On Monday night this week, Jason Heyward played a baseball game in St. Louis. This wouldn’t be particularly notable, in the grand scheme of things, except for the fact that Heyward played rather a lot of games in St. Louis last year, and in those games he wore the traditional Cardinals red. And, also, that in the game on Monday night, he was wearing instead of those colors a uniform of dark Chicago blue.
Blue. That’s a word that rhymes with “boo,” and that’s what the crowd at Busch Stadium did on Monday night, every time Heyward came to their attention. They booed when his position in the lineup was announced before the game. They booed when he came to the plate in the first inning, and again when he came to the plate in the third. And they booed when he made a sensational sliding catch in the seventh inning, and when he lined out hard in each of his last three plate appearances.
All of which begs the question: Why? Why did some great proportion of the 45,432 human souls in attendance, most of whom are presumably of an age one usually associates with maturity, and some of whom probably say please and thank you and hold doors open for strangers, choose to direct their attention toward one particular stranger—Heyward—and tell him exactly what they thought about him?*
One answer is that it doesn’t matter. It’s baseball, this line of thinking goes, and part of the point of baseball is to be fun. And it’s fun to hate strangers at a distance. We do it all the time, in our regular lives, when we share dumb YouTube videos of idiots we disagree with (if that’s not redundant to say; all the people I disagree with are idiots), and when we nod along in vicious camaraderie to the tales our friends tell us about people they hate, but whom we’ve never met.
And so, maybe, part of the fun of going to a baseball game is picking some guy on the other team—for me, this person used to be Craig Counsell, no matter which team he was playing for or which team I was watching—and hating him for all we’re worth. In most of our lives, we have to justify our actions. At a baseball game, when we’re hating on some schmuck with a wacky stance, we don’t have to. We can just luxuriate in the venom and get our kicks that way. Which, fine. Baseball is meant to be fun.
But I don’t think that the people who booed Heyward in St. Louis on Monday night did so for no reason. They didn't just pick Heyward out of the crowd when they got to the park and decide that he was the guy they were going to hate that day, the guy who was going to stand in for Susan Smells Bad from the office and Jerry Talks Too Loudly at the coffee shop. No, they obviously picked him for a reason.
That reason was that Heyward represents, to a fair number of Cardinals fans, the collision of what we hope players to be with what they actually are, which is people. We want players to care about our teams, and our cities, as much as we do. We want them to understand the markers of place and home and affection that make us a part of our city, and which markers they, in fact, by their very presence in our team’s uniforms, become a part of. We want them, in short, to be like us. We would never stop loving our city. We would never stop loving our team.
But players aren’t like us. They are very much not like us. They are in fact supremely talented men performing at the very pinnacle of their profession, and they—again, unlike most of us—are artificially limited, for the first six years of their career, in their choice of where they get to do so. Many big-league baseball players don’t get the chance to try free agency. The ones who do are therefore, one imagines, extremely ready to take full advantage of its opportunities, and they (unless they’re already playing for their hometown team) have no particular attachment to the city they’ve played for.
In the last 20 years, five players—including Heyward—have produced at least 5.5 WARP during their first year with a team and then departed that team in free agency immediately thereafter. Here are those five players, for your interest:
- J.D. Drew, 8.1 WARP (ATL, 2004, joined the Dodgers)
- Alfonso Soriano, 7.6 WARP (WSN, 2006, joined the Cubs)
- Adrian Beltre, 6.8 WARP (BOS, 2010, joined the Rangers)
- Shin-Soo Choo, 6.2 WARP (CIN, 2013, joined the Rangers)
- Jason Heyward, 5.9 WARP (STL, 2015, joined the Cubs)
The moment those players left for sunnier pastures was the moment that fans of their former teams were forced to abandon the comforting assumption that they shared with those players common affections, for their city and for their team. But, actually, they didn’t share those things. They never did, or if they did, did only temporarily. And knowing that, knowing it for sure rather than suspecting it? That’s gotta suck. It must suck even more when, as was uniquely the case with Heyward, the player departs for a team the average fan of their former club has grown to hate. But it’s not surprising. At least, it shouldn’t be. Players are people, and they go where they want to be, and where their needs and priorities dictate.
So, the point? I don’t begrudge St. Louis fans for booing Heyward. If it turns out, sometime in the middle of next decade, after he’s reached free agency, that Kris Bryant actually likes ketchup on his hot dog, I might even think about booing him too. But I’ll try to remember, as I do, that the booing is for me, to help me feel better. It isn’t because the player owed me anything. They never did.
*Please note that I know that there’s a whole ‘nother story: about race, and the ugly side of fandom, that’s come out of this Heyward situation. That’s a different, complicated, and contentious story, and—at least for now—a topic for another day.