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On loyalty

The bonds that fans makes with their team are often indelible and MLB exploits that.

MLB: APR 09 Padres at Giants Photo by Cody Glenn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Baseball fandom is irrational. We become fans of books, movies, games, products, or personalities because something about them resonates with our personalities, but we become fans of teams for reasons so incidental as to be meaningless. For instance, I’m a fan of the San Francisco Giants because my father is a fan of them. That logic doesn’t apply to anything else. My father is also a fan of Rush Limbaugh, and I’d rather stick my hand in a garbage disposal than listen to his show. My father became a fan of the Giants because they were the closest team to Sacramento where my father grew up. The A’s wouldn’t move to Oakland until my father was 12 and already a fan of the Giants.

Of course, there are lots of reasons my father and I continued to root for the Giants instead of getting bored, but it’s easy to root for a franchise that fielded Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Will Clark, Barry Bonds, Tim Lincecum, and now Buster Posey. On the other hand, it’s equally easy to root for a team that fielded Sandy Koufax, Ron Cey, Orel Hershiser, Mike Piazza, Clayton Kershaw, and Cody Bellinger. Not only do I not root for the Dodgers, I’m expected to hate them.

My Giants fandom, though based on happenstance, is supposed to be unbreakable. If I don’t stick with the team through their worst, I don’t deserve them at their best. Though the impetus for this fandom was more or less coincidental, it’s more permanent than fandoms that were arrived at consciously. Millennials may have grown up reading Harry Potter, but JK Rowling’s repeated transphobic comments make it easy to give our kids something else to read instead.

Even with MLB ownership doing all it can to gut the sport, we’re expected tune in, buy an subscription, and buy tickets when it’s safe to do so. Just yesterday, the owners rejected MLBPA’s latest proposal to finally get the 2020 season underway because the additional 10 games the union wanted would cost each team less than a year of Kevin Gausman or almost exactly what Bill DeWitt just bought Eva Longoria’s mansion for. Concerns regarding a second wave of the coronavirus are just posturing. For one, the extra 10 games can’t possibly be that much riskier. Also, the first wave hasn’t ended, so if they’re comfortable playing now, nothing’s going to change in October.

Throughout the negotiations, players have advocated for more games after agreeing to a significant pay cut in March. The players are also the ones taking on health risks because the coronavirus pandemic has not gone away. It shouldn’t be difficult to see who is in the right and who is in the wrong here. The players want to play while being compensated at a rate already agreed to. The owners want to maximize profits and if that means playing fewer games or no games at all then so be it. Yet there are still so many fans and journalists who blame the players for the absence of baseball.

Fandom is player agnostic even though players are the ones who make the team worthwhile. Pablo Sandoval was a fan favorite in San Francisco before he signed with the Red Sox. Bryce Harper was booed in Washington after signing with the Phillies. Players are expected to take less money out of loyalty because if the fans can manage their Stockholm Syndrome then so should the players.

Fans can stick through drawn out, ineffective rebuilds and they’ll happily use their tax dollars to fund a stadium. It’s okay if they threaten to shut the season down because they stand to make slightly less money or in the worst case, lose money after 17 straight years of increasing revenues. Exercising autonomy in where you want to work and how much you want to make? That’s a bridge too far.

Baseball fandom demands undying loyalty despite teams doing nothing to deserve it. In April, Craig Goldstein wrote that baseball teams “are highly incentivized to do right by their fans, and yet they can also easily abuse that relationship if they want.” The balance of the exchange between fans and teams is tipping increasingly in the teams’ favor. They can contract the minors, shorten the draft, and cut spending on teams, all of which lead to a worse product. Meanwhile, ticket prices go up, publicly funded stadiums are built, and games are wiped away at the negotiation table.

If MLB’s actions during the negotiations or during this current CBA or since any endpoint you choose have you feeling disinterested in their brand of baseball, that doesn’t mean you’re a fair-weather fan. It means you’re respecting your time and your money. You don’t have to buy an inferior product and your loyalty can be conditional on the amount of respect you receive.

Kenny Kelly is the managing editor of Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.