Fans' passion unmatched

Pudge Rodriguez's one-and-done year with the Marlins shows how fans are more loyal to their teams than players.

Originally Published: January 28, 2004
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

Do you care more about your favorite team than the players on its roster do?

Whose ties are stronger to a team, the players who give it their all on the field of play each game of the season or the fans who give it their hearts and souls most of their lives? Whose loyalties run deeper, the players who depend upon the team for their livelihoods or the fans who depend on it for their identity? Who cares more passionately, the players whose talent and work earned them the right to wear the uniform on the chests or the fans who spent a day's wages so they could wear a replica jersey?

The answer depends on your definition of team allegiance. Well, maybe not in Manny Ramirez's case, but in most cases.

Marlins fans
Fans in Florida lived it up last fall as the Marlins became the world champions.

For instance, who most deserved to race around the bases after winning the World Series last year, the Marlins owner/art dealer who acquired the team less than two years earlier, the Hall of Fame catcher who joined the team less than a year earlier or the fans who failed to crack the 11,000 attendance mark less than two months earlier?

And who felt worse when Aaron Boone's home run sailed over the fence at Yankee Stadium, the Red Sox designated hitter and MVP candidate of one season or the Boston fans who still flinch at the memory of Bucky Dent's home run sailing over the fence at Fenway Park?

After all, David Ortiz may have been Boston's most valuable player last season, but until signing with the team before last season, what emotions had he ever invested in the Red Sox?

Did he know what it felt like to watch the ball roll between Bill Buckner's legs or Dent's flyball sail over the Green Monster or Enos Slaughter race around the basepaths? Did he know the pain of listening to a beer-guzzling Yankee fan boast of their many world championships? Did he know the full meaning of the year 1918 or the decision to start Denny Galehouse or the name Billy Rohr? Did he have any concept of how long 85 years really is (not to mention 86 years)?

Is there any way the World Series would have meant as much to him last year as it would to a card-carrying member of Red Sox Nation?

On the other hand, those fans don't know what it's like to grow up in the Dominican Republic, taking English lessons after school as Ortiz did. They don't know what it's like to sign a pro contract at age 17. Or be traded at age 20. Or have a manager constantly ridicule their fielding. Or have a team tell them it doesn't want them anymore. Or to spend every winter working to get better by playing baseball in the Dominican.

Is there is any way the World Series would have meant as much to the fans as it would to Ortiz?

Ivan Rodriguez led the Marlins to a world championship but may leave to sign a $40 million contract with the worst team in baseball. Pudge might sign with the Tigers, a team that lost as many games last year as the Yankees have the past two years combined, that has averaged nearly 100 losses the past eight seasons, that hasn't been in the postseason since Kirk Gibson had hair.

Is he disloyal? Selfish? Greedy as a Halliburton exec? Before you decide, remember that Pudge just accomplished his lifelong goal by winning a World Series. That he is an aging catcher who likely will never get another chance at a long term contract. That he is a possible Hall of Famer who has grown tired of settling for less than inferior players earn. That the Tigers are guaranteeing him more than twice as much money as anyone else.

David Ortiz
David Ortiz helped bring plenty of joy to Red Sox fans in 2003.

Remember further that Rodriguez first squatted behind a major league plate two years before the Marlins and their fans even existed. That those Marlins fans barely cracked the 800,000 attendance mark the year before Florida won the World Series and that they have bought fewer 2004 season tickets than the Tigers.

And remember that Jeffrey Loria was handed the Marlins just two years ago after running the Expos into the ground.

Is Rodriguez any less connected to the Marlins than the team's owners or most of its fans?

Fans are connected to a team, to its name, to its uniform, to its tradition, to its history and to their own memories. Cardinals fans feel as connected to the Gashouse Gang as as they do to today's lineup. To San Francisco fans, the Giants are as much Willie Mays as they are Barry Bonds. And any self-respecting Yankee fan would gladly give his Wilson basketball to the Boys and Girls Club and never step on the hardwood again if he thought playing one basketball game would cost his team its third baseman for the season.

Players don't look at it that way. They feel connected to the specific team they're on that season and to their teammates. They didn't necessarily grow up rooting for the team so there is no personal attachment. The average player switches teams so often that they are rarely with any one team long enough to figure out the alternate jersey schedule let alone develop any lasting emotional connection.

And they couldn't afford to develop one anyway. Fans may expect loyalty from players, but players know that loyalty doesn't exist in baseball. They know they are one bad season, one appealing trade offer or one knee injury in a winter hoops game from filling out another change of address form. Their loyalties to a team begin and end with their contract.

Oh, there are exceptions. Players who not only spent an entire career with one team but grew up rooting for it -- Cal Ripken Jr. and Barry Larkin spring to mind -- probably feel as passionately about a team as the most devoted fan, but they are the vast minority.

Who cares more about a team, its fans or its players? I think they care equally as much in their own ways. The important difference is the fans care for much, much longer.

The players are over a postseason as soon as they file for free agency and hit the fairways. The fans relive it for the rest of their lives.

Ask a Red Sox fan about Bucky Dent if you don't believe me.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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