One of the most enjoyable aspects of being a sports fan is rooting for favorite athletes.
For instance, I root for the Red Sox, but I especially like Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz and, now, Will Middlebrooks and Daniel Nava. Will Middlebrooks and Daniel Nava are relative newcomers; Middlebrooks is a young player with star potential who has injected an anemic team with some much-needed energy, and Nava embodies the underdog tale to a T: He wasn’t even invited to major league training camp, and now he’s an offensive force for the Sox, batting a robust .333 after last night’s four-hit game.
But there is a risk to investing emotional energy in athletes. For one thing, they can traded. But they can also decline, or start acting like creeps. Which can make it tough to root for them. I used to be a real fan of Red Sox pitchers Jon Lester and Josh Beckett, but now they annoy me. Lester has regressed and Beckett has declined, and Beckett’s ornery personality becomes a lot less endearing when he pitches poorly. I still like Kevin Youkilis, but it is painful to watch him, and I won’t be shedding any tears if/when he’s traded.
What I find interesting is how quickly players can make the transition from beloved to somewhat loathed. It wasn’t too long ago that Lester was the toast of the town - pitching a no-hitter, pitching in the World Series, battling cancer and generally coming across as an all-around good guy. Now? I don’t necessarily want the Sox to trade him, but I’m open to the possibility — perhaps the right trade will come along, and they could get someone better than Lester in return. Lester isn’t loathed, but fans no longer feel the same level of affection for him. And let’s not Curt Schilling, who likes to complain about the evils of big government, but recently defaulted on his $75 million loan from the state of Rhode Island. (If you think government spending is evil, don’t take the government’s money!) I’ll always appreciate Schilling for the bloody sock game, but it’s time for him to take a sabbatical from the public eye.
The NBA finals offer a good opportunity to find new athletes to root for. I’ve tried to resist the charms of the Oklahoma City Thunder, mainly because I support the city of Seattle, which is where the team belongs. But I can’t do it. I can’t find it in me to root for the Heat, and I really love watching Thunder star Kevin Durant, as well as James Harden, who has not played very well in the finals, but has a really cool beard.
That said, I expect the Heat to close out the series tonight, and I doubt I’ll mind watching them win. LeBron is just too amazing, and my irritation with him for signing with Miami has mostly dissipated, largely because he is just so good. What’s interesting is how much my feelings for Lebron’s teammate Dwayne Wade have changed. I used to love Dwayne Wade, who throughout his career has been a joy to watch, mainly because of his ability to do seemingly impossible things on a very consistent basis. But now I see him differently. I see him as a dirty player who never gets called for his dirty plays, and who gets more foul shots than just about anyone else, because he’s Dwayne Wade. I won’t go so far as to say I loathe Dwayne Wade, but he definitely irritates me.
One athlete who has made a rapid ascent up my list of favorite athletes is R.A. Dickey, ace knuckleballer for the Mets. Knuckleballers are easy to love, as I can attest, after years of rooting for Tim Wakefield. But Dickey seems like one of the coolest guys in the world right now. This guy is 37, has had a mostly undistinguished pitching career, and now he is pitching back to back one-hitters and mowing down everyone in his path. How long will this last? I have no idea. But it’s fun. Dickey is also an avid reader, who spent the offseason climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. What’s not to love? Presumably something, but for right now I’m willing to pretend he doesn’t have any flaws.
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