Friday morning, Robinson Cano signed a 10 year, $240 million contract to become a Seattle Mariner. Cano left the team that signed him at 19, developed him, and watched as he turned into the best second basemen in the major leagues; he traded in Yankee pinstripes for navy blue and northwest green. That same day, it was announced that Mike Napoli, the first baseman who helped anchor the Boston Red Sox’ push to their third world championship in ten years, had re-signed with Boston for two years and a relatively modest $32 million. The turn of events prompted this response out of MASN Sports’ Dan Kolko:
Kolko is far from the only person who holds this opinion. Every time a free agent signs with another team, he is deemed a traitor by loyalists (or often, a “trader“). Even when a player like Dustin Pedroia or Jared Weaver re-signs with a team for which I have no rooting interest, it still warms my heart just a little to hear that they have taken the proverbial “hometown discount.” But why is this? What about this decision is so admirable to us?
The truth is there is no real answer, because the nature of sports fandom is completely irrational. It is easy to detail to even a non-sports fan the reasons why we love our sport; the confrontation between pitcher and batter, the fact that it is a team sport comprised of individual performances, the fact that it can be appreciated by jocks and statheads alike. But if you had to explain to someone who had never watched sports a day in their life why you are so passionate about your team, what reasons would you give? That they were the closest team to your hometown? Proximity is hardly a reason for devotion (unless you listen to social psychologists). And yet, here we are, us die-hard fans, rooting for the team in good times and in bad, forming a kind of unbreakable bond between ourselves and our team, and by extension, the players on that team. We root for those players (whom most of us have never actually met in our lives), pay to watch them play, buy jerseys and t-shirts with their names on the back, and live or die on their exploits. The nature of sports fandom is a psychology research thesis onto itself; in fact, there have been several thousand books written on the subject.
But it helps explain why we feel as though players owe our teams, and therefore us, some kind of loyalty. Logically, it makes little sense — why should we be mad at Robinson Cano for deciding not to leave $65 million on the table, or mad at Jacoby Ellsbury for accepting the highest offer he received? In fact, if we humans were the logical creatures we believe ourselves to be, the entire concept of sports fandom would be seen as laughably ridiculous. But so much of the human experience — in my opinion, the best parts — are rooted not in logic, but in beautifully incomprehensible emotion. It’s why we allow ourselves to fall in love with a team, and care about something that couldn’t care less about us. Becoming a fan of a sports team enters us into a fraternity of like-minded fanatics, and gives us the opportunity to feel like even just a small part of something bigger than ourselves. We give our unwavering loyalty to our team, and somehow, against all logic, it hurts us personally when the athletes choose not to do the same. And this is where the disconnect between player and fan occurs. To the player, it’s a job. To the fan, it’s something like a religion.