This is part of a gradual, but unmistakable shift that began decades ago when
free agency set players loose and sports franchises started moving from one city
to another. Until recently, however, fans were stuck with the local team and
Now, if you're a Pujols fan in St. Louis, where he hit 445 homers and batted
.328 over the last 11 years, you can root for him just as easily with his L.A.
team. You can see every game he plays on satellite TV or computer and read details
of his performance on Internet blogs. You can still have him on your fantasy
baseball team. And you can frequent his website (Pujolsfive.com), like him on
Facebook, or follow his tweets (@PujolsFive).
Many fans are still inclined to think of the local team as being "us," in
a civic-minded sort of way, overlooking the fact that pro athletes and their
employers are in the entertainment business. Nothing wrong with that. But the
notion that fans should slavishly root for a particular team no matter who it
hires or where it opts to play is passé.
The best recent example involves Jeremy Lin, the 23-year-old Harvard grad
who leaped from obscurity to become the NBA's hottest player. Like many fans,
I immediately started watching his games on satellite, and the fact that Lin
happens to play for the New York Knicks is irrelevant; if Lin ever leaves the
Knicks, I'm going with him.
By placing most games on satellite and computer, teams have encouraged fans
to find freedom. And media support it with highlights that increasingly emphasize
individual achievements – from "Web Gems" to the "Dunks
of the Day."
It's quite different, of course, at the amateur level, where Little League
and scholastic sports appropriately inspire community allegiance, while teaching
kids about teamwork and loyalty. With pro sports, however, there are few teams
I'd care to root for any more than I root for, say, FedEx or Starbucks – to
name businesses I admire but whose logos I'd never wear on a shirt or hat unless
they paid me to do it.
To be sure, some sports franchises are more worthy of respect than others.
The Green Bay Packers, for example, are owned by roughly 112,000 of their fans.
The Angels and their owner Arte Moreno, who lured Pujols, operate possibly the
most fan-friendly organization in pro sports. But generally, there is no real
fun in rooting for corporations unless you're a shareholder.
Sports have always provided the great American metaphors, so you have to wonder
if our attitude toward athletes reflects a wider societal trend. After all, manufacturers,
just like sports franchises, don't give a hoot about leaving town if they can
find a better deal. We hire a million or so soldiers to handle our wars, and
then fail to cheer them on like we once did. Our politicians behave increasingly
like free agent athletes, looking out for themselves and seeking the biggest
endorsement deals when they retire.
Fortunately, sports offers simpler choices. I still root for one team over
another during specific games, and I continue to give an extra measure of emotional
support to the teams from the region where I live. But that's it. I refuse to
be part of, say, the Red Sox Nation as if it deserved the same allegiance as
an actual country, and if the score disappoints me, I won't bleed Dodger Blue.
Here at spring training I'm rooting for a dozen players on a half-dozen different
teams. I find that free agency works as well in the stands as it does on the
(c) Peter Funt. This column was originally distributed by the Cagle Syndicate.