“You Root For The Uniform, Not The Player”

Spring Training may seem like the period when dormant teams grow active again, like creatures who’ve been hibernating through the winter, but in fact the six weeks between now and Opening Day are relatively idle times; all the hard work has already been done, now it’s just a question of which organizations did the best job of preparing for the challenge ahead.

Unfortunately, all that activity comes at a price. When the chief question asked by your team’s supporters is “Who are these guys?” you probably have some marketing work to do, if nothing else.

The DFR: Baseball No bee was busier this off-season than that perpetual builder–and re-builder–of the hive, Billy Beane. Under Beane’s direction, the Athletics’ front office performed a major teardown on a team that made the postseason the previous three years.

All of the moves–allowing Jon Lester to walk, trading away Jeff Samardzija, Derek Norris, Brandon Moss, and Josh Donaldson (all All-Stars last season), and bringing in relative unknowns like Brett Lawrie, Billy Butler, Ike Davis, and Ben Zobrist, among others–caused a lot of consternation among Oakland’s small but dogged fan base. Many East Bay locals seem to be wavering, despite the team’s recent history of tearing it down and quickly building it back up again. Perhaps the success enjoyed across the Bay by the Giants–who seemed to sleepwalk through this off-season, lost in yet another post-championship haze–has stripped away A’s fans’ zest for riding the rebuilding roller-coaster.

 “What’s a fan to do in the face of this uncertainty? What should be the real fan’s reaction to all the wheeling and dealing, the hellos and goodbyes?…Ideally, nothing.”

Beane’s maneuverings may be viewed, if you take the very broad view, as a waltz that was danced with another West Coast team, the San Diego Padres. Only the Friars’ general manager, A.J. Preller, matched Beane for the vigor with which he made roster moves.

San Diego’s transactions look like a mirror image of Oakland’s, with their activity directed much more towards bringing players in rather than shipping them out. The James Shields signing put a final stamp on an overhaul that brought in not just Shields but the aforementioned Norris from the A’s, Shawn Kemp from the neighbors up north, and Wil Myers and Justin Upton from East Coast outfields (Tampa Bay and Atlanta, respectively). Each of those acquisitions brought in either a former All-Star or a top prospect; for the fans headed to Petco Park this season, all the trades and signings look less like cause for consternation and much more like reasons for hope.

San Diego’s moves make sense. After years spent muddling around the neighborhood of 75 wins a season–with only the “near-miss” seasons of 2007 and 2010 on the recent resume–a major roster renovation is the logical move. No doubt, Padres fans can see the rationality of it all, and if someone really misses Yasmani Grandal…well, that fan will probably be in the minority.

For A’s fans–and fans of other teams who watched favorite players come and go this off-season–it may be a different story. Everyone knew that Lester was never going to stay with the team; but seeing a home-grown–and very well-liked–player like Donaldson banished to the Great White North has elicited growling from even the most die-hard green and gold partisans. What’s a fan to do in the face of this uncertainty? What should be the fan’s reaction to all the wheeling and dealing, the hellos and goodbyes?

Ideally, nothing.

That is, nothing other than going about the fan’s business as usual. Don’t jump off the ship, don’t swear off your team, or the sport in general. This is just how it is, and the smart fan knows that–indeed, has known that for a long time.

We are long past the point where anyone should be surprised or moved to consternation about rosters shifting from season to season. In Oakland they had a good thing going–until last August. Then things went sour, and the fingernail finish that barely got the team into the playoffs led to another non-advancement. For all the fun and minor success, the A’s were spinning wheels these last few years. Why not change things up? So too with the Padres, just further down the standings.

Not convinced? Look at the Red Sox after 2011: their perennial contenders went south during a disastrous season under Bobby Valentine. Then the front office cleaned house and came up with a World Series winner. The lesson: change is not necessarily bad–especially when the question “Can this team win the World Series?” has consistently received a negative answer.

Get better, or get used to the cellar–that’s the creed in professional sports. And getting better usually means getting new players.

And that’s just how it works in the short term. When you look long term, change is inevitable. Father Time, as they say, is undefeated; even the most determined of your favorite players will see the game eventually pass them by. For the lifelong fan, seeing today’s heroes become tomorrow’s legends is the natural course of things.

That’s why, as someone very wise once said, “You root for the uniform, not the player.” It’s the only sane way to be a fan, and has been ever since the death of the reserve clause and the advent of free agency. As the original CSN–along with sometime bandmate Young–told us in song, “Teach your children well”; for young sports fans, there’s no better lesson than “Root for the uniform.” That way, your kids won’t be devastated when that favorite player gets traded away. Indeed, with that mantra in mind, even some of the grown-up fans will be able to enter Spring Training with a little more spring in their steps.


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