The Noble Hearts Ache

Today is the first day since the World Series ended that I have felt a compulsion to write about baseball. It’s a good feeling, this impulse, and I was beginning to worry it would never return. But really I should have known that it was only on hiatus and that a super-awesome-mega-trade would bring it back. After all, nothing brings out the amateur baseball philosopher in me like a big-ass trade.

Readers of this blog probably know that I came of age cheering for the Los Angeles Dodgers of the 1990s. This means that the two most significant transactions of my youthful baseball fandom were Pedro Martinez for Delino Deshields, and Mike Piazza for the Florida Marlins. These were massive and tragic mistakes. Therefore I do not believe I would be remiss to assign a certain post-traumatic significance to my current fascination with trades.

In my last post on trades, I discussed the inherent weirdness of bartering with humans. That weird dynamism is part of what makes trades so interesting and activities like fantasy sports so addictive. But aside from the risks and rewards of dealing in commodities as fragile as humans – even great athletes – tend to be, there is a broader meaning to be read in trades: the impact they have on franchises and the communities surrounding them.

There is a psycho-transactional chasm between the trades and free agency. When a star player leaves on his own free will, he is letting down a team. When a team decides to dump its star player, it is letting down its fans. It all comes down to what different parties are owed in the ecosystem of fandom.

In this ecosystem, which works like an unwritten social contract, we all have roles. Here’s a simplified version: Fans like you and I are called upon to spend our money, to clap at certain times, and to hold players and owners accountable. It calls for players to play the best they can, sign the occasional autograph, and generally not make us hate them. And mostly, it calls for front offices to assemble teams with a chance at winning, therefore making fans us want to come spend too much money on beer and merchandise at the ballpark.

Sometimes, in order to fulfill this contract, in order for the ecosystem to thrive, difficult decisions must be made. For Cincinnati Bengals fans, that might mean conducting elaborate protests and practical jokes to gain the attention of a negligent owner in the manner of Who Dey Revolution[1]. For the Toronto Blue Jays, that meant trading Roy Halladay today.

The trading of a superstar is not to be taken lightly. Superstars act as ballasts for franchises. Uniform designs, stadium naming rights, and supporting casts can rotate, but superstars are supposed to be permanent. The term franchise player is no accident. It refers to the centerpiece, the foundation, the keystone that keeps a structure from collapsing in on itself. The meaning of these players to their respective cities, to their fans, and to their teammates, is hard to overstate.

When the Edmonton Oilers traded Wayne Gretzky to Los Angeles in 1988, members of the Canadian Parliament tried to block the deal. An effigy of Oilers owner Peter Pocklington was burned by fans. And within months of the deal, a Gretzky statue was erected in front of Edmonton’s arena. There was a documentary on ESPN earlier this year about the trade called “King’s Ransom.” Had Gretzky left via free agency instead of trade, there would have been no parliamentary shenanigans, no burning effigy of Pocklington, no bronze statue, and no documentary. But he was traded and a nation mourned.

I don’t think Canada will shed as many tears for Roy Halladay, who was born in Colorado, and whose departure has been long-awaited, as it did for The Great One. Partly, this is because unlike the Gretzky trade (or more recently, the Piazza trade), the intentions behind the Halladay deal appear at first glance to be noble. But noble acts can still be painful, and it is worth considering the torturous implications that this trade will have.

As bummed Jays fan Drew Fairservice eloquently pointed out today, the Blue Jays have entered an era in which their ace is Ricky Romero. This could be the first step toward a bright future, a time as bright as the early 1990s for Toronto. After all, it remains to be seen whether the northbound prospects will amount to fair value for Halladay. But regardless of what happens, there will not be another Roy Halladay. There is no fair value for a franchise player. There is no replacement, only a franchise redefined.

[1] Awesome blog/collective “dedicated to demanding that the Cincinnati Bengals front office act aggressively and rationally in their pursuit of a Super Bowl.” R

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