so much so, that my passion for the team and the players took a big hit after that.  Frank Thomas came along shortly after that, and while he was an amazing hitter, and one of the greatest players to ever wear a Sox uniform…I never allowed myself to connect with him like I had with Baines…I didn’t want to get burned again.

The constant player movement tends to numb us a bit as fans.  Players don’t stick around long enough to get that real bond with them anymore…and our focus has shifted from that bond with the players, to a fascination with the transaction.

There is always hope…

What amazes me and gives me hope?  Through all this, we still love our teams.  No matter how hard the owners, GMs, players, or leagues make it to follow our teams…we still do.  And you know what that means?  There is something more than a logo we are cheering for.

A Logo is just a rallying point, what makes a team ours goes much deeper than a logo or a group of players…it’s all those memories of going to the game with your dad…listening to the game with your son…pointing out the blitz to your daughter…it’s every game you got too drunk at…every game you cheered so loud you had no voice the next day…it’s every night you stayed up late debating who should start…every night that you missed sleep to see the end of a late West Coast game…it’s every moment that your mood changed based off the fortunes of your team.

The reality of the situation is that all this team hoping by players has changed how we function as fans…but it hasn’t changed the fact we are fans.  Nothing can change that.


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