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Amy Bass: Team Loyalty Is A Tough Sell

I grew up loving the Boston Red Sox and if you didn’t, I ask that you hang on a moment, because I promise I am talking to you, too.  Fandom is something fierce that lives inside many of us in different ways, creating shared emotions, if not shared love, for a team.

The news that the Red Sox offered up Andrew Benintendi to Kansas City further broke the part of my heart that has been devoted to Boston baseball.  My teenage daughter, who lives equidistant between Yankee Stadium and Citi Field, has bravely worn her Boston garb whenever she felt the occasion required it.  She has accepted the consequences for wearing your team on your sleeve while in enemy territory, once being told by a math teacher to go stand in the hall while she wore that shirt – his classroom, he said, was Yankees-only territory.

Now my daughter has no baseball shirts left to wear.  Her David Ortiz shirt doesn’t fit anymore; her Mookie Betts tee – a gorgeous long-sleeve she purchased on Jersey Street before a game, having saved her “Mother’s Helper” money for months – got shelved a year ago when that deal went down.  And now her Benintendi shirt, too, is out of bounds.

Last year, as news that Betts was heading to Los Angeles surfaced, she asked me: “Should we watch the Dodgers?”  David Price was going along with Betts, and LA manager Dave Roberts is the stuff Red Sox folklore is made of.  It felt like Los Angeles was more Boston than Boston.

I wonder if team loyalty is a dying sentiment when we become invested in superstar players.  LeBron James brings his tens of millions of social media followers with him regardless of where he’s playing, maintaining GOAT status all the way.

The question of what is more important – the team or the star– is age old in sport.  In 2014, the World Cup appeared to answer it, as the last game of the tournament pitted the best player, Messi, against the best team, Germany.  By the end, it was clear that while Messi might win games, Germany wins titles.  Messi walked away with the Golden Ball. Germany got everything else. 

The loss of a star player wreaks havoc on a fan’s heart.  When my daughter bought that Mookie shirt, pulling a ziplocked baggie filled with ones and fives out of her pocket, she picked one a few sizes too large.  “I want it to fit for a long time,” she said.  I felt worry crawl up my back, but figured I would cross that bridge when and if we had to.  I knew free agency loomed large.  I knew that his contract was a hefty one.  And I knew – unlike her – that the Red Sox don’t always make the best decisions, and don’t always have the best luck.

So now Mookie’s in Los Angeles, smiling his million-dollar grin in the sun, having made the most of the truncated season that was 2020.  I’ve weathered trades before, but never with my child, who stayed up late to watch the Dodgers’ win the World Series, watching Mookie do what he does best, and feeling little remorse that the Red Sox had long bowed out.

Is this, I wonder, where we are headed?

Baseball for me always was a family thing – my parents were knowledgeable, passionate fans.  My mother loved sitting in Fenway’s bleachers, taking it all in, while my father appreciated the nuances of a pitching duel, a hardworking utility player, and anyone with a name he felt screamed baseball:  Coco Crisp.  Nomar Garciaparra.

But following a team across a lifetime seems harder to do now.  Until this past year, my daughter never knew heartache as a Boston fan.  Rather, her sense of belonging is very much tied to memories of the dancing troika in the outfield – Benny, JBJ, and Mookie celebrating a win with a new move each time – witnessing World Series victories, and knowing only celebration by the end of the 9th in Fenway.  Her allegiance is built on a delicate recipe of personality –it doesn’t get much shinier than Mookie Betts – and downright legend, like David Ortiz.

So Andrew Benintendi’s trip to Kansas City feels, in many ways, like a last straw, a deal breaker.  My daughter’s attachment to these players spells an uncertain relationship, and she is not alone.  How many would tune into a Golden State Warriors game if Steph Curry was not on the court, or could describe the roster of the U.S. Women’s National team beyond Megan Rapinoe and Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan and Crystal Dunn.

Our worship of our athlete heroes is part and parcel of our love for sports, but it might be to the demise of our team loyalty, making real time sports spectators into a version of the fantasy league rosters that take place via high speed internet, with teams compiled on the basis of stats and predictions, rather than geography or family ties.

So here’s hoping the Dodgers have a lot of day games in their 2021 schedule.  Because it’s tough on a young teenager to stay up late to watch her favorite outfielder dazzle.

Amy Bass is professor of sport studies and chair of the division of social science and communication at Manhattanville College. Bass is the author of ONE GOAL: A COACH, A TEAM, AND THE GAME THAT BROUGHT A DIVDED TOWN TOGETHER, among other titles. In 2012, she won an Emmy for her work with NBC Olympic Sports on the London Olympic Games.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors.They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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