There is plenty of analysis regarding Alex Rodriguez' stagecraft yesterday, and the situation got us thinking a little bit about the bonds we have (or lack) with the players who toil for our beloved ballclubs (my thoughts aren't quite as focused as Jeff Pearlman's) and the sport itself. How, and for whom, do we root? And why? It comes down to this: we like our players and our sports likable. We like to root for men who act with class and dignity, who play hard. We like guys who perform in the clutch, ideally. We like guys who play to the best of their efforts. We like guys who are honest, as far as we can tell. We also like guys with attitudes, even if they would normally tick us off. And we like guys who wear the uniform of the team we root for, even if we hated them in other duds. We measure them by their own actions and do not hold them responsible for the actions of others', even if they might be complicit or too accepting of those teammates' actions (see Pearlman), our critical skills tempered by their elite abilities. We don't like guys for any one of these things alone, though in certain circumstances any one of them might suffice. It's why we pick favorites and why, if we had the choice, we'd select our guy to hit a game-winning homer over some other person's guy, why we want our guy to throw that last pitch and jump into the arms of the catcher over some other guy. Anyone who says we don't pick favorites for certain attributable (and perhaps unprovable and sometimes even misapplied) reasons isn't being honest.
How We Root
That's the thing. We make choices of for whom we root, who we will remember the most, who our "heroes" are. And our heroes are different from 30 years ago: the hero of a ten year old is a different man from the hero of a 40 year old is probably different from the hero of a 70 year old. We idolized Wade Boggs at age 15, not so much at age 30 once reality had set in, and at 40 Boggs in his prime is just a happy reminiscence for us, not the memory of a role model. We hope that we will always respect fair play, even if the plays (and players) themselves aren't always fair. We respect people who put in an (apparently) honest day's work (however we subjectively or, foolishly, measure that), and people who try, and keep trying, even if they fail. Especially if they fail and then eventually succeed. One doesn't have to be the greatest ever to be the most adored, though being very good or great certainly helps. We revel in the classiness of Mariano Rivera, the resilience of Jon Lester, the composure of Derek Jeter, because these are traits we desire in ourselves. That may be somewhat deluded, naive. In reality, those for whom we root may be more like the awesomely talented Alex Rodriguez than we want to admit or may ever know. Insecure. Calculating. Dishonest. Fallible. But in the end this doesn't matter: for those we love, those who we perceive to have put in those honest days, we direct our gaze the other way. The slack is longer.
So while we may constantly root for those who we don't like, in moments, we'll always root for those who have built up our trust. But most importantly, and amidst all this syrupy navel-gazing, we have realized (or just recognized anew?) that the sport is what garners our support. It mimics, to an exaggerated extent, our life apart from the game. Filled with characters, it is powerful, poetic, and imperfect, an often uncanny analog for life outside the lines. Baseball is resilient but, like many of its participants and fans, flawed. On a daily basis we fans put up with the flawed in our own lives – we are flawed ourselves – and hence are able to assimilate events like those of the past few weeks and move forward. Just as we root for those who have qualities we aspire to exhibit, we forgive the game because we recognize that perfection is unattainable.
In the end, it seems that we root first for baseball, as a sport. And we root second for the men who play the game. That prioritization innoculates this game, our national pastime, for better or for worse. It's how, and why, we root.