Not any more

Toronto fans might want to go the free-agent route

In Canada on October 5, 2010 at 09:19
Back to Feschuk: Toronto fans might want to go the free-agent route

Feschuk: Toronto fans might want to go the free-agent route

October 04, 2010

Dave Feschuk


Comedian Jerry Seinfeld, left, and his wife Jessica Sklar smile at a New York Knicks game.


Loyalty to any one sports team, the great philosopher Jerry Seinfeld once argued, is pretty hard to justify.

“The players are always changing, the team can move to another city. You’re actually rooting for the clothes, when you get right down to it,” Seinfeld said. “You’re standing and cheering and yelling for your clothes to beat the clothes from another city.”

The cynicism of the stand-up comic, as true as it rings, doesn’t account for those rare moments of magic, of course, when a team transcends a sport and a piece of clothing becomes a rallying point for town and country. Certainly a Blue Jays cap amounted to that for Toronto and for Canada once, years ago. And foggy legend has it that a blue-and-white sweater bearing a veiny Maple Leaf was once synonymous with excellence in the minds of a nation — albeit the childhood minds of the big Dominion’s over-50 set.

But for sports fans in the Big Smoke, imaginations haven’t been thusly captivated for what seems like eons. Hope flickers. Men in suits insist better days are ahead — and certainly we’ve heard those promises and know their worth.

So in the meantime, a sports-loving soul based in these parts maybe has to ask: At what point, when so much loyalty looks suspiciously like gullibility, do you start rooting for some distant city’s clothes? At what point do you stop supporting the franchises of your youth and get behind franchises with an actual clue, not to mention a compelling chance at a championship?

Players and owners have been selling themselves to the highest bidder for ages. So why can’t a fan become a free agent?

Certainly it’s been done before, and in a way that makes LeBron James seem like a copycat. It was 1997, and Michael Volpe, for 36 years a loyalist of the San Francisco Giants, was fed up. Outraged by the Giants’ trading of slugger Matt Williams — the proverbial last straw in decades of what Volpe saw as repeated disservices to the fan base — the New York-born, Virginia-based business consultant wrote an angry letter to the team, announcing his intention to “divorce” himself from the club. He accompanied the letter with a box containing his Giants memorabilia. And then, in a brilliant stroke of underdog chutzpah, he announced that he would surrender his loyalty to the major-league club that convinced him they were the most worthy of his emotional and financial resources.

He was, essentially, declaring himself available to the highest bidder — although in his case money wasn’t the currency. He laid out a list of criteria, such as ownership’s commitment to winning and the players’ suitability as role models to his Little League-aged sons.

Volpe got huge publicity in newspapers and on TV. And most major-league teams, amazingly, made pitches. The Baltimore Orioles gave him a tour of Camden Yards, a bagload of merchandise and lunch with Pat Gillick, the general manager (although Volpe, who refused to be bought, donated the merchandise to charity and went dutch with Gillick). Even minor-league teams got in on the bidding. An employee of the Triple-A Durham Bulls drove overnight, slept in his car in Volpe’s driveway and, when Volpe woke him in the morning, immediately began lobbying for the man’s fandom.

In the end, Volpe went on the Today show to announce his decision, this more than 13 years before James, the biggest of this past summer’s NBA free agents, got the brainwave that was The Decision. James, in an internationally televised advertisement for tin-eared self-delusion, chose an overdog in Miami. Volpe, at the conclusion of his charming stunt, chose the Philadelphia Phillies, nobody’s front-runner at the time. More than a decade later, though, the Phillies are 2008 World Series champs and 2010 contenders, and what Toronto baseball fan can’t be thinking about following Volpe’s lead?

Maybe you’re tired of the Rogers Centre’s tactless ushers treating you like a criminal suspect, a circa-1989 tradition. Maybe you’re sick of this city’s bizarro sports landscape, where the most powerful man on the scene, Richard Peddie, the CEO of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, can congratulate himself for his boardroom-pleasing performance when, under his care, Toronto’s hockey and basketball and soccer teams have done little but languish.

Or maybe you’re none of the above and simply thinking like Seinfeld. It’s only laundry. Being a fan of a team is less important than being a fan of the game. And even if you’re a Hogtown loyalist, you’ll have to concede this much: No matter the colour of Roy Halladay’s current cap, Halladay, the Philadelphia ace who made his name here, is a Toronto sporting legend. No matter the colour of Joey Votto’s current jersey, Votto, the Cincinnati slugger from Etobicoke, is on the road to becoming the same. Given current conditions, given Phillies-Reds in the National League Division Series starting Wednesday afternoon, maybe it’s best not to get too choosy about whose clothes they’re wearing and get on board.

I don’t think I can name 10 players on the Leafs, Raptors or Blue Jays…and when did we get a soccer team? Also do we still play CFL football in Toronto or have the Bills moved in for good? Just wondering.


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