Where Have You Gone, J.D.?: Pro Sports Fans in a Pomo Flux

There’s no way I can go play for the Yankees, but I know they are going to come after me hard. It’s definitely not the most important thing to go out there for the top dollar, which the Yankees are going to offer me. It’s not what I need.
— Johnny Damon on MLB.com

Money, it’s a hit. Don’t give me that do goody good bullshit.
— Pink Floyd

The gamut of fandom in professional sports runs from the fair weather bandwagoneer on one end of the spectrum, to the die-hard devotee on the other. For the former, the teams, the players, and even the sports themselves are less a priority than backing a winner. Such fans can be identified by their yearly shifting of loyalties (and subsequent yearly replacement of team jerseys), a lack of interest in the games until the season’s climatic end, and a general dearth of knowledge about the sport and team they have chosen to root for once the playoffs roll around.

All of these tell tale characteristics inspire no small amount of mad frustration in the bandwagoneers’ counterparts: those white-knuckled fanatics who stay glued to their televisions (or worse, their increasingly expensive stadium seats) long after their team has become mathematically eliminated from postseason competition. (For some poor unfortunates, this cold reality may hit as early as a quarter of the way into the season.) Such fans can still be seen exuding myopic optimism after season’s end, however; a condition that lasts all the way until the next season’s beginning, when such misplaced hope inevitably curdles into the resigned ritual of a captain at the wheel of a sinking ship.

A great many reasons exist for such loyalty in the face of failure. Chief among these is a sense of geographic identity tied to the team. For example, fans of the New Orleans Saints, a team that’s never won a conference championship, much less a Super Bowl, still find something in the team worth cheering for beyond its win-loss record, even when that team is forced to leave its home city in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. A team of displaced nomads, the Saints’ troubles have come to mirror the trials faced by all New Orleans residents. Another example can be found in the Boston Red Sox, whose followers (until the team’s World Series win in 2004) saw the club’s previous century of losing as part and parcel of the city’s local character. Fans exuded a hard-luck, Northern cynicism (typified by Denis Leary) that proudly marked them as members of the historically downtrodden Red Sox “Nation”.

Inevitably, however, this place-driven fanaticism (and fan attention of every other sort) coalesces into human form. Many star athletes have become icons both for and of their teams and cities; focal points for entire communities of hopeful fans who find their idealized counterpoint in a point guard or a quarterback. One cannot mention the Chicago Bulls, for example, without invoking the athletic miracles wrought by Michael Jordan. And even when the Detroit Lions were at their worst, fans found solace in the exploits of star running back Barry Sanders. In these cases and in others, individual players, whether they like it or not, are thrust upon pedestals of communal identification: Johnny Unitas and Baltimore, Willis Reed and New York, Nolan Ryan and Texas. This kind of localized, athletic heroism, however, is becoming an increasingly untenable proposition for fans of pro sports. As corporate influence and salaries rise, the tenure of even the most accomplished athletes has become ever more unstable. As a result, the marquee names of a franchise are no longer written in lights, but in sand, with contracts becoming obsolete at increasing speeds and the stars themselves becoming increasingly interchangeable.

This phenomenon is perhaps most neatly evidenced by the recent move of Boston Red Sox center fielder Johnny Damon to Boston’s archrival, the New York Yankees. Damon’s move is not simply another high profile off-season signing, it’s emblematic of the shifting ground that athletes occupy in professional sports. Damon, whose grizzly beard and unkempt mane of hair came to symbolize the anti-establishment, blue collar ethos of the Red Sox during their World Series season, agreed to cut his hair, shave his beard, and toe the company line imposed by Yankee’s owner George Steinbrenner — all in exchange for a reported $12 million more than the Sox were willing to pay. In his wake, Damon’s leaves countless Red Sox fans bereft, without a focal point for their team pride or a figure upon which to project their communal identity. While it may be true that Damon’s image as an “idiot” Sox player was as equally manufactured as his new clean-cut look for the Yankees, the effects of his signing are nonetheless significant. Johnny (J.D.) Damon is not simply leaving the Sox for another team, in the eyes of Sox fans everywhere — he’s gone over to the dark side — he’s become a betrayal of the team, its fans, and the city of Boston.

Despite such a dramatic reversal, however, few are surprised. After all, $12 million is a lot to turn down just to avoid changing addresses. And while some Sox fans may express outrage, the rest of the world sees Damon’s move as expected. Boston is far from the first city to have its iconic star lured out of town. In fact, Boston’s far from the first team to have a star lured away to play for New York. Randy Johnson left Arizona, Mike Mussina left Baltimore, Jason Giambi left Oakland — all to play for the Yankees. Indeed, Damon’s signing, according to his father, evokes the infamous deal that sent Babe Ruth from Boston to New York in 1920, a move that was said to have instituted the curse that kept Boston from winning a championship for the next 84 years.

Damon’s trade, however, is only notable precisely because there’s absolutely nothing unusual about it. It has become routine for the hard facts of business to take precedence over the most steadfast of fan loyalties. Not merely players, but whole teams have been uprooted from communities (the Colts from Baltimore, the Browns from Cleveland, along with many others) as a result of financial calculation by owners and at the emotional expense of distraught fans for whom such a move means that a piece of their community goes missing. Such a loss, however, does not easily translate to spreadsheets. As a result, the modern fan of professional sports is set adrift, without a tangible figure upon which they can rest a sense of loyalty — the very loyalty that defines a true fan to begin with. Undermined in this way by the machinations of capitalistic competition, today’s fans face a distinctly postmodern identity crisis. To whom should they lend their allegiance? For some semblance of an answer, team supporters must spend the off-season tracking trades and signings, scrambling to learn a new line up of names that will only fall into flux in the next frenzy of signings and monetary brinksmanship that has come to fundamentally destabilize players’ relationships with the communities in which they play.

Perhaps this argument sounds a tad melodramatic, even naïve, in its nostalgic call for a “simpler time” when Ted Williams meant Boston and Gayle Sayers meant Chicago. At the very least, to rail against the inevitable march of capitalism’s influence over sports is an exercise in futility. Still, it might be worth taking a look around the next sporting event you attend. How many out-of-date jerseys, or old player names do you see decorating the backs of the fans? How many figures have been washed out and replaced by the inexorable tide of cash that flows through professional sports? The sad irony of the situation is that those fans who watch sports to escape the crushing grind of the daily struggle for the dollar are, in reality, watching a super-exaggerated version of the same: capitalism writ large. In following the failures and triumphs of individual players, the modern fan is in actuality merely staggering after a transient and fleeting mirage, apt to disappear in a brilliant flash of green, or, in Damon’s case, pinstripes.