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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.

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jj0501
4/20
Well said. Yes, there is a imaginary personal attachment at play here. It's a bond that is continually reinforced by a home team looking to sell tickets, jerseys, etc. You've got to believe your team is the chosen one and those who wear the colors share your values and views. I'm not sure there is a solution but recognition of what is involved helps. How close was A-Rod's walk year to making the list ? His welcome back to Seattle was remarkably like Heyward's return, never mind the immediate results.
ggdowd
4/20
A-Rod's walk year from Seattle wouldn't qualify, since he played more than one year for Seattle. Which is what makes the STL fan reaction to Heyward so odd: he had no attachment or shared history with the fans beyond the one season. He had waited his whole career for free agency and made it known he intended to test it; it was under those conditions that the Cardinals acquired him. And yet the fans responded to him leaving as if he should have taken an offer he found less desirable out of some sense of loyalty to STL, a city in which he played for all of one season. Maybe I'm forgetting someone, but I can't recall a rental player ever before getting such vitriol for not staying in the renting city... It's baffling.
Cardboarddream
4/20
winning brings out more marginal fans, and I don't think Cardinals fans have dealt with a rejection by a huge player like this, one year rental or otherwise.
rianwatt
4/20
Yep, I think Cardinals fans are unused to this sort of thing happening. Explains a fair portion of it.
ggdowd
4/20
Pujols?
jalonzo
4/20
That's probably the closest analogy, sure. But on the one hand, Pujols was homegrown, and thus in a way, his leaving hurt more. On the other hand: a) Pujols didn't go to the Cubs. b) Pujols was offered an insane deal by LAA, one that I think even Cards fans (whose money it is not) didn't want DeWitt to match. Heyward, on the other hand, reportedly agreed to *less* money to join the Cubs - there are obviously nuances to the two offers and we'll never know every detail, but that's how it's perceived, so it's viewed as a further insult. c) Heyward said a key reason for choosing Chicago over the Cards was the Cards' "aging core," implying his belief that Chicago is the team of the future and the Cards are the team of the past. Which makes Cards fans angry, mostly because there's a very good chance it's true. d) Pujols has largely been a disappointment for the Angels, and certainly hasn't had the level of performance he had with the Cards. Heyward is young and there's no reason to think he won't continue to perform at a high level for the Cards' archrivals. Also, I should point out that a significant part of the Cards fanbase *STILL* considers "Pujol$" a traitor, etc.
GBSimons
4/20
After signing with the Cubs, Heyward made comments about the Cardinals' future prospects that some found disparaging - even if (and probably because) his assessment was fairly accurate. Plus, as Rian said, he moved not just to another team, but to the Cardinals' arch-rival. And he left a team that won 100 games the previous year to do so. I also was surprised by the amount of booing, but it was a unique situation, so I can sort of understand it.
timber
4/20
Speaking as a fan of neither team, Heyward's comments were ill-advised in my mind. But in all fairness to him, the vitriol started BEFORE he made them, and was trending on Twitter within seconds of the announcement of his signing. No, Cards fans, you can protest all you want about it being because of what he said about your team. Admit it: The REAL problem is that he signed with the Cubs.
bhalpern
4/20
Reggie Jackson was hated in Baltimore after 1976 but if I recall that was more about him being Reggie Jackson while he was in Baltimore including everything that came with that.
bhalpern
4/20
If the list went back far enough Reggie would be on it, with 6.0 WARP for the O's.
rianwatt
4/20
Yep, Jackson is another example, as is Bobby Bonds (Yankees), Troy Glaus (Diamondbacks), Dick Allen (Dodgers), and Tony Phillips (Angels). Just decided to stop the sample at 20 years for the purposes of clarity.
rogerb
4/20
Overlooked is a major reason why people boo under these circumstances -- the player is perceived to be greedy, having refused to accept money beyond the wildest dreams of most fans to stay and play for the home team, to go play for a rival team for no perceived reason other than more money for more years. Perceived greed, and money envy... what a fellow I once knew called the "Green Eye". Roger B
TGT969
4/20
Ryan Braun continues to get booed here in Pittsburgh for reasons I'm not really sure of anymore. Could be Pirate fans dislike: cheaters, guys who hit homers against us or the Brewers continually being a pain. Pick one, pick all...
TeamPineTar
4/20
Rian's thesis may be sound, but it would be difficult to find a more tainted example. He recognizes that at the end in his acknowledgement of the racism inherent here. That so profoundly overshadows the "team loyalty" thesis that it's rendered moot. C'mon, white pitcher LACKEY was on the mound, an identical "one-year rental" to Heyward. Lackey is never mentioned. Lackey wasn't booed because he is white. Lackey even made the identical jump that Heyward did...to the rivals. So what other variable is there? St. Louis is one of the most segregated cities in the USA. The vaunted Cardinal Nation fans dirtied their britches last year very publicly over race by their disgusting displays in response to Ferguson and to Black Lives Matter. Finally, how can you ignore that the Cards now have no African-American players at all. It's 1956 again (or '46) in St. Louis!
jguariglia
4/20
Go play your cards on another site. If something happens to a black person it's racist. If something happens to anyone else it's because they had it coming or they were a jerk. Must be nice to be able to pull that out of your back pocket for everything and anything. This fluff article and it's last asterisk remark was only written to piss people off and create comments. Well done, let's get back to baseball.
kalimantan
4/20
wouldn't be so quick to dismiss it.
rianwatt
4/20
I apparently did very poorly on this one, then, because the only person I managed to piss off was you.
roarke
4/20
The Lackey situation was very different from Heyward, and not because of race. Lackey wasn't a one year rental - the Cards traded for him the year before and got to keep him at minimum wage for one year due to a unique contract situation. They made no real attempt to bring him back because at his age they valued the draft pick compensation over what they thought they could get from him going forward with his injury history. Heyward, on the other hand, was a rental that the team made a huge push to re-sign and then he said negative things about the team's future as he signed with their rival. The reaction was all about his rejection of the Cardinals, not race. Lackey didn't really reject the Cardinals, in fact, the Cardinals did very well in the series of transactions around the Lackey acquisition. Also, while you are trolling with your racist comments, I will note that some of the Cardinals most beloved-by-the-fans former players are African-American: Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Ozzie Smith, and Willie McGee.
jnossal
4/22
Lackey is a 37-yr old starter who signed for 2/39 including his bonus. Nobody sees Lackey as a cornerstone. Heyward left for 8/204 including bonus. Cards fans will be seeing him in Cub blue for several years. Heyward is going to be a long-term difference maker that Lackey most certainly will not and that, not racism, is what gets under their (vari-colored) skin. Insinuating that color line is back and quoting debacles like Ferguson and BLM, neither of which is a positive influence on the cause of black Americans or has anything at all to do with baseball for that matter, only serves to highlight your embarrassing ignorance.
mikebuetow
4/21
"Smithers, are they boo-ing me?" "Uh, no, they are saying Boo-urns."
jnossal
4/22
We cheer for laundry.